“They were both legends, and frankly titans, of the early recording industry in their respective genres,” said Ted Olson, a professor in the department of Appalachian studies at East Tennessee State University.
Olson said Rodgers, who has been dubbed “The Father of Country Music,” was a luminary in what was then called “hillbilly music” and recorded during the 1927 Bristol sessions, which helped launch a successful career as a recording artist.
Although there were other major country musicians performing in that time period, Rodgers was a “key transitional figure,” Olson said, who put an innovative twist on traditional sounds.
Jefferson, meanwhile, was an African American blues guitarist and singer from Texas who recorded music for Paramount Records. “(He) was one of the best selling blues acts in what was at the time marketed as ‘race music,’ ” Olson said.
Over the years, Olson said Jefferson’s songs, including “Matchbox Blues” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” have influenced artists like Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
Although their untimely deaths make them grim companions in the catalogue of artists who have died too early, the two musicians appear to have another thing common: They both visited Johnson City.
Rodgers visited the town in April 1927 to perform at a three-day annual convention in Johnson City for the 52nd District Rotary Club.
“I think Johnson City is a very important situation in Jimmie Rodgers’ career because it obviously connected him with some very compelling musicians,” Olson said.
There, he met a trio from Bristol called the Tenneva Ramblers, which was composed of Jack Pierce and brothers Claude and Jack Grant.
“They kind of augmented Jimmie Rodgers’ kind of Mississippi based-sound and kind of gave him Appalachian string band credentials,” Olson said.
The group was later known as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, but when they arrived in Bristol in 1927 to record, Olson said the musicians had a disagreement, which Olson said could have stemmed from a dispute over whose name would appear on the record label.
“There was a falling out over artistic vision about who would lead and what they would play and how they would sound,” Olson said, “and so Jimmie Rodgers and the Tennevas broke apart.”
Jefferson’s connection with the city is a little more tenuous. Two musicians, Clarence Greene and Walter Davis, regularly visited Johnson City in the mid-1920s. During one visit, they heard a musician performing blues music in the city’s downtown.
“They came to believe and insist in later years that it was Blind Lemon Jefferson,” Olson said. In the 1970s, Olson said Davis recalled Jefferson’s visit to Johnson City in an interview with Wayne Erbsen, a musician living in Asheville, North Carolina. Olson believes this is an accurate retelling.
Olson said the story goes that Greene learned how to play blues guitar, “by the process of musical osmosis,” watching Blind Lemon Jefferson perform on the streets of Johnson City.
Knowing what he knows about Greene’s commitment to the craft, Olson said he’s inclined to believe that Greene actively engaged with Jefferson to learn more about the genre.
“He probably not only listened to Blind Lemon Jefferson play, but in all likelihood asked him questions, maybe stuck around a little while, probably tipped him a little bit in exchange for having a conversation,” Olson said.
Greene later recorded “Johnson City Blues,” which was an adaption of “Chattanooga Blues” recorded by African American singer Ida Cox in 1923, during the 1928 Johnson City sessions. The album sold 5,791 copies the year it was released.
Although Jefferson and Rodgers are considered innovative musicians in blues and country music respectively, Olson said their influence has extended beyond the bounds of those genres.
“I think it is important to say that both the artists, despite the fact that they were marketed in genre-specific directions for commercial purposes, their impact was much more broad-based than that,” Olson said.