Question for the day: When was the first — if not only — time country music pioneers Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb were together, inside the same concert hall? Let’s circle back to that later.
An excerpt from the 1980 movie “Blue Brothers” has become cliché. Elwood Blues, played by Dan Aykroyd, asked a waitress at Bob’s Country Bunker what kind of music they usually have. Kitty Wells’ recording of Hank Williams’ classic “Your Cheatin’ Heart” played faintly in the background.
“We got both kinds,” the waitress said. “We got country AND western!”
The Blues Brothers Band took the stage, but the crowd’s angry reaction to their usual set of blues standards prompted them to break into the theme from television’s “Rawhide.”
That’s western, all right. And country too, since the honky-tonk is named “country bunker.”
Texans know country music, western music, and everything in between. And Brownwood offers a fascinating footnote to that.
Ken Burns’ 16-hour documentary currently being broadcast on Public Television traces the history country music. Along the way, the program explains how Texas musicians picked up the sounds of their colleagues in Appalachia and the Deep South, taking the genre to new heights.
As this is written, only three segments in the epic program have been broadcast. If you’ve tuned in to see even one of them, you know it’s difficult to turn it off — even if country music isn’t your thing. Better yet, “your thang.” It’s historic. It’s about country musicians we’ve heard about all of our lives. It’s filled with their music and images that take the viewer back in time.
I’m thinking there’s an order for a collection of DVDs in my future, because even for a retired guy, this has been a busy week and I’ve not been able to devote my undivided attention to television.
However, I’m not here today to sing Ken Burns’ praises, although I certainly could. What leads me into a discussion of this series is a comment that came toward the end of the first segment, which devoted a lot of time to the legacy left by Jimmie Rodgers, “The Blue Yodeler.” He is also known as “The Singing Brakeman” and “The Father of Country Music.”
Ernest Tubb, who along with Jimmie Rodgers stand as two pillars in the foundation of American country music, was quoted in that opening episode as saying he recalled people in Brownwood lining up along the sidewalk in 1929 to see Rodgers perform. Tubb added that Rodgers was so popular, his fans waited in line to pay $1 a seat at a theater that had trouble selling movie tickets for a dime.
Then, in a subsequent episode, viewers learned that Tubb was only 15 when he was inspired to pursue music himself after seeing Rodgers perform in Brownwood. Tubb was born in 1914. Do the math. Tubb was in Brownwood in 1929 to hear Rodgers sing — and the course of country was forever changed.
But which Brownwood theater? By the 1940s, with World War II raging and Camp Bowie soldiers nearby, the city was home to a total of nine indoor theaters. But what about 1929?
Searching through back issues of the Brownwood Bulletin, I found digital copies of this newspaper from Thursday, March 21, 1929. Jimmie Rodgers was here for three shows: Thursday night, plus a matinee Friday, and another evening show Friday. He had originally been booked for one day, but the additional shows were added due to demand.
But which theater? Our historic Lyric, now restored and open for performances again.
So, when you go see “Ring of Fire” at the Lyric in October, just imagine Jimmie Rodgers on stage, with a teenager named Ernest Tubb in the audience.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.