The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ernest Tubb: The Nashville Shooting Incident

Judging him by today's country music stars, you might think Ernest Tubb was square and old fashioned. But, truth be told, Tubb (1914-1984) had a wild side and was one of the biggest stars of his time. Born in Crisp, TX, ET was inspired to be a singer by the great Jimmy Rodgers. (BTW, Crisp, which is a ghost town now, is a great name for a town to be from, dontcha think?)

Background. In 1941 (the year of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), his 6th Decca release "Walking the Floor Over You" made him a country music star of the first magnitude. It put him in the same league as Roy Acuff. By today's standards he would have been keeping company with Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.

Musta been a good singer, right? Nope. Not really. ET even dissed his own voice. According to Wiki, Tubb "actually mocked his own singing. He told an interviewer that 95 percent of the men in bars would hear his music on the juke box and say to their girlfriends, 'I can sing better than him,' and Tubb added they would be right." Maybe with average looks and a below average voice, he was one of those stars the average Joe can be comfortable with, like contemporary film star Kevin Costner (at least in the beginning of his career). 

But Tubb's voice was very distinctive, and that was one key to his success. Another key was his penchant for surrounding himself with some of Nashville's best sidemen. The first sideman of note in his band was guitarist Jimmy Short; others were steel guitar masters Jerry Byrd and Tommy "Butterball" Paige.

Jazz musician Billy Byrd (no relation to Jerry) joined Tubbs' Troudadors in 1949. Here's a YouTube video of his most famous tune, "Walking the Floor over You." It was recorded sometime after Byrd joined Tubb's band. Listen as Ernest introduces Billy at the break with his famous "Awwwwww Billy Byrd now." And if you listen closely at the end of the break, you'll hear Billy's famous four note jazzy riff that became, as wiki says, "synonymous with Tubb's songs."

(Parenthetical side-man notes, from Wiki: "Billy Byrd... actually a jazz [and classically trained musician]--no relation to Jerry--remained with Tubb until 1959.")

One of ET's most famous post WWII songs was "A Rainbow at Midnight." Recorded in 1946, you can see why this song has been a favorite of military veterans since its release; it reached number 5 on the Juke Box Folk chart that year. (This one goes out to my brother Dave, a Vietnam vet, and any other blogger vets who might be tuned in here at the Post.)

Probably about now, you're asking what's the story on this shooting incident. Okay, hold your britches. I'm coming to it.

Ernest Tubb's Nashville Shooting Incident. In his book Ernest Tubb: The Texas Troubador, Ronnie Pugh says that the great country singer had serious difficulties with alcohol. When Tubb got drunk, he acted like a rock star. He wanted to smash something. He would get so drunk and rowdy that he'd kick the windows out of his limo. This was such a problem, that they hired a big husky country boy named Don Davis to wrestle Tubb down to the floorboard when he got drunk enough to start kicking at the glass. Davis, about 18 at the time, also played steel guitar.

Alcohol was also said to be a contributing factor to his divorce in the early '40s.

And it played a significant role in one of Tubb's most famous dustups, the heretofore mentioned Nashville Shootout.

In 1957 Tubb had some kind of feud with producer Jim Denny. The singer, drunk at the time of the incident, walked into the National Life building's corridor in downtown Nashville and fired a .357 magnum. It must have sounded like a bazooka in that corridor. He apparently went to the building with the intent to shoot Denny. Denny, a big time Nashville producer and the gatekeeper at the Grand Ole Opry, was NOT in the corridor at the time. Tubb, however, thought he saw Denny and took the shot.

Luckily, Tubb's aim wasn't too good, or maybe he was just too drunk to aim the gun properly. Here's Wiki's note on this: "Tubb shot at the wrong man but did not hit anyone. He was arrested and charged with public drunkeness." Drunk and firing a gun in a public place? Whoa. And what about this: you can find very little mention of it in newspapers and magazines of the time. Today, if we were talking about Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney taking a drunken potshot at somebody, the paparzzi and other bottom feeders would suck on this story for months.

I haven't been able to nail down the nature of Tubb's beef with Denny (if you know what they were feuding about, put your info in the comments, and I'll credit you and add it to the post). But several statements others made over the years about the producer suggest that Denny, a hall of fame member himself and as noted, a powerful record producer at the time, was the kind of guy who had made a few enemies in Nashville as well.

According to one source, "Denny was a hard-nosed businessman whose charismatic personality and devotion to his acts and songs earned him respect and devotion— sometimes tinged with fear— from artists, writers, and others with whom he did business ."

Here's a little background on Denny himself. He was the one who called Hank Williams, Sr. at home in 1952 to tell he was fired from the Opry.

Denny also booked Elvis Presley on the Opry in '54, and after his performance told the young man he wasn't going anywhere and he ought to "go back to truck driving."

To cite another example, Johnny Cash biographer Michael Streissguth reports that Cash had a very humiliating experience with Denny. It occurred soon after Cash's 1956 hit "I Walk the Line" reached #1 on Billboard; "I Walk the Line" stayed on the charts for 47 weeks. This song was on Cash's first album (and Sun's first LP too), "Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar."

Like all country music singers at the time, Cash wanted to get on the Opry. He was riding high on the success of "I Walk the Line," and so he set up a meeting with Denny, hoping to get a booking on the biggest country music radio show in the country to cement his country music superstar credentials. He said he'd dreamed about being on the Opry since he was a kid.

But his encounter with Denny wasn't the culmination of a dream; it was more like a nightmare. First, Denny kept Cash waiting for two hours. Can you imagine that?  Ten years later, Cash would have probably gone in and turned over Denny's desk and broke a lamp or two, and maybe Denny's nose. But those were different times and Cash was a newcomer and didn't want to do anything to jeopardize his career at that point. And Denny was recognized as a very powerful man in the industry.

Finally, Denny let the young Cash come into the sacred chamber of his office. Cash, when talking about this later, said that Denny didn't even tell him to sit down. But Cash eventually took the initiative and sat down, although not invited to do so. Denny was busy with his papers for a few minutes more, ignoring Cash, not even acknowledging his presence. Then he looked up and asked Cash why he thought he deserved to be on the Opry. Cash reminded him of the success of "I Walk the Line," and Denny said, "Be here Saturday night." He didn't ask Cash to come on the Opry, he told him.

That's the way it was. And that's the kind of man Denny was.

Exactly why Tubb tried to shoot him, I'm still not sure. But these other incidents just might hold a clue.


  1. That's the way it was. And that's the kind of man Denny was.

    Well, Hell. THAT'S reason enough, innit? I'm surprised the man wasn't shot outright earlier. Good Ol' Boys, despite the best of upbringings, don't take kindly to disrespect in any way, shape, or form... from ANYONE.

    That said, thanks for this, Dan. I'm waaay too old to take up a new, research-intensive, avocation (rock'n'roll history and trivia being a time-consuming endeavor) but I'll take whatever nuggets you may have to offer. This is great good stuff and I thank ya for it.

  2. Dan, that's interesting...never knew that about ET. Of course, there are a lot of things I don't know.

    My Father-in-law grew up in the small community of Cecil, Arkansas...just outside the small town of Ozark. One day when he was a young teenager, he and several boys were playing some sandlot baseball.

    A big, fancy, black car pulled up. The window rolled down, and somebody yelled, "Can we play ball with you boys?"

    The doors opened, and out stepped ET himself, along with three or four others. They had ball gloves in the trunk, too. They played for about half an hour, and told the boys thanks, and went on their merry way.

    K.D. loved to tell that story, God rest his soul...

  3. Buck, this post took over a week and is probably far too long for a blog post. I enjoyed doing it but I think I need to remember to put the brakes on earlier and to sharpen the focus. When I read blog posts, if they're too long, I usually don't finish. There's a blog I go to frequently, Dr. Sanity, that I really like. But, she's a practicing psychiatrist and her posts (almost all are political) are usually very long. Sometimes I make it to the end, other times I don't. I read somewhere that the Net is changing the way people read, that they want shorter snippets now, not longer treatises, etc. Anyway, I'm glad you got something out of it. And thanks for the comment.

    Andy, What a great story from your father-in-law, K.D. I liked the fact that ET and his boys carried their own gloves around in the trunk. I remember guys doing that back when baseball was the National Pastime. I for one miss the time when it was THE sport. And, I know for a fact that pitching a baseball around is therapeutic, not to mention being great fun; it allows for a conversation at the same time as you're doing something physical. It's a good way for fathers and sons, for example, to connect.

  4. ...Dr. Sanity, that I really like. But, she's a practicing psychiatrist and her posts (almost all are political) are usually very long.

    I used to read her when I began reading blogs six or seven years ago... she was one of the first bloggers I discovered. But I quit her, mainly because I cut my right-wing echo chamber reads down to the barest of minimums. One can only read the same shit just so many times. YMMV, obviously! ;-)

    None the less... I hear ya about post length. I think this post was just right. Sometimes you NEED the length and detail, other times it's just fluff a good editor would leave on the cutting room floor. This post is a case of the former, IMHO.

    I was a technical writer who evolved (heh) into a technical writer/editor/proposal manager in a previous life. I had the great good fortune to work for one of the best editors in the business when I started out and that woman beat verbosity right out o' me. The process was painful at first, but I eventually "got it." I did that gig for nearly ten years, until The Second Mrs. Pennington told me to get another job or another wife because of the travel that was in it. So I got another job. ;-)

  5. Hell, after reading this I want to shoot Denny!

    Great blog post, BTW.

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