Today would have been country legend and pioneer Ernest Tubb's 98th birthday. Born in 1914 in Crisp, Texas near Dallas, his hometown is now designated as ghost town. For forty years, Tubb was a mainstay on the country circuit and the charts, with songs like "Walking the Floor Over You", "Waltz Across Texas", and "Thanks A Lot", in addition to versions of "Goodnight, Irene" and "The Yellow Rose Of Texas".
My first introduction to Tubb, dubbed "The Texas Troubadour" was in around 1989, sitting next to my grandfather in his swank, black Chevy Silverado on the way to elementary school in Alvin. We were listening to a cassette of what must have been a later period live show, because I remember hearing cheering and a man drawling "Hello everybody" here and there.
It was this day or maybe another that my grandfather let me know that he once met Tubb at some beer hall back "before you were even around" and that he signed his cowboy boots for him. Grandpa never pulled the boots out for me to gander at Mr. Tubb's scrawl -- and I think the boots got accidentally sold at a garage sale -- but in the back of my mind, I knew that the man was to be a big part of my relationship with Grandpa. Tubb was important to him, along with Hank Sr., Bob Wills, and Georges Strait and Jones. Being a fanboy is my DNA I guess.
Along the next 20 years or so, as I drifted in and out of country music consciousness, it was those bedrock artists he introduced me to that I came back to above all else. When Grandpa passed on in 2008, I devoured his collection of compact discs. I distinctly remember driving through the cemetery where he would soon rest just days later, hands trembling, listening to a Tubb greatest hits compilation until I couldn't see through my tears.
Aside from my sad sack little story, Tubb doesn't get as much due in 2012. Modern music history slowly but surely swallows up hit-makers that once packed dance floors with a ferocity. I was having a conversation with a colleague a few weeks back, and we were talking about the bluesmen and country pickers that are getting forgotten, with the only saving grace being streaming music sites that keep them alive in the form of footnotes and links. A kid today can listen to Tubb, and then be directed to guys and gals like Faron Young, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, Hank Snow, and Lefty Frizzell.
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Tubb was a hellraiser too, drinking, smoking, even once shooting a man in drunken rage at a music studio. He wasn't known for having a crisp voice like the other country crooners, who took their cues from men like Sinatra and the like, or even striving for it. His voice was rickety, but he had a stellar backing band, featuring guitarist Leon Rhodes ("Hit it, Leon!"). Lyrically he was all over the map, touching on divorce ("Mr. And Mrs. Used To Be"), longing like no other ("Letters Have No Arms"), and had the gift of making self-destruction -- not unlike Hank Williams Sr. -- sound fun.
Tubb passed away in 1984 in Nashville after a bout with emphysema that ravaged his voice late in life. During my Mid-South trip late last year I visited one of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop locations, which are each crammed with country music history and lore. You can even get married at the shop a few blocks away from the new Opryland north of town. The store, at least the one on Broadway, Nashville's main tourist drag, is an oasis of "real" on a street that is mostly a glittered-jean nightmare. I must have spent an hour in there going "ahhhh" and "ohhhh" at things, and looking like a grinning idiot.