Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Few country singers have inspired more affection than Ernest Tubb, the affable “Texas Troubadour.” Tubb’s career spanned some fifty years and effectively bridged the gap between the first true country recording artists, like Jimmie Rodgers, and the latest generation of stars, like Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. So many “firsts” are associated with Tubb that it is easy to miss a few: he was the first country artist to popularize electric guitar accompaniment, the first major purveyor of honky-tonk music, and the first country musician to headline a performance at Carnegie Hall. He is also remembered fondly for the helping hand he gave freely to other aspiring singers, among them Elvis Presley, Jack Greene, and Cal Smith.
Ernest Dale Tubb, the youngest of five children, was born near Crisp, Texas, in 1914. His father was an overseer to a 300-acre cotton farm, so all of the Tubb children spent more time in the fields working than in school. Ernest once estimated that he spent only seventeen months in a formal educational setting, but he made up for the deficit in education by reading constantly in his later years. Tubb’s mother was a deeply religious woman who could play the organ and piano; she and Tubb’s siblings encouraged his early interest in music and poetry-writing.
Country music became Tubb’s passion when he encountered the songs of Jimmie Rodgers in the early 1930s. Rodgers is widely considered the first country superstar, and his landmark “blue yodels” were imitated by a host of admirers. Tubb was one of these admirers. He saved his dimes in order to buy each Rodgers release and painstakingly taught himself to play the guitar in his idol’s style. Tubb said that when Rodgers died in 1933, “I thought my world had come to an end.” He was wrong about that—his world had not ended, but was only beginning to unfold before him.
Throughout the worst years of the Depression, Tubb worked at any job he could find, from farm laborer to soda jerk. He also managed to pull in a few pennies by singing on the radio and in the rowdy Texas nightclubs where the honky-tonk sound was born. Late in 1935 he found himself in San Antonio, the city where Rodgers had been living before his death. On a hunch Tubb looked in the phone book for Rodgers’s name and found a listing for his widow. Tubb phoned Mrs. Rodgers, and she was so impressed with his sincerity she invited him to her home.
Tubb spent an afternoon singing Rodgers’s songs— he knew the words to every one—and listening raptly to Mrs. Rodgers’s anecdotes. Even though he did not sound a bit like her husband, despite his most earnest efforts, Mrs. Rodgers agreed to help Tubb secure a recording contract. Her efforts resulted in a session for
Full name Ernest Dale Tubb; born February 9, 1914, in Crisp, Tex.; died September 6,1984, in Nashville, Tenn.; son of Calvin Robert (a cotton farm overseer) and Sarah Ellen (Baker) Tubb; married Lois Elaine Cook, May 26, 1934 (divorced); married Olene Adams, June 3, 1949 (divorced); children: (first marriage) Justin Wayne, Rodger Dale (deceased), Violet Elaine, (second marriage) Erlene Dale, Olene Gayle, Ernest Dale, Jr., Larry Dean, Karen Delene.
Country singer, songwriter, and band leader, 1933-84. Played on a number of radio shows in Texas during the 1930s; recorded first singles for RCA Records, 1936; moved to Decca label, April, 1940, and earned sponsorship of Universal Mills (Gold Chain Flour); had first number one country hit, “Walking the Floor over You,” 1941. Moved to Nashville and became regular member of the Grand Ole Opry, 1942. Opened Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop, 1947, from which he hosted the radio program “Midnight Jamboree” over station WSM. Toured the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, South America, and the Far East numerous times for live concert appearances. Headlined first country music show at Carnegie Hall, September 18, 1947.
RCA Records in 1936. Using Jimmie Rodgers’s guitar, Tubb made several singles with RCA, including “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers.” These and several others failed to sell well—RCA did not promote Tubb aggressively— and soon the young artist was back on the road in Texas.
A simple illness probably saved Tubb’s career. In 1939 he had his tonsils removed, and thereafter he could not yodel. He was forced to find a new singing style, and it was then that he began the drawling, almost narrative type of singing that would become his trademark. In the wake of the tonsillectomy, he secured a better contract with the new Decca label (also with the help of Mrs. Rodgers) and began to record again in 1940. Decca producer Dave Kapp was more sensitive to Tubb’s special talents, and from the first Tubb’s Decca singles sold well. Superstardom found the singer the following year when he released “I’m Walking the Floor over You,” a spirited piece he had written himself. “I’m Walking the Floor over You” sold a phenomenal 400,000 copies in its first year of release and has since sold millions. On the strength of that song Tubb secured a sponsor, Universal Mills, and an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. His first Opry set was received so enthusiastically that he had to play three encores—he soon became a regular and moved to Nashville permanently.
By the mid-1940s—and for decades thereafter— Tubb exerted a major influence on the country music industry. A veritable string of hits as a solo performer and in duet with Red Foley led to movie appearances and nationwide tours. During these performances Tubb discovered that the acoustic guitars he and his band members used often could not be heard over the din of the crowd. He was not the first country singer to incorporate electric guitars, but he was the most famous to do so, and the dance-hall variety of honky-tonk music was born in his band.
On September 18, 1947, Tubb headlined a countrymusic show at Carnegie Hall. His opening comment— “My, my, this place sure could hold a lot of hay”—is remembered to this day. Tubb then returned to Nashville and opened his own record store, among the first to offer mail-order sales nationwide. He also began recording his songs in Nashville, thus becoming one of the first five performers to cut work there. Rounding out the busy year of 1947, Tubb founded a radio program, “Midnight Jamboree,” that originated in his record shop. “Midnight Jamboree” aired on WSM radio right after the Grand Ole Opry, and it served as a showcase for up-and-coming talent. Among those who received career boosts from this exposure were Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Bobby Helms, and Loretta Lynn.
Tubb always toured to the point beyond exhaustion. Typically his custom-made bus would travel as much as four hundred miles per night between engagements. He appeared in every state in the nation, as well as in Canada, Europe, Korea, Japan, Mexico, and South America. When emphysema threatened to sap his strength, he quit smoking and drinking—and continued touring. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Tubb was never far from the Top 10 on the country charts. Major hits included “Goodnight Irene” (with Foley), “Hey, Mister Bluebird,” “Our Baby’s Book,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Used-To-Be” (with Lynn). He also enjoyed singing about his home state, scoring hits with “There’s a Little Bit of Everything in Texas” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
Only two years before his death in 1984, Tubb was still playing between 200 and 300 live engagements per year. In 1982 he was feted on television in a WOR-TV presentation “All-Star Tribute to Ernest Tubb: An American Original.” Far more lasting than the television special, however, is the list of current artists who owe some aspect of their styles to Tubb, or those whose careers were enhanced by Tubb’s help. Stylistically, Tubb broke ground for the honky-tonk artists like Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam, as well as for the Texas-based performers like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. He was instrumental in the careers of a staggering number of stars, including Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Patsy Cline, and Charlie Pride. All of Nashville mourned his passing on September 6, 1984.
Tubb was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1965. Shortly before his death he told The Country Music Encyclopedia that he was never tempted to stray into the mainstream. “Country music over the years has been the most successful type and I neither intend to knock it or to give it up,” he said. “There are those who cross over the bridge and mix their music, but I personally have no desire to do this. Country music is good. It is humble, simple, and honest and relaxed. It is a way of life. It is not confined to any segment of the country. We see young faces and we see old faces—and many in-between faces. Therefore, country music must have a general appeal to all ages, to all sections. I like it, the people like it, and I’ll stick to it.”
“The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers,” RCA, 1936.
“The T.B. Is Whipping Me,” RCA, 1937.
“Blue Eyed Elaine,” Decca, 1940.
“I’ll Never Cry over You,” Decca, 1940.
“I’m Walking the Floor over You,” Decca, 1941.
“I Wonder Why You Said Goodbye,” Decca, 1942.
“Married Man Blues,” RCA, 1942.
“The Right Train to Heaven,” RCA, 1942.
The Daddy of ’Em All, Decca, 1959.
The Importance of Being Ernest, Decca, 1959.
Ernest Tubb’s Golden Favorites, Decca, 1961.
Ernest Tubb’s All Time Hits, Decca, 1961.
Ernest Tubb on Tour, Decca, 1962.
Just Call Me Lonesome, Decca, 1963.
Family Bible, Decca, 1963.
Thanks a Lot, Decca, 1965.
Blue Christmas, MCA.
Midnight Jamboree, MCA.
The Ernest Tubb Story, MCA.
The Ernest Tubb-Loretta Lynn Story, MCA.
Ernest Tubb’s Greatest Hits, MCA.
Ernest Tubb’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2, MCA.
Ernest Tubb with the Texas Troubadours, Vocalion.
I’ve Got All the Heartaches I Can Handle, MCA.
Saturday Satan, Sunday Saint, MCA.
Let’s Turn Back the Years, MCA.
My Hillbilly Baby, Hillside.
Stand by Me, Vocalion.
The Legend and the Legacy, Cachet, 1979. Honky-Tonk Classics, Rounder, 1982.
The Best of Country Music, KBO Publishers, 1975.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCulloh, Stars of Country Music, University of Illinois Press, 1975.
Shelton, Robert and Burt Goldblatt, The Country Music Story: A Picture History of Country and Western Music, Bobbs-Merrill, 1966, reprinted, Arlington House, 1971.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
Country Music, May 1973; April 1974.
Saga, May 1957.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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