Country singer/songwriter Ernest Tubb never took his fans for granted and was an artist who went the extra mile to show them his gratitude for their support. Case in point, in 1947 Tubb started an informal concert radio show from his record store on 720 Commerce Street in Nashville with the idea of presenting an intimate experience as a contrast to the Grand Ole Opry, where he'd only get to sing a couple songs on any given night. His show was an hour long and free, while the smaller venue allowed him to interact with the audience directly. Tubb, who was nicknamed the Texas Troubadour, called his show the "Midnite Jamboree."
Amazingly, 65 years later, the show still airs on WSM-AM in Nashville every Sunday from midnight – 1:30 a.m. A fixture in Music City, it is the second-longest running country music show on radio — only the Grand Ole Opry's show has been on the air longer.
"We've never missed a week in all these years," says Jennifer Herron, current MC of "Midnite Jamboree." "March 17 [was] program number 3,397. These days, we're broadcast live from the Texas Troubadour Theatre near Opryland, with a simultaneous TV webcast on our website. It's still free and we have regular audience members that have been coming for years and sit in the same seat every week. They bring pictures of themselves from 20 years back to show off."
Though he died in 1984, Tubb's legacy also lives on through the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, which shares a lobby with the Texas Troubadour Theatre. The record store was another venture Tubb started with his fans in mind.
"When [Ernest] played small towns, people would ask him where they could find his records," says Gary Bennett, manager of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and Texas Troubadour Theatre. "He got the idea for a mail order service and even sold records by his competitors." The mail order business spawned a record store and the idea for a radio show broadcast from the store.
"They built a stage in the back of the store," says Bennett. "There's a scene in Coal Miner's Daughter [the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic staring Sissy Spacek] where she's on the stage of the 'Midnite Jamboree.' It was filmed on the stage of the store at 417 Broadway, [the shop's second location, just around the corner from the Grand Ole Opry's Ryman Auditorium]. It's still there and artists often ask to have their record release parties on that stage. The shop is as crowded as Times Square on Friday and Saturday nights."
The current "Midnite Jamboree" follows the same format Tubb introduced in 1947. After an introduction by the night's host, they play a Jimmie Rodgers track and a commercial for one of his compilations.
"Jimmie Rodgers was Ernest's idol," says Herron. "He always featured a Jimmie Rodgers record on the show and so do we."
With the show broadcast over the Internet, regular listeners are able to interact with the show while it's on the air. "If we don't open with a Jimmie Rodgers song, people immediately email us," says Bennett says. "The fans are steadfast. They like the sound of traditional country music, and that's what we give them."
After the show, headliners and fans head to the autograph tables where the stars sign CDs, posters and old albums. "If Marty Stuart or Mel Tillis come in, we may not get done with the autographs until 3:30 in the morning," says Bennett. "They'll sign every last album, and sell their records too. It's a country tradition and helps bring them closer to their fans."
Tubb also utilized "Midnite Jamboree" as a means to introduce up-and-coming talent to his audience. The show has given early exposure to artists such as Randy Travis (when he was still Randy Traywick), the Wilburn Brothers, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Garth Brooks, and a kid named Elvis Presley. The Jamboree showcases intimate performances by both established and up-and-coming artists alike.
"David McCormick [CEO of Ernest Tubb Record Shop] told me that Presley got booed off the stage the only time he was on the Opry," says Herron. "Ernest invited him to come on the Jamboree, where the crowd was more accepting. He sent [Ernest] a thank you note that he carried around in his wallet for years. It said, 'Thanks for saving the weekend and making me feel like part of the country music family. '"
"[Tubb] liked to introduce talent nobody had ever heard to give them a chance," says Bennett. "The show's host can bring in a guest for one or two songs and I've seen unknowns come in and wow the crowd."
"Midnite Jamboree" airs live 10 months a year, with archived shows running during January and February. "We started running shows from the archives two years ago," says Bennett. "We don't mess with them, just play them the way they were recorded. If a record skipped, we leave it in."
Despite the Internet's potential reach, Herron said she's always surprised by how many international listeners the show attracts. "I was on vacation in the Australian outback, visiting an Aboriginal homestead. We had an Aboriginal guide and he was wearing an Ernest Tubb baseball cap. He told me he got it in Nashville when we went to the Jamboree. He said he listens to the show every week."
(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)