Musicians and songwriters paint a picture of the world with their sounds, telling stories of joy and heartbreak and of beauty or sorrow. Country music is especially famous for sometimes combining all of those elements into one song as it has evolved over the decades. The ups and downs of the lives of many artists can be told in just such a way, including that of one of the pioneers of country music, Texas native Ernest Tubb. Tubb’s career began in the 1930s and won millions of fans over a decades-long career that helped shape country music.
Ernest Dale Tubb was born in Ellis County, just south of Dallas, in 1914. His father was a sharecropper, and the family struggled as his father moved them across the state trying to make a living. He spent much of his youth working in those same cotton fields. The divorce of his parents made the ordeal even more difficult. Like many early stars, he never had a formal music education. Inspired by early country and blues singer Jimmie Rodgers, he taught himself to sing and play guitar as a teenager.
His first steady job as a musician came in 1933 on San Antonio radio station KOLO. The path to fame, however, was not easy. Tubb’s singing was not enough to pay the bills, and by 1935, he had taken on a second job digging ditches through local Works Progress Administration work relief projects. Tubb managed to pick up a recording contract with RCA in 1936 but the albums were poor sellers. He got a break in 1939 when San Angelo radio station KGKL hired him for his own 15-minute program. Tubb still had to take a second job as a beer truck driver, but he began building a name for himself in country music as a performer and a songwriter.
By 1940, Tubb picked up a contract with Decca Records, recording such popular singles as “Blue Eyed Elaine” and “I’ll Never Cry Over You.” In 1941, he recorded “Walking the Floor Over You,” a nationwide hit that propelled him to stardom. He recorded several soundtracks to a number of western films, and his fond memories of San Angelo inspired him to write “Beautiful San Angelo” during these years. Tubb and his band, The Texas Troubadours, were hired as performers in Nashville in 1943 on WSM radio’s The Grand Ole Opry, the most popular country program on radio at the time. In the process, he became the first performer to play an electric guitar on the program. Tubb and the Texas Troubadours performed in four films in the 1940s, including “Riding West” (1944) and “Hollywood Barn Dance” (1947).
In 1947, he opened his own record store in Nashville, called simply the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. The store’s reputation catapulted when he invited performers from The Grand Ole Opry to sing at the store on Saturday nights, broadcast on radio. Midnite Jamboree became another huge success for WSM radio and Tubb personally, helping cement his reputation as a mentor of sorts to up-and-coming country acts. In 1960, he released an album titled Ernest Tubb Record Shop.
In the 1960s, he partnered with Loretta Lynn on a number of hit songs, including “Mr. and Mrs. Used-to-Be” (1964). He would record four albums with her through 1973.
He made a move to television in 1965 when he was given his own half-hour program, The Ernest Tubb Show, which ran in syndication for three years. That same year, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and recorded one of his most famous singles, “Waltz Across Texas.” He continued to record, including the Top 40 albums Saturday Satan Sunday Saint (1969), Say Something Nice to Sarah (1972), and the self-titled Ernest Tubb (1975).
He continued to make periodic appearances in movies and on television. One of his most famous later appearances was as himself at the Grand Ole Opry in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biographical film “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” In 1983, he sang with Hank Williams Jr. and Waylon Jennings in the song “Leave Them Boys Alone,” which became Tubb’s last Top Ten hit.
Tubb died in Nashville in 1984 at the age of 70, leaving behind countless fans and the innumerable artists he inspired. In 1999, he was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. And his Midnite Jamboree still plays on from his record store every Saturday night, now the second-longest running radio program in the country.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.