February 9 marks the centennial of the birth of country music star Ernest Tubb, who stormed the country music scene in the 1940s with a new honky tonk sound and a string of hits that included “Walking the Floor Over You.”
We published Ronnie Pugh's biography of Tubb in 1996. Pugh will celebrate the centennial today in Nashville with a panel discussion on Tubb's life and legacy at the Nashville Public Library. Here's an excerpt from the preface of his book, about why he is a Tubb fan.
My Tubb fandom was in many ways against the grain, a leap I had to make across generational and cultural barriers. I grew up in a comfortable, middle class, East Texas home, one of three grocer's sons. A mid-baby-boomer (born 1953), I was seriously out of step with more publicized members of my generation; but then, if I hadn't been, I might never have loved Ernest Tubb. From my parents I first learned certain values that I have never seriously questioned. We were Republicans well before most Texans were, liking Ike (and Richard Nixon), at odds with our "Yellow Dog Democrat" surroundings, which had been Ernest Tubb's East Texas a generation before. Even more antithetical, perhaps, to any appreciation of Ernest Tubb was a belief instilled by my old-school Methodist parents, that decent people do not smoke or drink. It pains me to go into a nightclub to hear a country singer, though on rare occasions I have done it.
The lifestyle chronicled in so many country songs may have been worlds away from mine, but the music was always acceptable, to my parents and to me, and I warmly embraced it. It was my first and only favorite popular music, the choice of my adolescent years, and I never once wavered in the face of peer
pressure from my rock-loving contemporaries. Mom loved and taught us the music of her youth—gospel that ranged from Stamps-Baxter to the Cokesbury (Methodist) Hymnal—and Dad, though not musical himself, was a big country music fan. He had actually seen Rodgers perform in Marshall in 1932, an admirable accomplishment that I rated right up there with his attending the first All-Star game in Chicago the next year.
In the spring of 1966, I first saw Ernest Tubb on television, and Tubb's TV show soon became my hands-down favorite. I agonized when Saturday afternoon NBC baseball games of unplanned length preempted, The Ernest Tubb Show, though I've always loved and still love baseball. Just a few weeks after meeting
Tubb through television I bought my very first album, at the Famous Discount center in my hometown of Marshall, Texas: Ernest Tubb's debut LP with Loretta Lynn. In the next few months I purchased every Tubb LP that Marshall stores carried; a few more years passed before I knew about mailorder from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop.
For years Tubb records topped my want lists, and during high school years I started tuning in the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. If Ernest was on the Luzianne Coffee show at 8:30, then I'd do my best to stay up right on through the Midnite Jamboree, to hear his songs and to learn where he and the Texas Troubadours would be playing in coming weeks. I gladly forsook a high school band trip to Galveston, Texas, to see Tubb in person for the frrst time on Shreveport's Louisiana Hayride, March 22,1969. Concerts that I attended were so rare as to be memorable. I guess most of his East Texas-area dates were at nightclubs like Longview's Reo Palm Isle, where I wouldn't dream of going, even if I'd been old enough—but there were always fan club publications, infrequent new records, and best of all, new old records. What struck me from the beginning was Tubb's sheer staying power. At the time Tubb was still a major star and a force to be reckoned with, a full twenty-five years after his first hits. Thinking back now on those impressionable days, I recall that veterans in all walks of life fascinated me. A favorite TV show was David Wolper's Biography; my favorite baseball player just before his retirement was Warren Spahn, who pitched his last in 1965, the year before I discovered the great country music veteran Ernest Tubb via syndicated television. Small wonder that history later became my academic major. I could not have said just why longevity as such impressed me; I did not then infer from it such admirable qualities as perseverance, flexibility, or determination. One new Tubb record I particularly enjoyed from those days even spoke (tongue in cheek, perhaps) of his own staying power-looking ahead to the day "When My Getup Has Got Up and Gone."
It never occurred to me then that Ernest Tubb was not a "good" (i.e., "trained," "smooth," "melodious") singer; unlike the drunks hanging around the jukeboxes, I never imagined I could do as well or better. I only knew that he was fun to listen to, even on the sad songs. He enjoyed singing, and he made me enjoy his singing. I discovered him through television, and there I could plainly see a man singing right through a smile. Tubb had fun teasing his band during instrumental breaks, and he faced the camera with a succession of smiles and winks. Only years later could I divorce that visual image from his sound sufficiently to realize a truth that his radio audience of a previous generation had perceived: Ernest Tubb sang with an audible smile. You didn't have to see him: something in that warm, drawling baritone told you he was happy.
The songs themselves had a directness, simplicity, and clarity that made them easy to understand and easy to remember. "Waltz across Texas" and "There's a Little Bit of Everything in Texas" naturally appealed to a fellow Texan. While our shared Texas origins went some distance toward cementing my admiration of Tubb, the same factor didn't help his TV show co-star Willie Nelson; I couldn't wait for the idiosyncratic Willie to quit so I could hear more of Tubb. Ernest Tubb matched each song to the appropriate emotion. I sympathized when he sang "Our Baby's Book," and while I certainly didn't know what "l've been untrue" meant, it was as though he felt and made me feel the narrator's anguish for wrongdoings in another early favorite, "Try Me One More Time."
When I later saw Ernest Tubb on stage—several times ultimately—my admiration increased. Here was a man who'd go to almost any lengths to please his fans. He certainly pleased me, and I could tell he pleased the others who came. At his best on stage before a live audience, Tubb seemed genuinely glad that you cared enough to come; you left a concert feeling almost that you had done him a favor. That kind of favor you wanted to do more often.
Reading about Ernest Tubb in country music's periodical literature—the record of his many accomplishments and the words of praise from his peers—learning, in short, what he meant to country music certainly enhanced his appeal for me. That's still true, even after the years of research that went into this book (including those years of fandom only, which I didn't know at the time were research years). I have tried to be objective, to rise above mere fandom, in this book; but I can truthfully say that learning of Ernest Tubb's darker side, his human failings, has not lessened my esteem for him or my love for his music.
Copyright Duke University Press, 1996.