Forgotten Artists: Ernest Tubb (1914-1984)
Disclaimer: Expect no objectivity at all from me with this article. Along with Webb Pierce and Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb is one of my all-time favorite country artists. Yes, I know he started out most songs a quarter tone flat and worked his way flatter from there, and yes, I know that 80% of The 9513’s readership has technically better singing voices than Tubb had. But no one in country music (and few outside the genre, Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Phil Harris among them) was ever able to infuse as much warmth and personality into his singing.
Ernest Tubb, known as E.T. to nearly everyone, was born in 1914 in Crisp, Texas, a town in Ellis County which is no longer even a flyspeck on the map. Tubb grew up working on farms and used his free time learning to play guitar, sing and yodel. As with many who grew up in the rural southeast and southwest, E.T. grew up listening to the music of the legendary “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), and like such contemporaries as Gene Autry, Hank Snow and Bill Monroe, E.T. started his career sounding like a Jimmie Rodgers clone. In E.T.’s case, he eventually met Jimmie’s widow, Carrie Rodgers, who was sufficiently impressed with Tubb to sponsor his career and give him one of Jimmie’s guitars to play. Tubb played clubs around Texas and the southwest and, with Mrs. Rodgers’ help, secured a record deal with RCA. As there had already been one Jimmie Rodgers, Tubb’s sound-alike records sold only modestly.
Good luck can take many forms. In Tubb’s case, his good luck came in the form of illness. In 1939 E.T. suffered a throat infection that necessitated a tonsillectomy, robbing him of his ability to yodel and thereby forcing him to develop a style of his own.
Moving to Decca Records in 1940, Tubb continued to record. Nothing happened initially, but his sixth release–a self-penned number titled “Walking the Floor Over You”–turned him into a star. The song was released in 1941, before the advent of Billboard’s country music charts. It did, however, appear on the pop charts, selling over a million records in the process. The song was covered by such luminaries as Bing Crosby and became Tubb’s signature song. Over the years the song has been recorded hundreds of times with artists including Pat Boone, Hank Thompson, Patsy Cline, Asleep at the Wheel and Glen Campbell being among the more notable.
E.T. joined the Grand Ole Opry in February 1943 and put together his band, the Texas Troubadours. Tubb continued to be a regular on the Opry until health problems forced him off the road in 1982. During the 1940s, Tubb toured constantly and recorded; however, wartime shortages of shellac prevented the release of many records and severely limited the distribution of those few records that were released. Many of his performance hits from the war years were not commercially available until after 1946. For the decade of the 1940s, Billboard lists Ernest Tubb as the second most popular artist, behind Eddy Arnold. Because the Billboard Country chart starts as of 1/1/44, that ranking misses Tubb’s biggest hit and several other significant records.
E.T. continued to record up until shortly before his death. While his last #1 record occurred in 1950, he continued to have top ten records throughout the 1950s. During the 1960s, the hits grew smaller, although two of his classics “Thanks A Lot” (1964) and “Waltz Across Texas” (1967) dated from this decade.
Also during this decade, E.T. recorded a series of albums with newcomer (and protégé) Loretta Lynn. Their voices didn’t blend especially well, but their personalities did and the albums today are treasured collector’s items, hard to find and expensive if you do find them.
In 1965, E.T was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and, in 1970, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2003 CMT aired a feature titled 40 Greatest Men of Country Music, ranking Tubb at #21. They were right to include him, but dead wrong in not having him in their top ten.
Tubb’s legacy is strong. Long before the outlaw movement of the 1970s, hewas recording with his own band. Tubb always believed in the value of a strong band and surrounded himself with the best musicians he could find starting with Jimmy Short as his first guitarist, and following through with Tommy “Butterball” Paige, Billy Byrd, Leon Rhodes and Steve Chapman. Tubb was never afraid to allow his musicians to innovate and Billy Byrd (1949-59) introduced a strong jazz element to the instrumental interludes. Billy’s famous four-note riff at the end of his guitar solos would become a signature of Ernest’s songs.
Other musicians that were members of the Texas Troubadours included steel guitar wizards Jerry Byrd and Buddy Emmons, drummer Jack Greene and guitarist Cal Smith. Noted Decca producer Owen “Half Moon” Bradley played piano on many of his recordings. For much of its existence, but especially during the 60s, the Texas Troubadours were the best country band in the business, bar none.
Never one to be jealous of his musicians, Tubb advanced their careers, obtaining a recording contract with Decca for his Texas Troubadours and pushing Jack Greene and Cal Smith into becoming major recording stars. The number of artists Tubb helped along the way include Loretta Lynn, The Wilburn Brothers, Willie Nelson and Skeeter Davis. While Willie Nelson was never a member of the Texas Troubadours, Ernest did spotlight him as co-host and featured performer of his 60s television show, and allowed Willie to use the Texas Troubadours as the backing band for one of Willie’s RCA albums.
Ernest Tubb was the first regularly appearing artist to use electric guitar on the stage of the Grand Old Opry. It was through Tubb’s efforts that Billboard labeled its initial Country Music charts as ‘Country & Western’ rather than the then-more commonly used ‘Hillbilly.’
While never a great singer, E.T. inspired one of the most devoted fan bases of any country artist, a fan base that stayed with him long after the chart hits dried up.
The affection that his fellow artists felt for Tubb manifested itself in a tribute album that producer Pete Drake put together for E.T.’s 65th birthday in 1979. Drake had Ernest re-record his old hits, then, without Tubb knowing it, had many of the day’s leading stars add their vocals to the recordings. Featuring artists such as Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Vern Gosdin, Charlie Rich, Chet Atkins and Charlie Daniels, the recordings have been in and out of print during the last thirty years. The recordings have also been available in their undubbed form, with just Tubb’s vocals.
Over the years various artists have paid tribute to E.T. Bob Browning issued a tribute album some years back as did son Justin Tubb, and Grand Old Opry star George Hamilton IV. More recently the western swing band John England and the Western Swingers did a full album salute titled Thanks A Lot. Merle Haggard is a big Ernest Tubb fan and recorded four of Tubb’s songs on his 1980 album The Way I Am. Merle Haggard is a noted mimic and his take on “Try Me One More Time” sounds eerily like Ernest. Haggard also recorded “Walking The Floor Over You” on his 1966 album Strangers. Wanda Jackson has recorded several of E.T.’s songs, as have many other artists. Vern Gosdin paid a unique tribute to Tubb with his hit song “Set ‘Em Up Joe” which references two of E.T.’s hits (“Two Glasses, Joe” and “Walking The Floor Over You”) and mentions E.T. and his Texas Troubadours in the lyrics.
Ernest Tubb appeared as himself in Loretta Lynn’s autobiographical film, Coal Miner’s Daughter in 1980, as did Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.
E.T’s last performance on record was “Leave Them Boys Alone” which was recorded with Hank Williams, Jr. and Waylon Jennings. This top ten hit, released in 1983, found E.T needing to rest between takes as emphysema took its toll. He died in August 1984 at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, mourned by many, including everyone at the Grand Old Opry.
One of Tubb’s sons, the late Justin Tubb, had a successful career as a performer and songwriter during the 1950. Highway 101 had a hit during the early 1990s with one of Justin’s compositions. A nephew, Talmadge Tubb also was a successful songwriter.
Thanks to the maniacal devotion of Richard Weitze of Bear Family Records in Germany, virtually every recording that Ernest Tubb made for Decca (later MCA) is available on CD. The 5 sets are 5 or more CDs each (30 discs total, the equivalent of about 85 vinyl albums, filled to the brim with music and sell for $100+).
For those of more limited budgets, there are several single and double disc collections available. Curiously enough, at the end of the vinyl era, the original recordings for any Decca artist from the 1940s and 1950s tended to be out of print with only remakes available for purchase. In the CD era, the older recordings tend to be available (especially since copyrights in Europe only run 50 years, making them public domain recordings for European reissue labels) and the late 50s and 60s remakes tend to be unavailable. Almost alone among artists of his time, the later Ernest Tubb re-recordings tend to be the better recordings as Tubb’s later bands tended to be larger and better bands. The 1941 recording of “Walking the Floor Over You” has an electric guitar but otherwise sounds like an acoustic string band recording. Because Tubb updated his sound for his live shows, adding drums and pedal steel, most people remember the later sound of his larger bands and prefer the later re-recording of his 40s hits.
For those wanting the 1940s hits, there are two exhaustive collections available from British labels JSP and Proper. The two sets are each 4 CDs and around 100 songs. The two sets overlap by about 35 songs but since both sets sell for under $30, the overlap is not intolerable.
The JSP set is titled Ernest Tubb: The Early Years (1936-1945) and features nearly everything E.T recorded during that period including the RCA recordings from when E.T. recorded a lot of Jimmie Rodgers songs and could still yodel.
The Proper set Texas Troubadour covers the years 1944-52 with a few of the earlier recordings thrown in for good measure. For modern listeners, this is probably the better set, catching all of E.T. hits of the 40s and early 50s. Here’s a partial listing (songwriter in parenthesis):
- “Walking The Floor Over You (Ernest Tubb) 1941
- “Try Me One More Time” (Ernest Tubb) 1944
- “Soldier’s Last Letter” (Henry Stewart – Ernest Tubb) 1944
- “Tomorrow Never Comes” (Johnny Bond – Ernest Tubb) 1945
- “It’s Been So Long Darling” (Ernest Tubb) 1945
- “Rainbow At Midnight” (John A.Miller) 1946
- “Filipino Baby” (Billy Cox – Clarke Van Ness) 1946
- “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin” (Jerry Irby) 1946
- “Blue Christmas” (Billy Hayes – Jay Johnson) 1949
- “Don’t Be Ashamed Of Your Age w/ Red Foley” (Cindy Walker – Bob Wills) 1950
- “Blue Eyed Elaine” (Ernest Tubb) 1940
- “Answer To Walking The Floor Over You” 1944
- “There’s A Little Bit Of Everything In Texas” 1945
True to its usual form, MCA, the American owner of E.T.’s recordings has done a miserable job of keeping the Tubb catalog in print. There are several hits collections in print, but nothing definitive. The best disc was probably the one issued in conjunction with their Hall of Fame series, but none of the available discs is a standout. Collectors Choice Music issued a great collection titled The Definitive Ernest Tubb Hits Collection containing 40 of his hits. It’s now out of print, but you may be able to find a copy.
Decca often issued faux live albums, where they would take studio tracks and dub applause onto them, but there are no actual live Decca recordings. In 1965, former Texas Troubadour Jan Kurtis did the world of country music a tremendous favor and recorded a live Ernest Tubb concert at his Spanish Castle Ballroom in Seattle, Washington. Recorded as a personal souvenir and not released until the CD era, it since has been reissued in various permutations, some with only E.T.s vocals, others also including the tracks from his band members. All of them sound terrific and are worth having. I replaced my single disc version (Amazon MP3) with the double disc version–the two disc set isn’t really better but it is longer (and having more is better). While not catching him at his peak, Ernest was still in good voice at the time of the recording (it would deteriorate rapidly over the next few years, thanks to years of cigarettes and illness) and it definitely catches the atmosphere of a live performance. Any CD that references live recordings from 1965 will be taken from these recordings. Rhino originally issued it under the title Ernest Tubb – Live 1965.
There are other live concert recordings available that have emerged in recent years, but they date from 1978-79, by which time Tubb’s voice was but a shadow of its former glory. They are mentioned below.
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop has available everything on E.T. that is currently available. You may find better prices elsewhere, but when it comes to Tubb’s recordings, if you can’t find it here, you probably can’t find it. In the past, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop has reissued a few late MCA label recordings from the early 70s, but none of them currently are listed in the online catalog, although the individual stores may have some copies.
Other CDs that you may be able to find with some effort:
The Ernest Tubb Collection with Guests (Step One Records, 1989)
Thirty of the 50 or so songs recorded by Pete Drake in 1979, with the overdubbed guest duets originally recorded for the The Legend and The Legacy tribute album. The Laser Light label issued five budget price CDs of ten songs each, which included these thirty songs, plus the twenty duets not previously released. If you can find the Laser Light discs cheaply enough okay, but there is a sharp drop in quality in the previously unreleased duets.
Ernest Tubb – The Last Sessions (First Generation, 1997)
Forty-seven of the tracks Pete Drake recorded in 1979 for his The Legend and The Legacy tribute album. This two CD set is just Ernest Tubb without guests or overdubs, just E.T.’s last studio recordings of his greatest hits.
Best of Ernest Tubb…From His TV Series (Ernest Tubb Enterprises, 2001)
Twenty-one of E.T.’s performances from his television show of the 1960s.
Time After Time (BCI Elipse, 2005)
A modest collection of 14 songs, noteworthy because it is one of the few CDs to contain one of the superior Decca studio remakes of “Walking The Floor Over You” rather than the 1941 version (other than one of the Bear Box Sets).
Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours Live 1979 (Lost Gold Records, 1999) (Amazon MP3)
Live New Years Eve recording from the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas Texas–Tubb’s voice is definitely past its peak as it is on the following recording…
Ernest Tubb Live From The Lonestar Café (First Generation Records, 1993) (Amazon MP3)
This was a live radio show from New York City. E.T. was ill at the time of this May 1978 recording plus his voice was definitely shot, but he gives it his all and it is an enjoyable program.
Ernest Tubb & Loretta Lynn – Best of the Best (Federal, 1989)
Paltry ten song set of their classic duets from the 1960s–does include the biggest hits and best remembered songs, but should be at least double the length.
Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours/T. Texas Tyler (Radiola, 1983)
Originally released on vinyl, the first half of the CD is the 11/23/46, Checkerboard Jamboree radio show hosted by Tubb, with some guests. The second half consists of a twenty minute radio show featuring T. Texas Tyler and a ten minute Eddy Arnold/Purina radio show from 1954. Only fair sound but great stuff.
Everything, of course, is long out of print. Most of Tubb’s peak years occurred before the introduction of the long playing album, so many of the earliest albums are simply collections of songs previously released as the A & B sides of singles. Starting with Daddy Of ‘Em All in 1957, albums were released that were conceived of as albums. Decca/MCA issued albums through 1975, but the albums issued before 1970 tend to find him in better voice and I would recommend buying those before picking up the later efforts. Tubb did release a few albums dedicated to the songs of individual songwriters (Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Rex Griffin) but otherwise his albums are just collections of songs, usually one or two singles, covers of three to five other peoples’ hits, plus some filler. Watch out for the Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits Volume 2 albums. They are worth having, but the two volumes are not in any chronological order and are a mixture or originals and re-makes (some of which are superior to the original recordings).
Stetson Records (later Longhorn) reissued several 1950s E.T. albums with original cover art and liner notes–they are wonderfully done and well worth purchasing. Among them is the Red & Ernie album of Red Foley/Ernest Tubb duets. The pairing should be oil and water, but it works–mostly humorous stuff.
At various times some other odd items have reached the market–usually radio shows and airchecks released on vinyl or cassette. The sound fidelity of these can be quite variable, but they can be fun listening.
At one time I thought I was Ernest Tubb’s biggest fan. After reading this book, I realize I am but a distant second to Ronnie Pugh whose 1998 book Ernest Tubb – Texas Troubadour, contains more information about Enest Tubb than you could ever imagine. Pugh isn’t a great writer, his style being essentially linear, but he takes great pains to be accurate and factual and gets his story told succinctly.
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