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Ernest Tubb – Remembering The Texas Troubadour

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Ernest Tubb entered the world in 1914 as a resident of Crisp, Texas – a small farming community, now officially listed as a ghost town, approximately forty miles south of Dallas. Like most men of his generation, he received little formal education and often did manual farm labor. Tubb came from a broken home and spent much of his teens living with older siblings. After became fascinated with “The Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers at a young age, Tubb began working as a performer, despite the fact that he had limited natural ability as a guitarist, singer, or entertaining a crowd. Perseverance would help him overcome those obstacles and turn his limitations into assets.

In 1936, Tubb met Carrie Rodgers, the widow of Jimmie Rodgers, while residing in San Antonio. Carrie was so impressed by the young man that she helped him get a record deal and, for a short period of time, became his de facto manager. His initial recordings spawned no hits and he spent several years crisscrossing throughout Texas, working on local radio stations and picking up day jobs, such as selling mattresses and distributing beer. In 1941, while working at a Fort Worth radio station, he recorded “Walking the Floor Over You,” most likely inspired by personal marital strife, and practically invented the genre known as honky-tonk music. The song became a significant pop hit and eventually sold over a million copies. (Note – there were no trade magazine listings of country hit songs until 1944, it would have most assuredly been a #1 country single). Tubb became an immediate star in movies, radio, and in jukeboxes around the country. However, the union strike by the American Federation of Musicians in 1942 and the shellac rationing instituted during World War II, put a momentary break in his momentum.

After he resumed recording, he had a #1 country hit and a #16 crossover pop hit in 1944 with the sentimental “Soldier’s Last Letter” and became a regular cast member of the Grand Ole Opry. In fact, the star power of Tubb most likely brought more attention to the Opry than the program did for the singer. Tubb was the first singer to bring an electric guitar sound to the Opry stage and his limited Texas drawl vocal range conveyed a down home sense of geniality and warmth. Through 1950, he would continue to have major country hits, including the #1 singles “It’s Been So Long Darling,” “Rainbow at Midnight,” “Slippin’ Around,” “Blue Christmas,” and the Red Foley duet “Goodnight Irene.” He also had a pop hit with The Andrew Sisters (“I’m Bitin’ My Fingernails and Thinking of You”) and released the Tubb staples “Filipino Baby,” “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin,” “Seaman’s Blues,” and “Warm Red Wine.”

While Tubb projected a conservative image for his fans, he was a heavy drinker, smoker, and gambler. The drinking resulted not only in car wrecks, but most memorably, an angry Tubb once went to the lobby of WSM, Nashville’s most famous radio station, at 4:30 a.m. while wearing house shoes and left a bullet hole in the wall after a business dispute. Besides wrecking hotel rooms, one of his favorite blackout hobbies was kicking rear windows out of his automobiles. His behavior did not often provide the most stable environment for his band, The Texas Troubadours, creating significant turnover in membership.

Still, while being busy with his own career, he was a selfless promoter for younger talent. His sponsorship resulted in three Hanks getting to perform on the Grand Ole Opry – Thompson, Williams, and Snow. During the 1960s, Cal Smith and Jack Greene performed in the most famous version of The Troubadours and he assisted them to solo fame. He also served as a mentor/father figure to Stonewall Jackson and Skeeter Davis. During the 1940s, because it was difficult for fans to find country records, he opened the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in Nashville, losing tens of thousands of dollars in the first few years of business. He was generous to the point of irresponsibility with his own funds, always willing to give a handout to a beggar or an advance to a struggling musician. After performing for the troops in Korea in 1953, Tubb volunteered to contact the wives and mothers of service personnel to let them know their loved ones were alive and well. He received several hundred requests and fulfilled each one with personal phone calls or letters.

As the rock ‘n’ roll era began, Tubb had less impact on the music charts and as a concert draw. He even covered rhythm and blues material, scoring country hits with Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days (To Come Back Home)” and the Chuck Willis pop hit “What Am I Living For.” He would transition from an auditorium solo star to working on package shows and, in the 1960’s, moving into the dance hall and club environment. He had his last major hits with the 1963 #3 country single “Thanks A Lot” and 1964’s “Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be,” the latter a cross generational duet with Loretta Lynn that peaked at #11. “Waltz Across Texas” was a minor radio hit in 1965, but has had an extended shelf life as a Lone Star state standard.

Tubb stopped drinking and smoking in the 1960s and continued to perform until 1982. A legal separation from his second wife created significant financial complications for Tubb during his later years. Despite maintaining separate households for years, he never filed for divorce nor left a proper will before his death in 1984. One unintended consequence from the self-inflicted loose ends was that his widow refused to pay for a headstone – Tubb was laid to rest in an unmarked grave from 1984 until the situation was resolved, after the death of his ex-wife, in 1999. Hell hath no fury.

Tubb’s musical minimalism and low singing register served as an inspiration to Johnny Cash, among others, but Tubb was much more of a niche artist than Cash. He sang without irony, without wordplay, conveying simple truths and universal emotional sentiments. His lack of a traditional good voice gave the superstar an everyman quality. He was a no frills, genre creating formalist. Ernest Tubb was to honky-tonk what the Ramones were to punk.

1 Comment

  1. Harry Tesch jr. on October 18, 2022 at 3:52 pm

    I love his music since Mom took me to see Earnest in Milwaukee WI in the 50s, I’me now 86 & still love his music (2022)

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