In a fifty-year career, honky-tonk trailblazer Ernest Tubb developed from a Jimmie Rodgers imitator to one of the most influential and important country performers in history
February 9, 1914
September 6, 1984
Near Crisp, Texas
Following in Jimmie Rodgers’s Footsteps
The youngest of five children in a sharecropper’s family, Ernest Dale Tubb was born on a cotton farm near Crisp, Texas, thirty-five miles southeast of Dallas, and spent his youth farming in different parts of the state. A fan of early movie cowboys such as Buck Jones and Tom Mix, Tubb first heard the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers in 1928 and became a huge fan of the singer and his work.
Tubb learned in his spare time to sing, yodel, and play the guitar much like Rodgers did, and shortly after Rodgers’s death in 1933, nineteen-year-old Tubb first worked as a radio singer in San Antonio, where Rodgers was living when he died. The gigs paid little or nothing, so Tubb supported himself digging ditches for the Works Progress Administration and later clerking in a drugstore in the Alamo City.
In 1936, married and still enthralled by Rodgers’s music and memories, Tubb phoned Rodgers’s widow, Carrie Rodgers, to ask for an autographed photo, and they developed a friendship. Mrs. Rodgers listened to Tubb’s radio shows and offered professional advice, and, impressed by his friendly personality and heartfelt singing, she was soon doing much to assist him. Mrs. Rodgers helped Tubb buy clothes and find new songs, secured him a record contract with Jimmie’s label (RCA, by then releasing all country recordings on Bluebird), and took him on a regional tour of movie theaters to promote his new recordings. However, both of Tubb’s first records—which were very much in the Rodgers vein—and the tour proved unsuccessful.
00:00 / 00:00
00:00 / 00:00
00:00 / 00:00
Breaking the Mold
Between 1937 and 1940, Tubb worked for radio stations and at day jobs in various Texas cities: Midland, San Angelo, and Corpus Christi. A 1939 tonsillectomy in San Angelo lowered his voice and effectively eliminated the Rodgers yodel and, hence, the Rodgers song repertoire. As a result, Tubb became a more energetic and effective songwriter, and in 1940, he got a second chance with a major record label, as Dave Kapp at Decca Records agreed to record Tubb during Houston sessions that spring. Of the four songs recorded on April 4, “Blue Eyed Elaine” and its flip side, “I’ll Get Along Somehow,” became Tubb’s first success (the former was covered by Gene Autry).
Tubb moved to KGKO in Fort Worth during December 1940 and became a full-time musician for the first time. In June 1941, his sponsor/employer on KGKO became Universal Mills, makers of Gold Chain Flour, which gave Tubb his role as the Gold Chain Troubadour. As such, he toured Texas grocery and feed stores and sang on town squares, where such future stars as Charlie Walker and Hank Thompson first heard him.
On the strength of his sixth Decca release and all-time biggest career hit, “Walking the Floor Over You” (1941), Tubb sang in two Columbia western movies made in 1942, Fighting Buckaroo and Riding West. He also appeared on Sunday package shows with such stars as Bob Wills and Roy Acuff, in far-flung cities such as Shreveport, Louisiana; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis, Tennessee.
Playing in Birmingham, Alabama, during December 1942, Tubb came within the purview of Nashville talent agent and manager J. L. Frank, who arranged Grand Ole Opry and other personal appearances for Tubb the next month. In February 1943, Tubb joined the regular Opry cast, and he remained one of its major stars for the rest of his career—thirty-nine more years. At Frank’s behest, Tubb sold a series of radio songbooks via WSM broadcasts; hired his first band, the Texas Troubadours; and continued his film work with periodic trips to California (Jamboree for Republic in 1944, and Hollywood Barndance for an independent studio in 1947), in addition to ambitious touring.
Tubb then was considered one of country music’s major stars, regularly appearing on popularity charts with recordings such as “Soldier’s Last Letter” (1944), “Tomorrow Never Comes” (1945), “It’s Been So Long Darling” (1945), “Rainbow at Midnight” (1946), and “Filipino Baby” (1946). His style—a spare, personalized brand of honky-tonk music that featured a sole electric lead guitar playing straight melody—made him distinctive, recognizable, and, during his heyday, oft-imitated.
Tubb did all he could as a star to help others: carrying artists on tour with him, putting in a good word with Opry management and record producers, showcasing talent on his Midnite Jamboree shows, hiring musicians for his own Texas Troubadours band, and always offering words of advice. The major stars Tubb boosted in these and other ways established his reputation as one of the industry’s most generous and selfless performers.
A Record Store, a Radio Show, and a Boost for Other Artists
In May 1947, Tubb opened the Ernest Tubb Record Shop—the first major all-country record store—at 720 Commerce Street in downtown Nashville. Over the next year, his Midnite Jamboree show emerged as an outgrowth of the record store, broadcast there before a live audience immediately after the Grand Ole Opry and showcasing, for the most part, deserving young hopefuls and their latest record releases. Live Midnite Jamboree shows continued unabated until early 2015, when rising production costs forced the show to broadcast archival tapes for a time, but live broadcasts later resumed at the Texas Troubadour Theater on Music Valley Drive. The Midnite Jamboree returned to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in 2021 but ceased when the shop closed in May 2022.
Grateful for Mrs. Rodgers’s help early in his career, Tubb did all he could as a star to help others: carrying artists on tour with him, putting in a good word with Opry management and record producers, showcasing talent on his Midnite Jamboree shows, hiring musicians for his own Texas Troubadours band, and always offering words of advice. The major stars Tubb boosted in these and other ways established his reputation as one of the industry’s most generous and selfless performers. Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Skeeter Davis, Jack Greene, George Hamilton IV, Stonewall Jackson, Loretta Lynn, Cal Smith, Carl Smith, Hank Snow, Justin Tubb (Tubb’s first child), Charlie Walker, the Wilburn Brothers, and Hank Williams all owed various degrees of thanks to Tubb.
Tubb was the first to bring a Grand Ole Opry show to Carnegie Hall (in September 1947). In keeping with Decca’s penchant for recording and promoting duo acts, he became a prolific duet artist over the years, recording with the Andrews Sisters (1949), Red Foley (1949-1953), the Wilburn Brothers (1957), and Loretta Lynn (1964-1969).
While his own career was on an upswing in the early and middle 1960s, honors and accolades came Tubb’s way, including a gold record—signifying sales of more than half a million copies—for “Walking the Floor Over You” in 1965, the same year as his election to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Tubb hosted a syndicated TV show out of Nashville between 1965 and 1968, with Willie Nelson as his co-star in the early episodes.
No artist toured as much for as long as Tubb, who worked 150-200 shows each year between the early 1960s (when he first turned his Texas Troubadours into a dance band and started playing the nightclub circuit) and 1982, at which time a long-standing battle with emphysema forced him to quit. No artist was better to his fans, and no fans were more loyal to their star: Tubb had one national fan club with a single president, Norma Winton Barthel, for its entire existence between 1944 and its deactivation in the early 1990s, a few years after Tubb’s death in September 1984. —Ronnie Pugh
Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press