70 YEARS OF THE ERNEST TUBB MIDNITE JAMBOREE
Get Back, Touretta, or, Koyaanisqatsi Dottsy
By Edd Hurt
With all due respect to Jon Langford and his ghastly paintings of country-music legends who are too dead to be offended, I don't think the Mekons singer and, you know, country music expert has ever conceived of a post-Hee Haw parody more soulless and dead than the Robin Right performance I saw May 6 at the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree, a Music City radio show that's been running weekly since 1947. Right, a Kentucky-born vocalist who specializes in impersonations of country stars--you oughta hear her Tammy Wynette--and whose oeuvre includes the scintillating albums All Right!, Right the First Time and Right Away, came forth in a white dress suitable for the crypt or a Baptist wedding and did her best Loretta Lynn, singing her fellow Kentuckian's songs in a squeaky, scared voice that matched her pallor and her doll-like, defeated eyes. She looked like the dead girl who squeezes out of the television in the 2002 horror film The Ring, or a reject from Brian DePalma's Carrie, or maybe Ronee Blakley at the end of Robert Altman's 1975 movie Nashville, just before the shooting commences. I watched her performance with appalled but approving eyes: Loretta Lynn became Touretta Lynn, a far more frightening figure than anything Jon Langford could limn. "Fist City," buddy, and your good girl's done gone nuts. Touretta was a misfire, a synapse lapse, a simulation that kept right on singing.
Touretta's turn as one of the great ladies of country music was a highlight of what was billed as the 70th anniversary celebration of the Midnite Jamboree, which originally broadcast from downtown Nashville before moving in 1979 to a location across the Cumberland River, where the Grand Ole Opry stands today near an assortment of convenience stores, cut-rate country music museums, a Cracker Barrel restaurant and the aptly named Fiddler's Inn. The Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, a major tourist attraction, is another selling point of this area, which is a mere stone's throw across the river from fabled East Nashville, where hip young country, folk and rock performers are busy recasting country music in the image of old-time country rock.
Still, the Midnite Jamboree hasn 't yet enjoyed the talents of such notable country hipsters as Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Elizabeth Cook, Todd Snider, Aaron Lee Tasjan and Nikki Lane, all Nashvillians who regularly play in other venues in the city. The Jamboree might as well be on another planet, though I saw the excellent country-folk-pop singer and guitarist Brandy Clark play her Judee Sill-style songs at the Jamboree during the annual Country Music Association festivities in June (Clark, a critics' favorite and a very savvy and successful songwriter, brought along young fellow up-and-comer Charlie Worsham, a skillful guitarist who writes funny, lighthearted songs). Although I've seen plenty of young, no-name performers on the Jamboree--the show offers an unequaled opportunity to view semi-pro singers--the 41-year-old Clark and Worsham, who is 31, are among the very few major youngish musicians I've seen on the Jamboree's stage in the last decade.
The Midnite Jamboree once served as an after-hours gig for Opry stars too wired to go home on Saturday night, but in more recent years it's become a place to see aging Opry stars such as Jeannie Seely, Mel Tillis and Stonewall Jackson do their things. When I first started attending Midnite Jamboree performances, the adjacent Ernest Tubb Record Shop and the Jamboree itself were thriving. Changing demographics--the action in Nashville has shifted back to downtown, just as it was in Ernest Tubb's heyday--forced the Jamboree to temporarily suspend operations in 2015 and led to the closing of the second Ernest Tubb Record Shop the following year, but the downtown store remains open.
(See Randy Fox's April 9, 2015 Nashville Scene article "The Venerable Midnight Jamboree May Be Down, but Don't Drive the Nails in Its Coffin Just Yet," which lines out how the fortunes of the record shop and the radio show have intertwined. Also useful is Saving Country Music's April 1, 2015 report on the struggles of Midnite Jamboree and Ernest Tubb Record Shop owner David McCormick to keep both institutions open, "Details Clarified in Midnite Jamboree Suspension.")
Today a grimy consignment shop, the Tacky Turtle Vintage Marketplace & Snackery, occupies the space, but you can still step into Tubb's legendary green tour bus, the Green Hornet, which sits forlornly among the tchotchkes. The record shop was, in fact, literally built around the bus as a tourist attraction. A remnant of the days when the Midnite Jamboree was a thriving concern, the Green Hornet isn't going anywhere.
Hosted by Tubb's nephew, 81-year-old songwriter Glenn Douglas Tubb, the 70th-anniversary broadcast of the Jamboree featured Tubb's rendering of his own "Midnite Jamboree," a song that stands in the great tradition of "Opryland," Cindy Walker's 1972 ode to the defunct country-music theme park that once operated not far from the Texas Troubadour Theatre, home of the Midnite Jamboree (Jack Clement, whom I saw give a magnificently relaxed performance at the Jamboree in 2008, once told me he believed the Texas Troubadour Theatre was the most acoustically perfect listening space in Nashville because of its padded benches). The white-bearded Tubb is a seasoned performer, and he delivered his encomium to the Jamboree with equanimity (Glenn Douglas Tubb's songwriting credits include co-writing Henson Cargill's 1967 country hit "Skip a Rope" and George Jones and Tammy Wynette's 1980 song "Two Story House").
I've witnessed many bizarre performances at the Jamboree over the years, and a few great ones. A reliable act has been the decidedly post-Las Vegas, post-comedy and post-Larry Sanders Show melange of hits, shtick and schlock, that minor '70's country star Barbara Fairchild, whom genius producer Billy Sherrill once laid his magic touch on, enacts with her husband, a Eugene Levy-lookalike named Roy Morris. The act is a showbiz nightmare worthy of Second City Television's prescient talk-show parodies in which Levy's fictional Bobby Bittman interacts with genial host Sammy Maudlin, played by Joe Flaherty, who summons forth country crooner Dean Martin's incongruous Southern drawl. The Morris-Fairchild show takes in discontented marriage--Fairchild rains abuse on the hapless bum, whom she's been carrying for years as she works out a career based on a sickly piece of '70s schlock country, Don Earl and Nick Nixon's (let's give credit where credit is due) "The Teddy Bear Song," her signature tune.
Stumblebums have been few on the fabled Texas Troubadour stage--the weight of country history hangs heavy during the show, which begins with Tex Ritter delivering a tribute to Ernest Tubb ("that tall man with the distinctive voice and style who became a giant among the early performers of country and western music") and Vern Gosdin, one of the greatest country vocalists, singing Hank Cochran, Buddy Cannon, Dean Dillon and Gosdin's 1988 hit "Set 'Em Up Joe," which mentions Tubb's "Walking the Floor." The mostly middle-aged, white, rural and decidedly unhip Americans that these days constitute the Jamboree's core audience know the song--some sing along, while old married couples get up and dance. Originally delivered live at midnight on legendary Nashville country radio station WSM-AM (the show is currently recorded live at 10 p.m. and broadcast two hours later, and it continues to be a staple of WSM's programming), the Jamboree at its best had the crackling, anticipatory feel of old-time radio. This aspect of the Jamboree dates from its earliest days and provides a connection to country's origins in radio. The show's long-time announcer, Texas-born television and radio personality Jennifer Herron, delivers advertisements for the Ernest Tubb record shop in a mellifluous voice, the host and featured performer chips in reading blurbs for fellow recording artists, and every show begins with a record by Ernest Tubb's idol, Jimmie Rodgers.
The show is immensely professional yet down-home, which has much to do with Herron's well-honed skills. Among its other virtues, the Jamboree has provided me an invaluable look into the mechanics of classic, old-school country ensemble playing. I saw legendary Texas dance-hall Caruso Johnny Bush share the stage in 2007 with the greatest of all pedal-steel guitarists, Buddy Emmons. I mean, this beat seeing Sinatra and Peter Lawford in the long afternoon of their careers, you know—twilight of the gods. I've watched such consummate professionals as guitarists Pete Wade and Jimmy Capps trade licks and fills with some of the town's best drummers, bassists and pianists, and the Jamboree has also featured such superb Music City instrumentalists as Charlie McCoy, whose harmonica chops remain undiminished, and Wayne Moss, one of Nashville's famed session guitarists and the owner of Madison, Tennessee's legendary Cinderella Studio, whom I saw sitting in on bass during a McCoy date a couple of years ago. A total pro, Moss faced the audience with the imperturbable mien of a pool hustler.
Photo from Douglas Billings of The Travelin' Man blog
The Jamboree has had a tent-show quality over the years, which is in keeping with country's history. I've seen giants such as Stonewall Jackson, Jeannie Seely, Jack Clement and Frankie Miller--the stony, dignified author of the 1959 country classic "Black Land Farmer" refused to participate in any way in the reading of promotional matter when I caught his act a few years ago--and I've seen a panoply of minor but significant performers that includes Rattlesnake Annie and Tony Booth. I've also had the pleasure to watch eccentric or half-forgotten figures whose brief moments on the Texas Troubadour stage often pleased me in ways the exertions of more famous singers failed to do.
Chief among these ghosts of country is Vernon Oxford, a nearly forgotten Hank Williams acolyte who cut a few highly regarded country records in the '60's that in no way bent to the fashion of the day. Spare and unadorned and full of Williams' pain as well as his own, Oxford's music was anachronistic when he cut 1966's Woman, Let Me Sing You a Song in Nashville and has remained so in the subsequent years, when he became a cult figure in Europe. I can't recall exactly when I saw Oxford--he graciously autographed the publicity photo I handed him, for a small honorarium--but it was an amazing demonstration of hard-core country singing. Oxford sings as if country music stopped evolving in 1953, and his vocal technique was flawless.
(There is currently no archive of the Jamboree available online, and my requests to a member of the Jamboree team for information about dates and performances were met with a certain reluctance to engage. My guess is that the Jamboree, which is currently attempting to retool its media presence and expand its affiliate list, wasn't sure what kind of piece I would write. Fair enough.)
I also witnessed an interesting performance by '70's country singer Dottsy, who hit in 1975 with Susanna Clark's song "I'll Be Your San Antone Rose," a record that is half outlaw country and half typical Nashville mythologizing. Dottsy still had it, as did the great country singer Jim Glaser, who made country history with his brothers Chuck and Tompall in the '60's and '70's. A singer of foxy delicacy, Jim Glaser hasn't lost his ability to aim his voice for the stratosphere. And I caught an amazing night by bluegrass band Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, who essayed one of their tunes several times in order to make it right for the radio broadcast. The band ripped into the material as a great jazz band would have, with subtle variations marking the different performances. It was an on-the-edge display of controlled virtuosity that reaffirmed everything a true believer might feel about the power of country music.
The 70th-anniversary show featured the pedal steel playing of Lynn Owsley, who served in the '70's edition of Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours, and the assembled band of Music City super-pros ripped into an impeccable instrumental version of Joe Green's jazz standard "Across the Alley from the Alamo," with Owsley making the tune's turnarounds sound easy. It was a sublime moment, but country music cannot wait for excellence. Country duo Presley & Taylor, young sisters who have charted their ride to the top in typical Nashville fashion, sang their dire material. They put their pretty heads together on something called "This Phone," while I heard it as "Dysphonia." My title is better.
Also on the bill was Melanie Wright, a fresh-faced woman in love with Jesus and show business. She did a good rendition of Paul Overstreet's piece of high-grade, Christian-friendly songwriting, "Until We Know." Wright was a pro, but her performance was overshadowed by Touretta Lynn's creepy turn, which befuddled and baffled me and the friends I'd brought along to witness this bit of country history. I expected the Texas Troubadour Theatre to erupt into flames when she finished. Musing on the mystery of Touretta as I drove home after midnight, I realized that country music is far more than the sum of its great moments and inspired performances. It's about the audience, who needs the second-rate, the imitation, the feeling they're connected to a history that's in danger of disappearing. Great music almost gets in the way.
Riding back into enlightened East Nashville that night, I envisioned an avant-garde documentary movie about the 70-year history of the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree done in the style of director Godfrey Reggio's well-known series of "Qatsi" films that line out certain aspects of civilization's various malaises. In my mind's eye, I envision Phillip Glass, who did the music for Reggio's movies, composing the soundtrack in collaboration with The Mekons, Emmylou Harris and Hank III (the grandson of Hank Williams, Hank III created Musique-concrčte works out of cattle-auctioneering recordings on his 2011 album 32 Bar Ranch Cattle Callin').
There's Tubb and his band in 1947 and 1974, the Green Hornet exhaling cigarette and pot smoke somewhere on the road in Montana, Marty Robbins racing over to the Jamboree after signing 85 autographs outside the Opry, Stonewall Jackson, Jeannie Seely and Moe Bandy reprising their glory days, Jack Clement gracefully dancing with Jennifer Herron during a 2008 broadcast, Charlie Louvin telling dirty jokes from the Texas Troubadour stage as he dies from pancreatic cancer (I saw a couple of astounding displays of hubris and pathos from the hard-bitten Louvin at the Jamboree in late summer of 2010; he died early the following year), Vernon Oxford summoning the spirit of Hank Williams. And Dottsy, who doesn't get enough credit these days. Man, I like her style. She just stands up there and sings.
So call our elegiac, time-traveling country-music movie Koyaanisqatsi Dottsy--the images flash by, the music undulates, the tour buses roll across American interstates and county roads, corn dogs and cotton candy multiply in simultaneous state fairs featuring the Wilburn Brothers, radios tune into a show broadcast across wide water and fenced-off land, Hank Williams gives way to Tubb, Wynn Stewart, Jack Greene, Jones, Haggard, Gram Parsons, Wynette, who fade away as Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift and Chris Stapleton mount the stage. Barbara Fairchild hugs her only friend, a humble teddy bear, Hank III charts insanity and Robin Right perfects her kabuki version of Loretta Lynn. Through the agency of artistic manipulation, country music endlessly travels the rodeo circuit of corruption and idealism, and the Green Hornet once again takes to the great American road.
The Midnite Jamboree is the second-longest running country-music radio show, behind the Grand Ole Opry.
With special thanks to David Duncan, a true country fan.
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