Asheville Launching Pad for the “Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers with the Carter family of country music fame. Image from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

On April 18, 1927, Jimmie Rodgers – one of country music’s first superstars – got his big break on Asheville radio station WWNC.

Born in 1897 near Meridian, Mississippi, James Charles Rodgers liked to yodel and won an amateur talent contest at age 13. That same year he became a railroad water boy. In March 1927, Rodgers moved to Asheville, working as a railway brakeman and doing other jobs until he and friend Otis Kuykendall began performing live weekly on WWNC. The duo soon added other musicians and billed themselves as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers.

In August 1927, Victor Records recorded Rodgers doing two songs. One, “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” became an instant hit. Another hit, “Blue Yodel,” quickly followed. By 1929, Rodgers was a star. He appeared in a short film, “The Singing Brakeman”; toured the Midwest with humorist Will Rogers; and recorded with a young trumpeter, Louis Armstrong.

By the time he returned to Asheville in December 1929, the “Father of Country Music” had been living with tuberculosis for five years. He died in 1933. In 1961, Rodgers became the first performer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A state highway historical marker in downtown Asheville also honors him.

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