When Michael Jackson
died, mourners gathered at his childhood home in Gary, Indiana. Elvis Presley’s boyhood house in Tupelo, Mississippi, has been converted to a museum fans still visit 32 years after his death. But 25 years after the death of Ernest Tubb, his fans will find no such monument at his birthplace. It’s somehow fitting that one of the most influential musicians in the history of country music, a man whose career spanned nearly half a century, managed to outlive the city from which he hailed.
Ernest Tubb was born in 1914 in Crisp, Texas, a small town 10 miles west of Waxahachie that now exists only as a historical marker, its population long since vanished. Tubb’s father was a sharecropper and later gas station owner, and young Tubb was forced to work from an early age. He told one interviewer that he went to school only when he couldn’t find work, and estimated he probably had fewer than seventeen months of formal education.
His mother provided another form of education, though, playing the piano and organ at the local church. His deepest musical influence arrived courtesy of his big sister Jewell, who brought home from Dallas a recording of country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers when Tubb was 14 years old. “Immediately after I heard that first record I decided I had to try to sing,” he said in an interview late in his career. “Not as a profession so much, but just try to sing like him. I bought every record he ever put out.”
He also contacted Jimmie Rodgers’ widow in 1936, and the friendship that developed between them was instrumental in Tubb eventually landing a recording contract with RCA. In the meantime, he worked a number of odd jobs, including driving a beer truck, digging ditches for the Works Progress Administration and hosting a live 15-minute radio show on KGKL-AM in San Angelo, TX.
Jimmie Rodgers’ influence on Tubb’s music was perhaps too pronounced in those early years. Tubb struggled to emerge from the stylistic shadow of his idol, going so far as to choose the tribute song “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” as his first release. His early recordings tanked. Then in 1939, another setback arrived as Tubb learned he would have to undergo a potentially voice-altering tonsillectomy.
In one of those odd twists of fate you often find in showbiz success stories, what could have been a career-ending moment provided the impetus for his big breakthrough. The operation changed his voice (making it impossible to ape Rodgers’ yodel) and forced him to concentrate on his songwriting and develop his own vocal style.
What emerged was a plaintive, more straightforward approach to singing, one that made up in warmth and personality what it lacked in range and technical precision. “As much as I loved Ernest, he was never a singer,” fellow musician Danny Dill told biographer Ronnie Pugh. “But communicate! Nobody else I ever saw except [Hank] Williams onstage could communicate what he was feeling as well as well as Ernest.”
After leaving RCA for Decca records in 1940, Tubb finally had a hit record with “Walking the Floor Over You.” He moved to Nashville not long after, bringing with him what was coming to be known as honky-tonk music – a stripped down style of Western swing popularized in the roughneck bars of Texas and Oklahoma where Tubb cut his teeth.
Tubb’s band The Texas Troubadours became the first act to use an electric guitar at the Grand Ole Opry, and his songs emphasized guitarist Jimmy Short’s simple, single-string melodic guitar lines instead of the layers of fiddles and jazzy compositional flourishes favored by most country musicians popular at the time. This back-to-the-basics approach would be a big influence on later country artists like Hank Williams, Ray Price, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and George Strait.
Despite Tubb finally discovering his sound, his recording career was momentarily stalled by factors beyond his control, one being a musicians' union strike in 1943, another being a wartime shortage of shellac that meant not enough records could be produced to satisfy the growing demand. But beginning in 1946 he released a string of hit songs, outselling every artist on Decca except Bing Crosby.
His newfound and hard-won stardom earned him silver screen roles in B movies like The Fighting Buckaroo and Hollywood Barn Dance. And in 1947, Tubb helped legitimize his artform by becoming the first country artist to headline at Carnegie Hall. It’s thanks in part to Tubb’s efforts that we even refer to the genre as country music, as he lobbied music publications to use that appellation rather than the pejorative “hillbilly music” many favored. He also helped convince them to create a separate sales category for country and western that lasts to this day in the form of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
Indeed, much of Tubb’s legacy resides outside the actual music he produced. The record store he opened in 1947 remains a Nashville landmark, and it was there he hosted the one-hour “Midnight Jamboree” radio show. Always thankful for the help he’d had along the way, Tubb used his radio program to give many up-and-coming Nashville acts broader exposure.
The sign outside the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, shown on Thursday Feb. 26, 1998, is one of the landmarks of downtown Nashville, Tenn. The shop, started by the legendary country singer in 1947, specializes in hard-to-find country recordings. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
The rise of rock 'n' roll in the mid-1950s had a chilling effect on the careers of many country artists, including Tubb. At a low point in 1956 – the first year since 1944 that he had no singles appear in Billboard’s charts – he even considered quitting music to join his brother in the insurance industry. Instead, he soldiered on, continuing to tour and record. During the 1960s, he put together what is considered one of the finest country bands in history, a Texas Troubadours line-up that included Leon Rhodes on lead guitar, Buddy Charleton on steel, Jack Drake on bass, Cal Smith on rhythm guitar and Jack Greene on drums.
In the late sixties, Tubb also released a number of duet recordings with a rising star named Loretta Lynn, who’d idolized him as a child. She would go on to become a huge star, racking up 16 number one hits on the country and western charts in the 1960s and '70s. She also facilitated Tubb’s return to the silver screen, as he played himself in the 1980 Academy Award winning Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter.
The 1970s were nearly as tough on Tubb as the late 1950s, with audiences turning away from the rawer honky-tonk style in favor of the newly sophisticated “countrypolitan” sound. But as he’d always done, Tubb weathered audience vicissitudes, relying on a loyal fanbase he’d built over 30 years. Constantly on the road, he reportedly logged 3 million miles on his tour bus from 1970-1979.
He collected a number of accolades, being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame before his death from emphysema in 1984. Fifteen hundred mourners gathered at his funeral, including luminaries like Bill Monroe, Hank Williams Jr., Kitty Wells, Billy Walker and Hank Snow. His last recording session occurred in 1982, an amazing 46 years since he’d entered the studio as a young man who just wanted to sing like Jimmie Rodgers.
Originally published August 2009