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In 1953, as the twenty anniversary of Jimmie Rodgers’ death on May 26th approached, his musical heirs, along with his family and citizens of his hometown of Meridian, set out to honor his memory in a way that would further his legacy. Country stars Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow, both fans and acolytes of Jimmie’s music whose careers had been helped along by his widow, Carrie Rodgers, initiated a project to have a Jimmie Rodgers monument designed and erected. They planned to stage a “huge,” well-publicized country music show as the monument was unveiled. The Meridian Star newspaper and Meridian city council were already planning to celebrate Meridian’s history as a railway center with the dedication of a steam locomotive to the deceased railroad men of the town; combined, they would be called officially “Jimmie Rodgers and Railroadmen Memorial Day,” but the event would have significance that was much broader. It would be a milestone in country music history.
In Jimmie Rodgers, the global industry developing and gelling around country music in the 1950s found a father figure who’d stood for bringing the rural and urban together, for modernizing the music but never forgetting the folks down home. What he was about, country music was now about. Performers from every far-flung flavor of country came to Meridian to perform that day: Hank Thompson, Leon McAuliffe and Tommy Duncan from Western Swing; Lefty Frizzell, Jimmie Dickens, and Webb Pierce from honky tonk; Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins and George Morgan representing the rising new country pop sounds, and such traditional country legends as A.P. Sara, and Maybelle Carter, Bill and Charlie Monroe, Jimmie Davis, and Roy Acuff. In the years that followed, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and others would add the new rockabilly sounds. Tens of thousands of country music fans filled the streets of Meridian for the parades and shows that became annual events for decades to come.
In effectively and deliberately demonstrating country music’s strength and reach, in presenting it as a worthy and dignified addition to American culture with a history worth noting as well as a promising future, The Jimmie Rodgers Festivals paved the way for such developments as the Country Music Association and its later “Fan Fair” festivals, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. For country music, the festivals’ advent in these streets in 1953 was a moment of self-recognition and acceptance—of coming of age.
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