Ernest Tubb often attributed his extraordinary success to his less-than-ordinary voice, to the way any listener might hear one of his songs and conclude: “I can sing better than that guy.” But you know what? We can’t.
Granted, Tubb couldn’t hit a lot of the notes he wanted to hit, and when he did hit them, he couldn’t hold them very long. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear the man was singing off-key into a fan. But it didn’t matter. Most folks might hit the notes better, sure, but we can’t sing better than Ernest Tubb. Damn near no one, in fact, has ever had the elegance, vibrancy and good-natured confidence — the feeling — of ol’ E.T. standing at the mike.
By the time he was recording the tracks now collected on the new Bear Family box Waltz Across Texas, Tubb’s voice was flatter than roadkill, more quavery than ever, but beautiful too. Country music fans certainly must have thought so, since the period covered on the six discs here, early 1961 to early 1966, saw Tubb packing dancehalls behind renewed chart success.
As you’d expect from Bear Family, this box (the label’s fourth Tubb set, with at least one more to follow) includes everything Tubb recorded in these years: classic singles such as “Thanks A Lot”, “Pass The Booze”, and “Waltz Across Texas”; swell duet recordings with Loretta Lynn including the hit “Mr. And Mrs. Used To Be”; and great though little-known honky-tonkers such as “What Kind Of God Do You Think You Are”, “Who’s Gonna Be Your Santa Claus This Year”, and “Beyond The Last Mile”.
There are 177 recordings here, nearly all of them wonderful, but this set’s greatest surprise is that more than 40 of them are Texas Troubadour cuts, culled largely from the group’s E.T.-less albums from the period. Tubb biographer Ronnie Pugh (who shares liner-note duties here with Rich Kienzle) has dubbed this Troubadour lineup “the great band,” and indeed country may have never seen a finer collection of musicians than pedal steel man Buddy Charleton, lead guitarist Leon Rhodes, bassist Jack Drake, rhythm guitarist Cal Smith, and drummer Jack Greene.
Certainly no country outfit has been blessed with more fine singers. Though they eventually went on to solo stardom, Smith and especially Greene must today be listed among country music’s most unfairly underrated vocalists. Having their earliest work finally available on disc — particularly Greene’s devastating, career-spurring performance of “The Last Letter” — is a real treat, to say the least. Ditto for the occasional vocal work of Leon Rhodes and the Troubadour’s spare guitarist and “singing bus driver,” Johnny Wiggin. Think of it: counting Tubb, “the great band” had five singers superior to most groups’ star attraction.
Even when they kept their mouths shut, though, this version of the Troubadours was still among the greatest country bands ever, producing tight, swinging rhythms and featuring two astounding soloists in Charleton and Rhodes. Hearing those two trade licks on C&W standards such as “Panhandle Rag,” or on a gorgeous curveball such as “Danny Boy”, is simply as good as roadhouse honky-tonk gets. In fact, maybe more than anything else, Waltz Across Texas argues that there is no better predictor of honky-tonk perfection than Tubb announcing: “Aw Leon” or “Aw Buddy, now.” No better predictor, that is, than ol’ E.T.’s extraordinary vibrating voice.