Ernest Tubb: The Texas Troubadour
Truth is, I know next to nothing about Ernest Tubb. I should, of course, and so the arrival of this 456-page opus from Ronnie Pugh, who spends his days as head of reference at the Country Music Foundation, seemed a good start.
Ernest Tubb is all that last sentence suggests: comprehensive, well-researched, and a good start. Only a start, though, for despite Pugh’s obvious passion for the music, one is no closer to knowing Tubb at the end of the book — nor to hearing his music; the reader is (perhaps understandably) assumed to know the songs, and so Pugh is sparing of adjectives — than one was at the beginning.
From the beginning, it seems a curious pairing. Pugh writes in his preface of “…a belief instilled by my old-school Methodist parents, that decent people do not smoke or drink. It pains me to go into a nightclub to hear a country singer, though on rare occasions I have done it.” Obviously he’s aware of the paradox: a Southern Republican writing about a lifelong Texas Democrat, a teetotaling Methodist writing about a former bar owner, beer distributor, and honky tonk hero. But it does set an odd tone.
Ernest Tubb covers the singer’s career from birth to death, and in some detail (there’s a 76-page sessionography at the end), tracing hard-scrabble days in San Antonio and environs, his befriending by Jimmie Rodgers’ widow, his success on jukeboxes, his arrival at the Grand Ole Opry, the opening of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, his great road bands, his sad decline. Because much of this is drawn from oral histories and clippings, Pugh wisely cites conflicting versions of key stories.
As far as that goes, Ernest Tubb is enormously informative. But personal details — the truth of the man — rarely appear. And some questions beg answers. For example, why didn’t Ernest Tubb take some role in World War II, which seems to play a role in his life only inasmuch as it forced changes in his band? Later he toured Korea, which apparently had enormous impact on Tubb and widened his fan base. But how did he come not to serve in WWII, and why isn’t that part of this story?
Indeed, the unpleasant parts of the story are curiously placed throughout. After discussion of Tubb’s difficulty holding a band together, it finally transpires that he had a long battle with the bottle, and was prone to breaking windows and tossing hotel rooms. And loved to gamble. Now, one doesn’t wish to confuse the artist with the art, but this is biography, and in that context, one hopes to learn something about the relationship between the two. Similarly, we learn bits and pieces of his two marriages, but not nearly enough to make sense of the vicious battle over his estate.
This is not, incidentally, to argue for more Albert Goldman, nor to suggest that the only way to know public figures is by revealing their private lives. But the truth — or some form of it, anyway — seems usually to be found in the details. Dates and places are fine, helpful, important, but they want a connecting narrative thread, they want to add up to something. And, unpleasant though it may be, it seems to me inevitably the obligation of so honorable a biographer to take the risk now and again of drawing his own conclusions.