In May 1955, Elvis Presley rode his way through a parade in downtown Meridian, Miss., sitting on the fender of a pink and white Cadillac he had just bought for his mother. Later that day, he took the stage at a local football stadium. He had originally planned to perform only one song, but the crowd at the third annual Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival roared for more until he had sung around three or four.
Two years prior, though, a week before his high-school graduation, the man known later as the “King of Rock and Roll” attended the inaugural music festival as just one of roughly 50 participants in the singing competition that kicked off the event, including Ken Rainey, a longtime member and former vice president of the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation. At this point, Presley had yet to set foot into Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., to create his first record and launch his explosive career.
Presley and the other contestants performed that spring afternoon for a crowd of more than 50,000 people on the front lawn of Meridian City Hall. Country-music giants Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb organized the Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival to honor the late Rodgers, a Meridian native who claimed fame as “The Father of Country Music.”
As it turned out, “The King” did not win the competition that day. Instead, first place went to a Meridian-native country singer named Gale Harper, Rainey recalls. Accounts vary on Presley’s ultimate placement during the 1953 festival, with Rainey remembering him placing second while others claim he came in third. Either way, Presley redeemed his showing when he returned to Meridian in 1955 as that year’s headliner.
“Those first three years of the festival were some of the biggest we’ve ever had,” Rainey says. “If you were anybody who had recorded a country record you wanted to be in Meridian performing at the festival. Snow and Tubb were the kings of country music back then, and wherever they were was where any artist wanted to be.”
The Life of ‘The Singing Brakeman’
Jimmie Rodgers was born in Meridian in 1897 and was the youngest of three sons. His mother died when he was young, and Rodgers lived with relatives in Mississippi and Alabama for a number of years before returning to Meridian to live with his father, Aaron Rodgers, who worked as a maintenance foreman on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.
The budding musician tried several times to leave home and organize his own traveling shows as a child, first taking bedsheets from his sister-in-law to use as a makeshift tent before his father found and returned home with him. Later, after winning an amateur talent contest when he was 13, he charged for a canvas tent using his father’s money without Aaron Rodgers’ knowledge and went to join a traveling medicine show.
Once again, Jimmie Rodger’s father brought him back and this time put him to work as a water boy for his railroad crew. Rodgers’ oldest brother, Walt
er, later helped him acquire a position as a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad.
After developing tuberculosis at age 27 in 1924, Rodgers left his railroad job, intending to devote himself to working as a full-time entertainer—organizing a traveling road show and performing across the Southeast until a cyclone destroyed his tent. He briefly went back to working as a brakeman in Florida until his illness cost him the job, after which he took a position as a switchman for the Southern Pacific Railroad in Tucson, Ariz., under the belief that the dry climate might help with his tuberculosis symptoms. Rodgers held that position for less than a year before moving back to Meridian with his wife, Carrie, and daughter Anita in 1927.
Rodgers later traveled to Asheville, N.C., and learned that the town’s first radio station, WWNC, had gone on the air. Rodgers recruited a stringband from Bristol, Va., called the Tenneva Ramblers, and together they secured a weekly slot on the station as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers. By July 1927, the group learned that Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company was coming to Bristol to record area musicians.
They went out to audition on Aug. 3, 1927. The next day, Rodgers recorded two songs, “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” for which he received $100. Rodgers recorded four more songs for Peer: “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run,” “Mother Was a Lady,” “Away out on the Mountain” and “T for Texas,” in November at the Victor Records in Camden, N.J. “T for Texas,” which the studio released as “Blue Yodel,” sold roughly half a million copies in only two years.
Over the course of his short musical career, Rodgers recorded more than 100 songs; performed in a 15-minute movie short titled “The Singing Brakeman”; performed “Blue Yodel No. 9”—also known as “Standin’ on the Corner”—with a young Louis Armstrong; and toured with vaudeville performer Will Rogers in 1931.
The following year, Rodgers’ health began to fail, and on May 26, 1933, while working on a recording contract for RCA Victor Records, he collapsed on the street in New York City from a pulmonary hemorrhage and died hours later in a room at the Hotel Taft, which is now the Michelangelo Hotel.
“When Rodgers passed away in 1933, the term ‘country music’ hadn’t even been coined yet and wouldn’t be until somewhere around the 1940s,” Leslie Lee, executive director of the JImmie Rodgers Foundation, says. “You could consider maybe a third of his music as blues, and yet he was among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Gospel Hall of Fame and the National Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was one of the first crossover artists in so many genres to ever achieve anything of that magnitude.”
Jimmie Rodgers Foundation and Museum
Roughly 23 years after Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb organized the first Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival in 1953, Rodgers’ wife and daughter, Carrie and Anita Rodgers, founded the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation and the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian in 1976. The museum features an array of Rodgers’ personal effects, including his custom 1927 Martin 000-45 guitar, which Lee says is worth roughly $2 million. Carrie Rodgers had given the guitar to Ernest Tubb, who used it for roughly 35 years before donating it to the museum. The guitar is currently on loan to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Va.
Other items on display in the museum include suits Rodgers wore during performances, his handmade travel bag, his water bottle and shaving kit from his railroad days, letters he wrote to his family, chairs that Rodgers made himself, furniture from a mansion he owned in Texas and more.
In addition to the museum and the Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival, the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation also operates the Singing Brakeman Century Race & Ride in Meridian and the Jimmie Rodgers Musician’s Showcase in Natchez, Miss.
The Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival is now in its 69th year, with the latest iteration of the event set to take place in Meridian from Saturday, May 7, through Sunday, May 15. In addition to the iconic singing competition, the festival will also include a crawfish contest, a play about Rodgers’ life, a beer wagon parade, jam sessions, a music symposium, live performances from numerous country and gospel musicians, a jazz brunch and more. Read on for a complete list of events comprising the festival.
97OKK Jimmie Rodgers Singing Competition
Launching the festival is the 97OKK Jimmie Rodgers Singing Competition, which Meridian-based country music radio station 97OKK will host on the Meridian City Hall lawn from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 7. The competition is open to entrants nationwide, with participants having already uploaded videos of their performance to 97OKK online for this year’s competition. Separate divisions will be observed for children ages 10 to 17 and adults ages 18 and up.
Voters have already finished selecting their favorites online at 97OKK’s website as of this writing, and the foundation will now invite the top 5 entries from both divisions to perform as finalists at City Hall. The ultimate winners of each division will get to open for the Eli Young Band on Saturday, May 14, as part of a concert at city hall.
Prizes for the competition include $1,000 from 97OKK for the winner of the adult division and $500 for the winner of the youth division. Both winners will receive recording-studio time from Blue Sky Studios in Jackson, a guitar from DC Guitar Studio and professional headshots by Revere Photography.
“Our singing competition has a rich history, and just about any country music legend you can think of has been it,” Lee says. “We’ve had Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton and plenty more. We’ve also had plenty of up-and-comers take part like Elvis did back in 1953, including Garth Brooks before he recorded ‘Friends in Low Places’ and Jason Isbell about a week before he won his first Grammy.”
Bud N’ Boilin’ Crawfish Cookoff
The singing competition will coincide with the Bud N’ Boilin’ Crawfish Cookoff, which Meridian-based beer-distribution company Mitchell Distributing will host. Roughly 25 teams will take part in the competition, during which visitors will receive a seafood boat serving tray to load up with crawfish from each team. Guests will be able to scan QR codes with their cellphones to vote for their favorite during the people’s-choice portion of the competition.
A panel of five special guest celebrity judges will attend the contest, although their identities will remain secret until the day of the event. They will vote on their own choice for the winner. Winners of the people’s-choice and judges’-choice divisions of the competition will each receive $500, a trophy and a Cajun jambalaya cooker.
In addition to the contest, the Bud N’ Boilin’ Crawfish Cookoff will feature a snow-cone stand and live music from Gerard Delafose and the Zydeco Gators from noon to 2:30 p.m. and Dukes of Country from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Mississippi-based chef Daryl Jones, owner of The Grill Man LLC, will be grilling burgers, chicken wings, pork chops, ribs and more throughout the event.
Tickets to the Bud N’ Boilin’ Crawfish Cookoff are $20 each. Children age 12 and under get in free. To purchase tickets, click here.
‘America’s Blue Yodeler’
This weekend, the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation will host two performances of “Jimmie Rodgers: America’s Blue Yodeler,” a play about Rodgers’ life and career that playwright Douglas Pote created, at Meridian Community College. Pote, a New England native and former physician, first produced the play in 2007 at the Barter Theatre in Abington, Va., together with Richard Rose and Nick Piper. The production features performances of many of Rodgers’ hit songs, such as “Mule Skinner Blues,” “Frankie and Johnnie,” “T for Texas,” “Miss the Mississippi in You” and more.
“‘Blue Yodeler’ has been a major part of the festival since around 2014,” Lee says. “It follows Rodgers’ musical career as well as a character who serves as his muse throughout the story, giving the audience a window into Rodgers and his writing process.”
The production is part of the Meridian Community College Arts and Letters series. The event begins at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 7, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 8. Tickets to both shows are $10 each. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.
On Monday, May 9, local musicians will be able to participate in “Jimmie’s Jam,” a jam session at Dumont Plaza in Meridian honoring Jimmie Rodgers enthusiast and volunteer Rick Courtney. Grammy award-nominated Mississippi blues musician Vasti Jackson and DC Guitar Studio owner and guitarist Dan Confait will host the event, which will take place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m..
The event will feature a provided house band as well as vocal mics, instrument amps and drums. All musicians are invited to participate, including vocalists, guitarists, bassists, drummers and full bands. Participants must bring their own instruments and equipment aside from what is provided. Registered musicians will be contacted ahead of the session for their assigned time slot.
Jimmie’s Jams is free and open to the public. For more information, email [email protected].
On Tuesday, May 10, the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation will host a music-history symposium on Rodgers’ legacy at the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience, also known as The MAX, beginning at 6 p.m. Presentations will include “Who Wrote What?: Borrowed Lyrics in Early Country and Blues Recordings” by Ben Wynne, a professor of history at the University of North Georgia, and “Blues, Country, and the Murkiness of Genre Labels” by Greg Johnson, music archives director for the University of Mississippi.
Wynne, a Florence, Miss., native, also authored a book on Rodgers and blues singer Charley Patton titled “In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music.” The book, Wynne says, serves as a vehicle to show the similarities between early recorded blues and country music, with Rodgers and Patton as the focus.
“Early country and blues songs are an example of how music has bridged racial gaps in the past,” Wynne says. “Blues music was long seen as African-American music and country as white music, even though they have so much in common. Both forms of music grew out of a segregated South, but music itself is something that just can’t be segregated. It was meant to mix together and produce something unique.”
“Blues and country both sprang from a range of human emotions dealing with poverty, relationships, lost or found love and escape from various circumstances, which is part of why railroads and train imagery are so prevalent in both,” he adds.
Wynne’s panel will also focus on common lyrics and imagery that appear in both blues and country songs, examining songs such as Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 3” and showing common themes with other songs. Wynne will also speak on the influence Rodgers had on other musical greats across different genres that came after him.
“One interesting thing to consider about Jimmie Rodgers is that when his records first came out and were played, there was no television yet and relatively few people got to see him perform live,” Wynne says. “When people heard his records many couldn’t tell if he was white or Black, partly because of the distinctive blues style he used in his singing.”
“Rodgers was a unique talent and played with many African American musicians during his career, and he was able to bring his blues material to white audiences and appeal to the country music crowd as well,” he adds. “His songs represent a commonality at work and how so much music can flow out from a single human experience.”
Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jim Kitchens will hold a presentation during the event concerning his role in a paternity lawsuit involving Claud Johnson, son of blues singer Robert Johnson, for whom Jimmie Rodgers was a major influence. The case famously made the front cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, and an HBO movie on the court case is in development.
For more information on the symposium, visit msarts.org.
Todd Tilghman Returns Home
On Wednesday, May 11, Todd Tilghman, a Meridian-native pastor who went on to win NBC’s “The Voice” in 2020, will perform live at the Temple Theater for the Performing Arts (2320 8th St., Meridian) starting at 7 p.m. as part of an evening intended to honor gospel singers on behalf of the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation.
Tilghman entered the ministry as a youth pastor at Cornerstone Church of God in Meridian in 1996. Over time he went on to become a worship-service leader, an associate pastor and finally lead pastor at the same church. Tilghman also got his musical start singing in church when he was about 8 years old.
While Tilghman was not involved in the church’s choir, he did often sing on a stage before the congregation with accompanying musical tracks that he played on a cassette player. Beyond that, he says, his only other public singing experience before competing on “The Voice” was a long performance at the Meridian County Fair.
“Outside of my church singing I would mostly just record myself singing sometimes and put the videos up on Instagram,” Tilghman says. “One day an acquaintance of mine saw one and sent me a link to the website for ‘The Voice,’ encouraging me to fill out the form to audition. I almost talked myself out of it before my wife, Brooke, joined in and encouraged me to give it a try as well. I ended up going to an open call audition in Atlanta, and the rest was history.”
“To this day I can’t say how I felt that I actually won. What stood out to me the most about the experience, though, was seeing Meridian turn out for me when I did. I was at Cornerstone when they announced the results, and when I came out into the parking lot it was filled with Meridians cheering for me. Meridian isn’t tiny or gigantic, and so many people likely had no idea who I was before I went on ‘The Voice,’ but seeing them there is what did it for me. I want them and my congregation to know that I love and appreciate them all and am thankful for the role they’ve played in my life.”
For Tilghman, the Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival is deeply entwined in nostalgia, as he has been attending the event as far back as 1995, when he was 16. Since winning “The Voice,” he has performed two other shows at the Temple Theater. Getting to perform for the festival, Tilghman says, is especially meaningful because of the legacy Rodgers left behind as a Meridian native.
Tickets for “Todd Tilghman Returns Home” are $25 each and are available on eventbrite.com.
Randy Houser at the Temple Theater
Country singer and songwriter Randy Houser of Lake, Miss., will perform at the Temple Theater on Thursday, May 12, beginning at 7 p.m. Houser, who has had three consecutive No. 1 hits with his 2013 Stoney Creek Records album, “How Country Feels,” will perform a selection of his hits such as “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight” and “Goodnight Kiss.”
Houser taught himself guitar and fronted his first band when he was only 10 years old. His first major musical breakthrough came about when Trace Adkins performed “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” a song that Houser co-wrote with Jamey Johnson and Dallas Davidson, and took the song to number two on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs list in 2005. Houser’s own debut album, “Anything Goes,” released on Universal South Records in 2009 and made it to 21 on Billboard’s Country charts, with the single “Boots On” later reaching the number two spot.
Tickets to the Randy Houser concert are $35 each and are available on eventbrite.com.
Beer Wagon Parade and Music with Foster, Tritt, and Crawford and Power
The festival will shift to downtown Meridian on Friday, May 13, with a beer wagon parade featuring the Budweiser Clydesdales set to start at 5:30 p.m. The parade will include live performances from Tristan Tritt, son of country singer Travis Tritt, and Virginia natives Crawford and Power. The headliner for the event is Louisiana native and former oilfield worker Frank Foster, who will perform on the Meridian City Hall lawn.
Each year during the festival, the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation names a new king and queen for the annual parade. This year, the festival king and queen are Ken Rainey and Carolyn Smith, who have both been involved with the foundation for more than 30 years.
Before joining the foundation, Rainey began working for various country-music radio stations around Mississippi in 1965 before becoming a radio announcer in 1967. At that point, Rainey says, the Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival had been on hiatus for a number of years. Rainey joined the foundation in 1972 and led efforts to partner with the Meridian chapter of the Hamasa Shriners as a key sponsor. He later became a producer for shows the foundation held at the Temple Theater.
Rainey retired as vice president and show producer for the foundation after 35 years of service. He currently owns the Mississippi radio stations ZQK AMFM, WFQY and AMFM, as well as television station WJMF Channel 6 in Jackson.
“I got involved in the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation while I was working with country artists in Meridian that many people didn’t know anything about, and many of which didn’t receive any full wage from working the festival,” Rainey says.
“I knew the community needed people who were involved and knew the music and the artists. When Merle Haggard moves three buses down the highway to come to your festival, they need to be reimbursed,” he adds. “The most Haggard ever made performing for the festival was $8,000, when his normal rate is something like $50,000.”
Carolyn Smith worked as a banker and marketer in Meridian for 47 years before a friend who worked for the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation told her about the work she did and the artists she got to meet. She started out as a volunteer organizing food and transportation for visiting artists before joining the board of directors for the foundation in 1991. She retired from the position in 2017.
“I love Meridian and being able to work here,” Smith says. “I started here because I was excited about seeing what this festival means to the city. For me, honoring Jimmie Rodgers is important because of what he meant to musicians from so many genres of music. He started it all right here in Meridian, and it’s an honor to be able to celebrate that.”
Tickets to the concert are $35 each and are available on eventbrite.com.
Live Music at Meridian City Hall
Festivities at the Meridian City Hall lawn continue on Saturday, May 14, with a second concert kicking off at 5 p.m. The show will feature performances from the winners of The Radio People Talent Competition as well as 2012 Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame inductee Vasti Jackson.
Other performances include Parish County Line; Meridian native musical trio Chapel Hart, whom CMT recently named to the Next Women of Country Class of ’22; and the Eli Young Band, a Texas group that earned Billboard’s #1 Country Song of the Year for “Crazy Girl” in 2011 and the Academy of Country Music Awards Song of the Year for “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” in 2013.
Tickets to the concert are $40 each and are available here.
Cathead NOLA Gospel Brunch
The Jimmie Rodgers Festival will conclude on Sunday, May 15, with a New Orleans-style gospel brunch at the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience (The MAX). The event will feature performances from Joyful and the Spirit of New Orleans Gospel Choir, a 15-piece gospel choir with a full brass section.
Cathead Distillery in Jackson is catering the brunch, which will include chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, bananas foster, quiches, breakfast casseroles, gumbo, garlic- and herb-roasted potatoes, green salads, Cajun pasta, danishes, bread pudding, fresh cut fruit, a Cathead Bloody Mary and mimosa bar, and more.
Tickets to the brunch are $30 each.
During the festival, the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation will also unveil its first augmented-reality mural. Work on the mural, which is located on the back of the Vise Building (2121 5th St.) in Meridian, began in April 2022. Visitors will be able to use a phone app at the mural to hear music and see information on acts performing at the festival. The mural will also include interactivity with special T-shirts that the foundation will sell at the festival.
“I think the foundation has managed to put something special together this year that manages to touch on every segment of entertainment you can think of,” Rainey says. “Spreading it out into a weeklong event was the only way to pull it off. Jimmie Rodgers was born and raised here in Meridian and wrote more than 100 (songs) in just three years. That legacy, and what he did for whole genres of music that came after him, is something that deserves to be honored. I think this is one of the best things we could have possibly done.”
The Jimmie Rodgers Museum (1200 22nd Ave., Meridian) is open Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tickets for all events during the Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival are available to purchase separately, or visitors can purchase VIP passes for all events with special seating included for $200. To purchase tickets for the festival or to learn more about the foundation and its programs, call 601-938-7427 or visit jimmierodgers.com.