On Feb. 9, the media will turn enmasse to acknowlege the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ culture-changing first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. But let’s also mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of a man who stayed true to his musical vision and brought hardcore Texas country music to the masses without sweetening it for easier consumption.
A song like “Walking the Floor Over You,” which “The Texas Troubadour” recorded in Dallas in 1941, is so simple in message, so basic in structure. Yet, you not only hear that song, you can practically see it as well. Many of Tubb’s songs, including “Thanks a Lot,” “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin” and “Soldier’s Last Letter” set a time and place as if there are visual dimensions to those nasal tones.
You’ve been to that place that he’s singing about, but it’s either been modernized beyond recognition or it went out of business a few years ago. It’s good to go back, though, even for as long as it takes Ernest Tubb to sing “I Love You Because.”
E.T., they used to call him, and many of his diehard fans still do. It’ll take more than a billion-dollar Spielberg movie to make longtime country fans think of calling anyone or anything else E.T.
In 1947, he became the first country artist to headline at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, but he played every roadhouse in Texas that year, too. Tubb and the Texas Troubadours played dance music, pure and simple. But when they started drawing rowdy crowds, especially in the oil towns of East Texas, they had to turn up the guitars and beat on the drums so the music could be heard over the chattering crowd. Amplification is at the core of the honky-tonk style and Tubb and his Troubadours were one of the first country bands to feature an electric guitar.
Another change credited to Tubb was replacing the term “hillbilly music” with “country and western.” “Hillbilly” was considered a derogatory term at the time, especially if, like Tubb, you came from the flatlands of Texas (born in Crisp, he grew up with a succession of relatives in West Texas after his parents divorced).
“If you call me a hillbilly,’ you’d better say it with a smile,” Ernest would say. He was never seen in public without wearing a tailored suit and a ten-gallon hat.
By brushing a layer of Texas grit on country music, Tubb expanded the range of what was heard on the Grand Ole Opry, which he joined in 1943. Tubb was the great ambassador of honky tonk.
“The thing I always liked about E.T.’s style is that he brought a lot of blues to country music,” says Austin musician Junior Brown, who wrote and recorded “My Baby Don’t Dance To Nothin’ But Ernest Tubb,” perhaps the most heartfelt tribute song since the Buddy Holly ode “American Pie.”
Ernest Tubb was inspired to play music by the blue yodels of Jimmie Rodgers, so it was only natural that he would keep the Delta influence in his country. Plus, Tubb featured guitarists like Billy Byrd and Leon Rhodes, who were always interested in what T-Bone Walker was up to on the other side of town.
Tubb never did meet “The Singing Brakeman,” though they both lived in San Antonio in 1933, the year of Rodgers’ death. Soon after, Ernest impressed Rodgers’ widow, Carrie, with his dedication to the Rodgers style and she not only gave the upstart her husband’s old guitar, she helped him obtain a recording contract with Victor Records in 1936. After he had his tonsils removed in 1939, Tubb couldn’t yodel very well so he switched to making hard-edged country dance music.
Junior Brown was lucky enough to meet his idol several times through the years, first at the Hitching Post in Albuquerque in 1969. “He brought a lot of dignity to country music, and you can truly say that Ernest Tubb never sold out,” Brown says. “He stuck to his style, no matter what else was hip at the time, and whenever we’d talk, he’d emphasize how important it is for the younger players to keep country music going.” And Junior Brown has been carrying out that mission with his guit-steel contraption.
“E.T. is not the only influence in my music, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of another musician who’s had such a profound effect on me,” Brown says. “Even more than whatever I learned from him musically, Ernest Tubb taught me a lot about taking pride in country music, the real country music.”
Brown’s sense of authenticity was tested when Marty Stuart, then a Nashville star, asked Brown if he wanted to come on board Tubb’s old tour bus, which Stuart had just bought. “Nah,” Brown answered. “The last time I was on that bus, so was Ernest Tubb.”
Tubb, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1965, owned a landmark record store in downtown Nashville, just a couple blocks from the Ryman Auditorium. An unknown Loretta Lynn performed at the store, a scene recreated in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” with Tubb playing himself.
Perhaps the most fitting vignette about Ernest Tubb comes from John Morthland’s book “The Best of Country Music.” Morthland last saw Tubb in December 1981. At the time, E.T. had found an audience with roots-crazy punk rockers, and he was playing in a Manhattan club full of kids in mohawks and leather jackets. According to Morthland, he was “singing to the trendies with more vigor and enthusiasm than you’d dream possible from a man pushing 70, and not altering his show a bit for this audience, either. They had to take Ernest Tubb the way everyone else did or not take him at all.”
So let’s flip the guitar, as E.T. did thousands of times at the end of a performance and give a hearty “THANKS” to the honky tonk pioneer who helped preserve a style that continues to define his home state to fans the world over..