Monday, September 5, 2011

The Great Ernest Tubb

It was on September 6, 1984, that one of the greatest men in the history of country music and the Grand Ole Opry, Ernest Tubb, passed away. Trying to put his life story in a few short paragraphs is next to impossible, but I came up with this from the Country Music Encyclopedia.

"E.T. might be a science fiction creature to kids. However, in Nashville, E.T. still means Ernest Dale Tubb, the 'Texas Troubadour.' a tangible link to the Jimmie Rodgers tradition, he was also far more: a founder of the honky tonk style of country music, humanitarian, businessman, talent scout, father figure and benefactor to many younger musicians who became stars.

Ask Hank Snow about Ernest Tubb. He'll tell you that without E.T.'s support in Nashville, his own career might have ended in the early 1950s. Ask Loretta Lynn about two decades of inspiration and friendship. Ask Jack Green and Cal Smith, both ex-Texas Troubadours, how far their careers would have gone without his wise counsel. Johnny Cash and June Carter can also talk at length of the good advice he gave them. Carl Smith had one of his biggest hits literally handed to him by the man. Hank Williams got much fatherly advice from Ernest.

Ernest Tubb's birthplace was Crisp, Texas, south of Dallas; the year: 1914. The youngest of five children, he had little formal education. His folks separated in 1926 and he worked much of the time, staying with different relatives. By then he was marveling over Jimmie Rodger's records, much as later generations would marvel over his own.

The year Tubb started singing-1933-was also the year Rodgers died of tuberculosis. Ernest bought his first guitar and started teaching himself many of Rodger's songs after finishing his day job on a road-building crew. He moved to San Antonio where he met and married his first wife in 1934. He got a part time job playing mornings over KONO Radio.

The year 1935 was a turning point. Ernest's first child, Justin, was born in San Antonio. He also visited with Carrie Rodgers, Jimmie's widow, who lived in San Antonio. During their visit, he asked her to listen to his radio show. Impressed with his knowledge of Rodger's songs, Carrie got him two recording dates with RCA, Jimmie's label. In October 1936, he recorded six songs, two Rodgers tributes and four Tubb originals written in the Rodgers style. The following year he did two more songs, but none sold. Rodger Dale Tubb, his second child, was born in 1938 but died seven weeks later, inspiring Ernest's composition 'Our Baby's Book.' A daughter was born in 1939. Throughout this time Ernest alternated between singing on various Texas radio stations and working convential day jobs. He asked Carrie Rodgers, by then his informal adviser, if perhaps Decca Records (now MCA) might be interested in him. Both she and Ernest solicited them, and in April 1940, he went to Houston for his first session. That fall he moved to Fort Worth as KGKO Radio's 'Gold Chain (Flour) Troubadour.'

'Blue-Eyed Elaine' and 'I'll Get Along Somehow,' from the first Decca session did well, and Ernest recorded 12 more numbers in Los Angeles in October 1940. These failed amid complaints from jukebox operators that nobody could hear Tubb's records in noisy bars. As a solution, Ernest brought electric guitarist 'Smitty' Smith along for his April 1941 session in Dallas. The first song they cut ws Ernest's new composition, 'Walking the Floor Over You.' Smit, accustomed to playing from written music, simply played the song's melody for his solo, setting the style for every guitarist who worked for E.T. over the next 41 years. Ernest knew the commercial potential of 'Walking the Floor.' He urged Decca to release it first. They did, and it wound up a million-seller. Legendary country music promoter Joe L. Frank brought Ernest to Nashville for his first Opry appearances in December 1942. Three encores later he was an Opry regular, and his use of electric guitar helped make amplified instruments acceptable on the show. By 1943, he had formed his first Texas Troubadors band and the hits continued.

After fans griped that they couldn't find his records in local stores, he opened the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in Nashville. He was also among the first to see the potential of selling mail-order records over the airwaves. When he launched his Midnight Jamboree over 50,000-watt WSM from the record shop every Saturday night after the Opry, he used the show to hawk records. The store prospered. Tubb also successfully pushed the music industry to replace the descriptive term 'hillbilly' music, which he felt derogatory, with 'country and western.'

Illness plagued him, and for a time he was forced to leave the Opry. A heavy drinker and smoker, he also had his wilder moments. In 1957, well in his cups, he shot up WSM's lobby with a .357 Magnum, fortunately injuring no one. From 1955 to 1958, after having had several very successful duets with Rod Foley, he wasn't on the charts at all. In 1958, he was back with 'Half a Mind.'

His final Top Five success came in 1963 with 'Thanks a Lot.' From then on, his records tended to stay in the lower half of the charts. His excellent duets with Loretta Lynn in the mid-1960s resulted in four hits. After that his own albums had a standard form, balancing his hits with covers of everyone else's. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1965.

Ernest was suprisingly candid about his vocal limitations. In a 1967 interview he admitted, 'I've never been able to hold a note longer than one beat. All over the country, guys sit in bars trying to impress their girl. My voice comes on the jukebox adn they say 'I can sing better than that'. And in about 90 percent of the cases, they're right.'

By the 1970s, emphysema was causing him constant respiratory problems. He quit smoking. He kept an oxygen tank on the bus and took more offstage breaks between singing. On June 18, 1975, Ernest completed his last session for MCA. His last MCA release in 1973 barely made the top 100. In 1977 and 1978, he recut many of his old hits for Pete Drake's label, First Generation. Without telling Ernest, Pete overdubbed other country artists including Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, George Jones and others into an album called 'The Legend and the Legacy.' The album showed how artists, not record executive, felt about Ernest. On tour he packed them in. He was an elder statesman; the road was his life.

On November 13, 1982, he played his last show in Berlin, Ohio. After that, he remained at home, following doctor's orders, struggling to recover. He saw few people before he was hospitalized for the last time in the fall of 1984. He died on September 6. Tributes poured in from everywhere."

An excellent book on the life of Ernest Tubb is the biography by Ronnie Pugh. It is an excellent book that I highly recommend. Ernest's last Grand Ole Opry performance was on Saturday August 14, 1982. He performed on both shows that night, and also hosted his Midnight Jamboree. That was also the last night he would host his own show.

In honor of Ernest Tubb, is the line up and running order of the August 14, 1982 Grand Ole Opry, his last Opry performances:

6:30 Mrs Grissoms
4 Guys (host)-Turn Your Radio On
Wilburn Brothers-Arkansas
4 Guys-A Blaze of Glory

6:45 Rudys
Billy Grammer (host)-Georgiana
Skeeter Davis-Just When I Needed You Most
Billy Grammer-Aunt Dinah's Quilting Party

7:00 Shoney's
Ernest Tubb (host)-Thanks A Lot
Jean Shepard-Blanket On The Ground/I'll Be There
Lonzo & Oscar-Ramblin' Fever/Windy City
Jack Leonard-I Can't Help It/Take These Chains From My Heart/Half As Much/Your Cheating Heart
Ernest Tubb-Waltz Across Texas/Walkin' The Floor Over You

7:30 Standard Candy
Billy Walker (host)-When A Man Loves A Woman
Jeannie Seely-You Don't Need Me, But You Will/I'm All Through Crying Over You
Crook Brothers/Stoney Mountain Cloggers-Cotton-Eyed Joe
Bill Carlisle-No Help Wanted
Billy Walker-You Gave Me A Mountain

8:00 Martha White
Roy Acuff (host); Wabash Cannonball
Connie Smith-The Key's In The Mailbox/Till I Kissed You
Charlie Walker-Don't Squeeze My Sharmon
Roy Thackerson-Orange Blossom Special
Carolee Singers-A Song The Holy Angels Cannot Sing
Roy Acuff-I'll Fly Away

8:30 Acme
Bill Monroe (host)-My Sweet Blue-Eyed Darling
Roy Drusky-I Really Don't Want To Know
Del Wood-The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise
Vic Willis Trio-Faded Love
Fruit Jar Drinkers-Katy Hill
Bill Monroe-Little Cabin Home On The Hill

9:30 Kelloggs
Ernest Tubb (host)-Seaman's Blues
Skeeter Davis-Me and Bobby McGee/The Old Rugged Cross/The King Is Coming
Wilburn Brothers-I Know A Goodbye When I See One/Because He Lives
Ernest Tubb-Another Story, Another Time, Another Place

10:00 Little Debbie
Bill Monroe (host)-On & On
Connie Smith-Satisfied
Bill Monroe-Come Hither To Go Yonder

10:15 Sunbeam
Billy Grammer (host)-Wildwood Flower
Lonzo & Oscar-Old Songs
Billy Grammer- I Was Born In Renfro Valley

10:30 Martha White
Roy Acuff (host)-Meeting In The Air
Roy Thackerson-Sally Goodin/Orange Blossom Special
Roy Acuff-Cabin In Gloryland

10:45 Beech-Nut
Billy Walker (host)-A Millon & One
Jean Shepard-Alabama Jubilee
Crook Brothers/Stoney Mountain Cloggers-Liberty
Billy Walker-Cattle Call

11:00 Coca-Cola
Roy Drusky (host)-There'll Never Be Anyone Else But You For Me
Jeannie Seely-I'm Almost Ready/Healing Hands Of Time
Fruit Jar Drinkers-Sugar Tree Stomp
Kirk McGee-Blue Night
Bill Carlisle-Elvira
Roy Drusky-Just A Closer Walk With Thee

11:30 Bama
4 Guys (host)-Cottonfields/Mariah
Del Wood-There's A Big Wheel
Charlie Walker-Don't Play Me No Songs About Texas
Vic Willis Trio-Shenendoah/You Were Always On My Mind
4 Guys-Made In The USA

Thanks for taking the time to remember with me, Ernest Tubb


  1. Thank you, Byron. Fred in Bismarck here.

    E.T. was my No. 3, right after Roy Acuff and Hank Snow, and brought me back from my disaffection with country music.

    The year was 1978, and our good Bismarck-Mandan nightclub owner brought in Ernest. That night put me back on the country music road for keeps. When Ricky Skaggs came along the next year, it cemented it.

    I lived in New Salem, a small town west of Bismarck-Mandan, at the time. In November 1982, a New Salem bar owner and I collaborated on bringing Ernest to New Salem. (My friend put up the cash and I did the publicity.) We filled the City Auditorium for one of the biggest nights that little town ever saw.

    And Ernest! Put on 2 shows for us, signed for every last fan, and was the next-to-last person to leave the auditorium, just before I locked up.

    Almost exactly a year later, he played that last show in Berlin, at which my old buddy from New Philadelphia, Merv Rawes, was in attendance. (Have you ever run across Merv, Byron?) Merv said Ernest was so sick he was able to do only 4-5 numbers.

    It's wonderful to think of Ernest to this day. Needless to say, he is still in my heavy rotation.

  2. Mistake, sorry: E.T.'s date in New Salem was in November 1981. -- Fred in Bismarck

  3. What a great night, Fred! And what a great man Ernest Tubb was.

    I believe he handed Charlie Walker "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down," too. And I love the story I heard of how he and Ray Price went to play golf and heard a song on the radio. All through their game, ET kept telling Ray he needed to record it, and Ray agreed finally, just to shut him up. In the process, he helped Ray's career and MADE Bill Anderson's--"City Lights."

    A few months before he died, we finally got TNN, and Jack Greene was on with Ralph one night. He said that ET had been told he couldn't perform any more due to his health. My mother turned and said to me, "That will kill him inside six months." It did. I also remember Hank Snow saying that he visited him and both of them wished he hadn't because ET was in such bad shape. A sad end to a beautiful life.

  4. Fred, I live about 20 miles from Berlin, Ohio (a beautiful little city in Amish Country), and I still kick myself for not getting over to see that show.

    On the other hand, I am probably glad that I didn't go as it would have been sad to see Ernest that way. Kind of the same way I felt when I saw Johnny Cash on his last tour and knowing that the end was getting near.

    Mike, I remember the Hank Snow story from Ronnie Pugh's book.

  5. I don't know if anyone got the chance to listen or watch the Midnight Jamboree on Saturday night/Sunday morning, but Glen Douglas Tubb did a great job with the show. Jack Greene even stopped by and did, "Walking the Floor".