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Country Music Mecca

See where country music was born in Meridian, Miss.

In the state known as the birthplace of the blues, Meridian, Miss., boasts its own roots that anchor the family tree of another American music genre. As the home of Jimmie Rodgers, “the father of country music,” the city celebrates his legacy each May with the Jimmie Rodgers Festival and keeps his story alive all year long at the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Museum. Both draw visitors from around the country and the world, thanks to the indelible mark Rodgers’ distinctive music left behind.

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Above: Rodgers’ recordings are some of the items on exhibit at the museum. Jennifer S. Kornegay photo

Below: The Dentzel Carousel. MDA/Tourism Division photo

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Where It All Began

Rodgers was born in Meridian in 1897, and by age 13, had discovered his love of singing and playing guitar. He organized his own traveling music shows until his disapproving father got him a job on the railroad. Rodgers worked as a brakeman until he was 27; he contracted tuberculosis in his 20s.

Not much later, after singing on a radio show, he recorded a few tunes for the Victor Talking Machine Company that met with limited success. His rhythmic, multi-pitched yodels on the song “Blue Yodel” pushed its sales to almost half a million copies, and “the singing brakeman” was at last a star.

Despite his brief career–he died in 1933 at age 35–his contributions to music have endured. Gene Autry started out copying his sound. Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Snow made a Rodgers’ tribute album. When the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville was founded in 1961, Rodgers was among the first inductees. And his influence is not limited to country.

Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan counted Rodgers among their inspirations. His song “Waiting for a Train” sparked a young George Harrison’s interest in playing guitar. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1986. Rodgers was named by the rock hall as a Music Master in 1997.

Preserving A Legend

The Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Museum isn’t big, but like Rodgers’ own tragically short life, it has a lot to offer despite its size. Friendly volunteer tour guides share in-depth information on every item packed into the space, often adding their personal Rodgers’ recollections.

You’ll find sheet music with hand-written lyrics, original copies of his early recordings, photos, letters, his U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp, and more. A vibrant quilt pieced together by a local lady adorns one wall. This true labor of love features her stitching over the carefully collected actual autographs of some of the biggest names in music, including Presley, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Minnie Pearl, Willie Nelson, and more.

But the real gem is Rodgers’ Martin guitar that is valued at $1 million. Visitors can gaze at it through the front window of its climate-controlled safe. Made from spruce, Brazilian rosewood, ebony, and mahogany with Rodgers’ name spelled out in mother-of-pearl on the neck, it is a work of art. However, the ardent fans who travel to Meridian for just a glimpse don’t care about its looks. One particularly passionate visitor summed it up, saying, “See that hole [pointing to the center of the guitar]? That is where country music was born.”

The guitar is rarely removed from the safe, but in 2013, the museum decided to make a Rodgers’ tribute album featuring area musician Britt Gully playing the famous instrument for the first time in decades. Gully put together a group of other Mississippi musicians to help, including Grammy winner Carl Jackson and Country Music Association award winner Mac McAnally, and they recorded the album’s 16 tracks in the museum because the board wouldn’t let the guitar leave the premises. Gully’s voice belts iconic Rodgers’ tunes with a twang, while his fingers strum what he’s dubbed “the most magical guitar in the world.” You can buy the CD for $20 at the museum or through its Web site.

And The Beat Goes On

For more than 60 years, The Jimmie Rodgers Foundation (which also runs the museum) has put on the Jimmie Rodgers Festival every May. Talent contests; concerts featuring local, regional, and national artists; and a country music symposium combine during the event to promote Rodgers’ and Meridian’s diverse musical heritage, as well as to raise money for the museum. The 2014 festival is scheduled for May 15–17.

But Meridian’s role in America’s musical history doesn’t stop with Rodgers. The city is also home to Mississippi Country Music Trail markers honoring Elsie McWilliams (who wrote many of Rodgers’ songs) and Moe Bandy, who racked up several No. 1 hits on country music charts in the 1970s.

Downtown, the lovely MSU Riley Center hosts concerts and musical performances in a 900-seat, 1889 opera house that was returned to its former glory in 2006.

While You’re in Town

When you leave the Jimmie Rodgers Museum, walk over to the Dentzel Carousel, a National Historic Landmark that has been in operation since 1909 and is still spinning and thrilling kids of all ages with its brightly colored animals and classic carnival atmosphere.

Also nearby is Merrehope, a 20-room, fully restored Neoclassical Revival house that was originally built as a three-room cottage in 1858. It was added onto and embellished by various owners, becoming the stately mansion it is today. During the Civil War, it was one of only six structures in all of Meridian spared from Gen. William T. Sherman’s torches. The house is one of the stops on the newly formed Meridian Civil War Trail.

Grab lunch at Mississippi’s oldest restaurant, Weidmann’s, opened in 1870. It’s hard to choose from the selection of Southern comfort food as well as more sophisticated fare, like trout almondine, an item that’s been on the menu for decades. End on a sweet note with a local favorite, the rich and velvety Black Bottom Pie.

For lodging options, Meridian has two B&Bs and several national chain hotels, including these AAA Diamond choices: Drury Inn and Suites, Hampton Inn, and Holiday Inn.

Music, history, and hospitality; a visit to Meridian is sure to strike a chord with you.

Jennifer S. Kornegay is a contributor from Montgomery, Ala.

May/June 2014 Issue

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BEFORE YOU GO

For more information, contact the Meridian/Lauderdale County Tourism Bureau, (888) 868-7720 or www.visitmeridian.com. The Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Museum is closed on Mondays. Contact the museum by calling (601) 485-1808 or visit www.jimmierodgers.com. AAA members receive discounted admission.

To visit Meridian, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Mississippi through the Free Travel Information Card found online.


 


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