Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Importance of Being Ernest

At the tender age of 16, I was toying with several career options: journalist, international playboy, radio DJ. We had an outstanding high school newspaper and a wonderful instructor/adviser, the splendid Clarinda Harriss, who taught me the first things I was ever to learn about beat poetry, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and poems that didn't rhyme or even scan evenly. Truly, she was an epochal figure in my life, and her thoughts, teachings and even personal attitudes are with me yet today, a scant 40+ years later.

It was just before the Summer of Love in '67 that I fell in love with traditional country music. Ms Harriss encouraged me to interview some of the country stars who came to town. I might not be so bold today as to ask Keith Urban to talk with me about his life for publication in a high school newspaper, but armed with BIC pens and a pad, teenage brashness and her encouragement, I took the #8 bus to the Baltimore Civic Center. I inveigled my way past the dozing security guard, who wouldn't have likely noticed had I walked past him carrying a machine gun, a Molotov cocktail and Judge Crater's robes, and knocked on the bus door of the great Ernest

Bus door. Because the country stars did not perform in the usual Las Vegas-New York- Los Angeles circuit, but, rather, the Conway, Arkansas - Chicamauga Falls, Georgia - Yazoo City, Mississippi circuit, and there were generally no airports at their ports of call. So they traveled with their bands in converted Greyhound buses.

Bus door. I knocked, someone answered, and I asked if I could speak to Mr Tubb. At length, the great man stepped off the bus and spoke to me then and there in the indoor parking area of the Civic Center, weaving the tales of his life and career and showing me his ring, with "E T " spelled out in diamonds. Again, he had no need for the sort of publicity that an article in the Towson High School Talisman would bring him, but he talked to me as if I were Walter Cronkite or something.

I wrote the article - can't say for sure that it was ever published - and cherished my fleeting brush with fame at his bus door. Mr Tubb was known as "ET" and "Ol' Ern, the Daddy of 'em all," in his day, and Lord, couldn't he sing! I mean it. He always said that the secret to his success lay in the fact that all over America, guys would drop coins in jukeboxes, punch up his records ( "Walkin' the Floor Over You", "I've Got All the Heartaches I Can Handle","Waltz Across Texas" and "Do You What You Do Do Well" among them) and tell date, "I can sing better than that guy!"

"And 95% of the time, they were right!," Ernest would always confirm.

It's also very true that when I heard, in the early 80's that Steven Spielberg was producing a movie about ET, I got all worked up and couldn't wait. I was even at the stage of envisioning just whom to get to play the lead role, and it was down to George Hamilton or Rock Hudson, in my mind, when the bad news arrived. The film came out and it was about a little green space alien.

But Ern did play himself in "Coal Miner's Daughter," the biographical movie about his former duet partner Loretta Lynn. My friend Lisa tells me that it was at Loretta's insistence that the great ET, from Crisp, Texas, assayed his own role. Good for her. Country music radio has jettisoned all the Tubbs and Joneses and Wagoners for the Urbans and the Paisleys, two names that sound like pages from GQ's Fall Fashion Preview to me.

I'm quite certain that today's country stars don't stand around talking to kids, but Mr Tubb showed me a lot that evening about loving what you do for a living, wanting to get along with everyone, and one last thing:

ET always ended his show by turning over his guitar and sending his gratitude out for everyone like this:

and then he'd take his leave, always with this benediction - one that all of us should say when we end a day of work:
"Thanks again, and remember, be better to your neighbor and you'll have a better neighbor, doggone ya!"


Ralph said...

Love this story!

Anonymous said...

Here I am in sunny but very chilly New Zealand, where July is Winter. . .but my heart is wwarmed indeed by discovering myself in the lead paragraph of beloved amd most estimable Mark Clark's piece on Interviewing the Greats!

Mark's lifelong fan,