Ernest Tubb reading fan mail in the early 1940s. Pictured in Ernest Tubb Radio Song Book No. 1.
Old Time Blues and I extend our warmest wishes for a Merry Christmas to all of our valued readers!
I always try to put up a suitable selection for the holiday, though in some past years, I’ve let it fall by the wayside in the chaos of the season. But not this time. In celebration of this year’s yuletide, I present an Ernest Tubb bookend to an Ernest Tubb year—the third of his records posted in 2019, the first year during which any of his records have entered the Old Time Blues spotlight. This record holds a special significance to me, for it is one of several in my possession which originally belonged to my great-grandmother, who was in fact a first cousin to Ernest Tubb, though I’m not sure that she knew it. On it, the Texas Troubadour croons two colors of Christmas, in performances of the holiday classics “White Christmas” and “Blue Christmas”.
Decca 46186 was recorded on August 26, 1949, at the Castle Studio in the Tulane Hotel at 206 8th Avenue North in Nashville, Tennessee, and was produced by Paul Cohen; the two sides account for the entirety of Tubb’s session that day. Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours are Tommy “Butterball” Paige on lead electric guitar, Jack Shook and Tubb himself on guitars, Jack Drake on string bass, and Owen Bradley on the organ. There sounds to be a steel guitar present, but I’m not sure who’s playing it. Backup vocals are provided by the Three Troubadettes: Anita Kerr, Alcyone Bate Beasley, and Dottie Dillard.
On the first side, E.T. sings us a heartfelt rendition of Irving Berlin’s famous “White Christmas”, though, growing up in Texas, a white Christmas would surely not be “like the ones he used to know.” Tubb recorded an earlier take of “White Christmas” with his full band two years prior, but it was never released and is reported as “lost”. Move it on over, Bing Crosby!
White Christmas, recorded August 26, 1949 by Ernest Tubb.
While the Christmastime staple “Blue Christmas” is most commonly associated with Elvis Presley, who recorded it in 1957, and the first recording was made in 1948 by Doye O’Dell, I consider Ernest’s rendition to be the definitive.
Blue Christmas, recorded August 26, 1949 by Ernest Tubb.
Ernest Tubb at about twenty-two years old, pictured in the 1937 Bluebird Records catalog.
That time has rolled around once again to fondly remember my dear cousin, Ernest Tubb. The last time we heard from E.T., he was performing his biggest hit: “Walking the Floor Over You”. Now let us turn back the clock a few years to his earliest recording sessions, long before he had the fame and acclaim that, once found, would last him the rest of his career.
Ernest Tubb made his recording debut in a room at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio on the twenty-sixth of October, 1936, accompanying the widow of his idol Jimmie Rodgers on a song she wrote in a tribute to her late husband. He received no credit for his role in the production on the record’s label, which simply read “with accompaniment played on Jimmie Rodgers’ own guitar.” Mrs. Rodgers had loaned Tubb Jimmie’s instrument—as well as the Blue Yodeler’s tuxedo to wear in publicity shots—and helped him secure a contract with the RCA Victor Company, for whom her husband had recorded for the entirety of his six year career to help him get started in his musical career, after he had contacted her and the two became friendly. Tubb began his recording career in earnest the following day, waxing six sides, all in the style of his hero, complete with yodeling and guitar work lifted straight from Rodgers’ records.. He began with his own tribute to the Singing Brakeman he so adored: “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers”—both penned by Rodgers’ songwriting partner and sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams—which constituted the first record issued to his name. He followed up with four more sides, which did not see release until six years later. Despite the lack of success brought by his first disc, Tubb was behind the Victor mike again less than half a year later to cut another two sides, this time with his friend Merwyn J. Buffington joining him on second guitar. The resulting disc, without the words “Jimmie Rodgers” on the label to ensure its success, sold even more poorly than the first, and Tubb did not return to record for RCA Victor again. For the remainder of the 1930s, Tubb continued to struggle as an artist, frequently working day jobs to support himself as gigs on Texas radio stations and honky-tonks failed to pay the bills. In 1939, a tonsillectomy damaged his yodeling ability (though he did yodel on rare occasions in subsequent years), forcing him first to shift his focus to songwriting before returning to singing with a new, less blue yodeling style all his own which ultimately found him immense, lifelong success and a longstanding contract with Decca Records to go with it, but he never forsook his adoration for his hero Jimmie Rodgers.
Bluebird B-8899 was recorded between 1:00 and 2:15 in the afternoon of October 27, 1936 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. It was released on January 9, 1942, after he had started making hits for Decca. Ernest Tubb sings his own compositions, accompanying himself on the late Jimmie Rodgers’ custom Martin 000-45 guitar.
First, Tubb borrows heavily from the Blue Yodeler on “Married Man Blues”, with a guitar introduction lifted from Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 5” and an opening verse directly from his “Whippin’ That Old T.B.”.
Married Man Blues, recorded October 27, 1936 by Ernest Tubb.
Next, he does “Mean Old Bed Bug Blues”, an original composition distinct from the song of the same name sung by the likes of Bessie Smith and Furry Lewis. In my opinion, this is perhaps Tubb’s best Bluebird side—though “Since That Black Cat Crossed My Path” is another top contender. Though Tubb very seldom recorded with only his own guitar as accompaniment, he proves on these sides to have been nearly as proficient on the instrument as his idol, Jimmie Rodgers. Though far from a hit record, the song was later covered by Hawshaw Hawkins in 1946.
Mean Old Bed Bug Blues, recorded October 27, 1936 by Ernest Tubb.
In the city of New York, on the twenty-sixth of May, 1933, the famous Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, met his untimely end at the age of only thirty-five. Suffering a fatal pulmonary hemorrhage in his room in the Taft Hotel, he had finally succumbed to the T.B. that had dogged him since 1924. He had completed his final recording session only two days earlier.
Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers, pictured in the 1937 Bluebird catalog.
In the wake of Jimmie Rodgers’ demise, the spirit of great Blue Yodeler was eulogized in a considerable volume of tribute songs. Among them, cowboy star and former Rodgers cover artist Gene Autry made a two part record honoring his late inspiration, future Texas governor and senator W. Lee O’Daniel penned another one that was recorded by his Light Crust Doughboys, but surely the most heartfelt of all the tributes was by Rodgers’ own widow, Mrs. Carrie Williamson Rodgers.
It was three years after her husband’s death when she first entered a recording studio, one operated by the same company for whom her husband had made so many records—RCA Victor—set up temporarily in a hotel in San Antonio, the city Rodgers had called home in the last years of his life. She brought with her a burgeoning young radio singer, one of the legion of devotees of her late husband, whom she had befriended after he contacted her for an autographed picture of the famed singer; his name was Ernest Tubb. He made six sides at those sessions, his first; she made only one. Her lone recording was a touching original composition dedicated to Jimmie, with Tubb backing on Rodgers’ famous custom Martin 000-45 guitar, emblazoned with “Jimmie Rodgers” in pearl lettering inlaid across the fretboard, and “Blue Yodel” on the headstock. The following year, Mrs. Rodgers returned to the microphone with Tubb—and his buddy Merwyn Buffington—accompanying to make one more side: “My Rainbow Trail Keeps Winding On”, only tangentially related to Jimmie. She bookended her scant recording career many years later, all the way in 1956, when she met with the reunited original Carter Family at the site of the famous Bristol Sessions, where Jimmie and the Carters made their first records, to record “Mrs. Jimmy [sic] Rodgers Visits the Carter Family”, a sequel to 1931’s “Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Family”. Carrie remained in San Antonio for the rest of her years, and never remarried. She died there from complications of colon cancer on November 28, 1961, at the age of fifty-nine.
Montgomery Ward M-7085, a split release, was recorded in two separate sessions: the first side on October 26, 1936, in San Antonio, Texas, and the second on the thirteenth of the same month and year in Charlotte, North Carolina. Side “A” was also issued on Bluebird B-6698, backed with Jimmie Rodgers and Sara Carter duetting on “Why There’s a Tear in My Eye”, and a year or so later on another Montgomery Ward, M-7279, backed with Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers’ only other song. Side “B” was also released on Bluebird B-6808 with another side by the same artists.
Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers, by her own admission, was no singer, but she succeeded nonetheless in delivering a heartrending performance on her tribute to her late husband: “We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall”. Whatever she may have lacked in ability, she made up for with sincerity. Carrie is accompanied, as the label states, “on Jimmie Rodgers’ own guitar,” played by the Blue Yodeler’s posthumous protégé Ernest Tubb.
We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall, recorded October 26, 1936 by Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers.
On the reverse, the Bolick Brothers—Earl, on guitar, and Bill, on mandolin—better known as the proto-bluegrass duo the Blue Sky Boys, deliver an inspirational message in the gospel song “I Believe It”.
I Believe It, recorded October 13, 1936 by the Bolick Bros.
Ernest Tubb with Jimmie Rodgers’s Martin guitar. Circa early-to-mid-1940s.
On the ninth of February, we celebrate the birth of one of the brightest shining stars in all of country music: the Texas Troubadour, my cousin, Ernest Tubb.
Ernest Dale Tubb was born on February 9, 1914, in the now-ghost town of Crisp, Texas, the son of cotton sharecroppers Calvin Tubb and Ellen Baker, whose mother died while she was still an infant, and her father, purportedly a full-or-half-blooded Cherokee, left to start anew. As a youth, he worked as a soda jerk, but like so many of his generation, hearing Jimmie Rodgers inspired the young Tubb to pick up a guitar and start singing and yodeling. In the middle of the 1930s, Tubb began singing on San Antonio’s KONO, an unpaid job which required him to seek employment digging ditches for the WPA. He soon established contact with Jimmie Rodgers’s widow Carrie (née Williamson), who befriended the young singer and indefinitely loaned him her late husband’s custom Martin 000-45 guitar. She also brought the young Tubb to the attention of the RCA Victor Corporation, for whom Jimmie had recorded. When the record company made one of its field trips to San Antonio in October of 1936, Ernest Tubb made his first recordings, singing solo accompanied by his own guitar on six sides, and accompanying Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers in another one, a tribute to her departed husband. Of Tubb’s solo recordings, only one record was released initially, another tribute to the Singing Brakeman, featuring “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers” on the Bluebird label, the others were held back for several years. He was behind the recording microphone for a second time when RCA Victor was back in San Antonio the following March, and he recorded two more solo sides, this time backed on second guitar by his friend Buff Buffington, and another one backing Mrs. Rodgers, all of which were released this time. All Tubb’s Bluebird records sold quite poorly, and it would be several years before he returned to the studio. In 1939, a tonsillectomy instigated a shift from singing to focus greater on writing songs.
Come 1940, Ernest Tubb got a better gig singing on the radio, sponsored by the Gold Chain flour company, but at seventy-five dollars a week, it still wasn’t enough to make ends meet. The same year, he also began a new recording contract with Decca, and he made his first records for them at the Rice Hotel in Houston on April 4, 1940, beginning with “Blue Eyed Elaine”, dedicated to his wife. His records continued to attract limited public attention, and Tubb was contemplating throwing in the towel, but things turned around after a 1941 session in Dallas, when his original composition “Walking the Floor Over You” became an unexpected hit. Its success was such that it precipitated a move to Hollywood, where Tubb made a few film appearances, and earned him membership in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1943, an engagement which lasted four decades. Soon, he became known as the “Texas Troubadour”, a name which was later applied to his band as well. He made some patriotic songs of note during the War, such as “Soldier’s Last Letter”, and by the last year of the 1940s, Tubb had charted seven hit records, including an early recording of “Blue Christmas”. Tubb’s music helped to popularize honky-tonk style country music, and earned him a devoted base of fans. His success continued in the decades to come, with hits like 1965’s “Waltz Across Texas”, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the same year. Following a life well spent, Ernest Tubb died on August 14, 1984 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Decca 5958 was recorded in Dallas, Texas, on April 25, 1941 and in Los Angeles on October 30, 1940, respectively. On the “A” side, Tubb is accompanied by his own guitar, WBAP staff musician Fay “Smitty” Smith on steel guitar, and an unknown string bass. On “B”, he is accompanied only by his and Dick Ketner’s guitars.
First, Tubb sings the first of many recorded versions of his famous hit song, “Walking the Floor Over You”. Real, good, country music.
Walking the Floor Over You, recorded April 25, 1941 by Ernest Tubb.
On the flip-side, Tubb sings a song written by Jimmie Rodgers’ widow, Carrie Williamson Rodgers: “I’m Missing You”.
I’m Missing You, recorded October 30, 1940 by Ernest Tubb.