He’s not the greatest country singer who ever lived, but he may be my favorite. It’s hard to say why I love Tubb’s music so much, but I responded powerfully the first time I ever heard his voice (duetting with Loretta Lynn on “Sweet Thang” (1967), though I heard it on a Lynn collection that didn’t even identify her duet partner). Since then I’ve acquired everything he ever recorded (thank you, Bear Family Records!), and his music—especially from the 1960s, which I consider his golden age—is the aural equivalent of comfort food for me.
But that’s stuff you might want to know, not stuff you need to know. Here are 10 things that you do need to know. Well, 11, actually, but I’m feeling generous.
- Tubb was born on February 9, 1914, in Crisp, Texas, a town that’s so small it isn’t even there anymore. All that’s left of Crisp is a highway marker, erected by the Ernest Tubb Fan Club in the 1980s, identifying it as Tubb’s birthplace.
- Tubb was Nashville’s biggest star in the late 1940s, and he felt a sense of gratitude, even responsibility to country music for having let so unprepossessing a singer achieve so much. One way in which he acknowledged that gratitude was by launching the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in 1947, the first major record business ever to concentrate on country music. The shop continues to flourish on Broadway in Nashville (with satellite operations in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and in Fort Worth, Texas), and its mail-order operation has helped generations of country fans—including this one—to widen their horizons. See ernesttubb.com for details.
- Also in 1947, Tubb debuted the Midnite Jamboree radio program, the second-longest-running radio show in American history. It’s basically the Grand Ole Opry’s afterparty, originally based at the downtown Record Shop and nowadays recorded at the Texas Troubadour Theater in Music Valley, and is known as both a showcase for up-and-coming artists and a chance for Opry stars to unwind after the show. Everyone from Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn to Elvis Presley and Taylor Swift has been on the Jamboree, which airs on WSM (home of the Opry) at midnight, Central Time.
- It was Tubb who went to bat with Opry management to convince them to give a shot to an Alabama boy named Hank Williams in 1949. The conservative, straitlaced Opry management (the show was run by National Life Insurance) had heard that Williams was an unreliable drunk, and didn’t want to get involved with him. Tubb, who took a drink or two himself, convinced them otherwise. Williams was signed and became a huge fan favorite—until 1952, when he was fired from the Opry for being an unreliable drunk.
- Tubb headlined the first country show at Carnegie Hall, on September 18 and 19, 1947. Second on the bill was Tubb’s longtime friend, Minnie Pearl. There had been doubts as to whether a sophisticated New York audience would care for Opry corn, but both shows sold out and were rapturously received.
- Always supportive of younger artists, Tubb recorded three albums of duets with Loretta Lynn at the beginning of her career: & Mrs. Used to Be (1965), Singin’ Again (1967) and If We Put Our Heads Together (1969). She then moved on to a duets partnership with Conway Twitty, which was more successful but not nearly as good. (Tubb also recorded a 1956 duets album, Red and Ernie, with his longtime friend and mock-feud opponent Red Foley.)
- In 1957, in the wee hours of the morning, Tubb—after reflecting on an argument he’d had with Opry general manager Jim Denny—decided to go over to the National Life Building and shoot Denny. He drew and fired his .357 Magnum, but missed … which is just as well, because he’d mistakenly shot at someone else. He was arrested and charged with public drunkenness, which on the face of it seems likely.
Tubb hosted his own syndicated television program, The Ernest Tubb Show, a half-hour program that aired from 1965 to 1968. Tubb was the headliner; his second singer was a short-haired, clean-shaven, jacket-and-tie Texan named Willie Nelson, getting his first big break as a performer. It would be almost another decade before Nelson would lose the jacket, lose the tie, let his hair grow, put on a bandanna and become one of country’s longest-in-the-works overnight sensations with his breakthrough album, Red-Headed Stranger (1975). He looks weird on the Tubb show, but sounds great.
- Tubb was the leader of a group of late-1940s country stars who objected to the fact that Billboard’s chart for their music characterized it as “Hillbilly Music,” which they considered pejorative. (Also inaccurate, at least in Tubb’s case: Crisp, Texas, is one of the world’s least-hilly places.) It’s not recorded who suggested “country music” as the alternative, but Billboard was convinced and (after a 13-year detour, thanks to Columbia Records, into “Country & Western”—see my August 2016 blog post for why there’s no such thing) changed it to “Country” in 1962. It has remained “Country” ever since. (Whether the music itself has is, of course, open to debate.)
- Tubb died on September 6, 1984, of emphysema—he’d stopped smoking in the 1960s, but not soon enough. He is buried in the Hermitage Memorial Gardens, in Nashville.
- Among the legions of Ernest Tubb fans was Elvis Presley, who said that appearing on the same bill with Tubb was a highlight of his performing career. In the famous “Million-Dollar Quartet” bootleg tape, from the Sun Records Christmas party on December 4, 1956, almost all of the songs are a verse or two. Only two are complete songs: One is a rocking ensemble “Down by the Riverside,” and the other is Presley soloing on Tubb’s hit “I’m with a Crowd, but Oh So Alone,” with Elvis doing a remarkably effective Tubb imitation.