The Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers, is recorded for the very first time on August 4, 1997, during the legendary Bristol Sessions.
The term “country music” did not exist in the summer of 1927, when Ralph Peer, an engineer and talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey, set up a makeshift recording studio in the upper floors of an empty warehouse in Bristol, Tennessee. He was preparing for what Johnny Cash would later call “The single most important event in the history of country music.”
The historic 12-day marathon now known as “the Bristol Sessions” began on July 25 with a recording session with Ernest Stoneman, one of the few established names in what was then known as “hillbilly music.” It continued with a string of mostly unknown musicians drawn to the railroad town of Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee border, by newspaper stories and advertisements promising $50 for any song Ralph Peer chose to record. Peer’s efforts would have been judged a resounding success even if he’d stopped after August 1, when he recorded an unknown act called the Carter Family—a group that would come to be known as the First Family of country music. But on August 4, 1927, the Bristol Sessions took on truly historic dimensions when an itinerant, tubercular blues yodeler from rural Mississippi, named Jimmie Rodgers walked into Peer’s studio. The recording session that followed would lay the foundation for Rodgers’s undisputed status as the “Father of Country Music.”
Born in 1897 and raised back and forth between southeast Mississippi and southwest Alabama, Jimmie Rodgers followed his father into the railroad business, where he would earn one of his several famous nicknames, “the Singing Brakeman.” When tuberculosis forced Rodgers off the railroad in the mid-1920s, he began to pursue his longstanding passion for music professionally, first making a name for himself in western North Carolina through weekly appearances on WWNC out of Asheville. It was his decision to travel roughly 100 miles north through the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Bristol Sessions, however, that would make his career.
In his first-ever recording session on this day in 1927, Rodgers cut two test recordings, “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep,” which were released two months later on the Victor label to moderate success. His follow-up session in October 1927 in Camden, however, yielded “Blue Yodel,” his first smash hit and the song that launched him on a short but brilliant career as a recording, radio and movie star. Rodgers died at the age of 35 of a lung hemorrhage on May 26, 1933.