VOL. 7 | NO. 51 | Saturday, December 13, 2014
Stars Flock to Music City’s Ernest Tubb Record Shop
TIM GHIANNI | The Ledger
When Bob Dylan drops by, he generally goes right for “a handful” of Hank and Carter Family recordings, although on one Lower Broadway afternoon the old man from the North Country also is reported to have purchased a “Larry the Cable Guy” DVD.
An unsubstantiated tale too good to ignore.
Elton John also visits this little shop that used to be squeezed among porno parlors and other adult “activities” during this stretch’s seedier years. Mr. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is something of a friend of the store’s proprietor.
Ernest Tubb enthusiasts are greeted by the statue of the late, great Texas Troubadour when they enter the store. They also likely are greeted by David McCormick, CEO of all locations of the music retailer.
(The Ledger/Tim Ghianni)
“When Elton’s in town, we expect to see him. He’s on our mailing list, too,” says David McCormick, CEO of all the Ernest Tubb Record shops, which, in addition to this Lower Broad store, has locations on Music Valley Drive and another in Pigeon Forge.
“Elvis Costello is a regular customer of ours,” David adds. “Comes in here for stone-country music.”
Shoppers in the Lower Broad store – in a building used as a Civil War hospital – can find anything from Taylor Swift to Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper while fingering through the rows of CDs and vinyl albums. Perhaps a shopper will choose an Ernest Tubb album to commemorate the visit to this store begun by a man who lives on in the proprietor’s heart.
“I never really knew my father, but Mr. Tubb pretty much became my father figure,” says McCormick, flashing a smile.
While the 65-year-old is owner – “that means I clean up and sweep around here, too” – of all Ernest Tubb stores, he spends the bulk of his time here in the shop ET opened in 1947, turning the keys over to McCormick 40-something years ago.
“This is an international tourist stop, too,” McCormick says, noting that among his greatest pleasures is wandering among the customers, talking to them, learning where they are from, helping them find Patsy Cline, Mac Wiseman or Stringbean Akeman discs.
For example, there was this guy from Ireland who came in here with three business partners. All four rabidly descended on the rows of CDs.
The iconic Lower Broadway sign in front of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop is a reminder of a glorious Music City heritage.
(The Ledger/Tim Ghianni)
“He bought everything that was in here,” McCormick only semi-exaggerates. “He and his friends spent an hour in here, and I had no idea who they were other than that they were from Dublin.”
The men were simply taking a break in a lucrative business trip that was rattling and humming across America.
Fact is, McCormick became so engaged in conversation with the obvious leader of the young men that he didn’t even ask his name. For about 20 minutes, McCormick and the stranger talked about Dublin and Ireland and country music while the other three finally found what they were looking for.
“He said they were playing down in Murfreesboro. I didn’t know he was talking about playing in the big arena (the Murphy Center) at Middle Tennessee (State University),” McCormick says.
He also didn’t know the friendly young Irishman was U2’s Bono. His cronies, passionately mining the CD racks, were guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.
“I was really embarrassed after he said who he was,” McCormick admits. “Bono said ‘we come in here from time to time because we don’t have to endure the cameras.’”
The rock ’n’ roll band was just another scruffy set of Nashville Cats to the hard-country-leaning shoppers who generally crowd this store. Now if Porter or Monroe, for example, had been shopping here, each star would have been swarmed by adoring country worshipers.
“It is a tour destination from all over the world. We get literally people from every country you can think of,” McCormick says. “I never cease to be amazed by how many foreign visitors we get here in the shop.
“It seems 417 Broadway is a Nashville icon. People are always taking pictures here. Not all of them know who Ernest Tubb was when they come in here. I like that because it gives me a chance to tell them about Mr. Tubb, a little chance to let them know him.”
Still fairly fresh to Nashville after growing up in Livingston, McCormick was handpicked by the Texas Troubadour to take over the daily operation of this shop.
“In 1970, the manager’s position became available, and Mr. Tubb hired me for that. We just had this one store back then.
“This is home to me,” says McCormick, who first entered this store before the Grand Ole Opry left the nearby Ryman to establish residency at the Grand Ole Opry House, out by what was a banjo-punctuated theme park.
That happiest place in Nashville long since was scraped from the earth’s surface to make room for a fishing and hunting superstore and a mega mall.
“I worked part-time when I first came here,” McCormick recalls. “I also worked at Moon Drugs. I came to Nashville to go to school at the Mid-South College of Broadcasting and Electronics. They were out on 23rd and had courses in journalism and in radio work. They have moved to California now (where they doubtless have dropped “Mid-South” from the moniker.)
“I was able to use what I learned at the Midnite Jamboree, the second-longest-running radio show [just behind the Opry]. I’m the producer” of the country variety show staged every Saturday at its namesake hour.
Tubb was an active owner and even participated in the Jamboree, then broadcast on WSM from the low stage stretching across the rear of the original shop, a place where hillbilly hipsters and country crooners could perform after their segments at the Ryman.
“He hosted it when he was in town,” McCormick says of Tubb. “But back then, he worked 250 dates a year, so we wouldn’t see him at the store or on stage for six weeks at a time.
“The other Opry members took turns hosting. The Wilburn Brothers did it a lot – Mr. Tubb really thought a lot of Teddy and Doyle. Loretta has done it many, many times,” he says.
When I mention that on one glorious Saturday night in the mid-1970s, I swung by to catch Loretta Lynn – and if I was remembering correctly (never a sure bet at this point), the performance was out on Broadway, he smiles. “We did special events out in the street, but just a few and far between.”
After the Opry moved to the suburbs in ’74, allowing Lower Broad to rot into an X-rated hillbilly skid row, where peep shows filled at least three storefronts – one right next door to ET Record Shop – the Jamboree moved to the “new” store near Opryland, Nashville’s tourism hot spot at the time.
Now there is a 500-seat Texas Troubadour theater for the Jamboree right next to the No. 2 store on Music Valley Drive, and it remains a Saturday night after-hours destination for Opry stars to entertain folks from Peoria and Prague.
McCormick hints there may be some belt-tightening in his operation, but vows to keep going long into the future. “I don’t know what else I’d do. Isn’t much call for an old record-seller,” he says.
Now he daily walks the floors of his main store in the revived honky-tonk district, where no longer do late-night visitors see newspaper pages and other trash blowing like so much tumbleweed past hookers and deviants.
“We didn’t know if we could keep this store open, so we wanted to have others,” McCormick says, noting that over time – in addition to his downtown HQ and the stores near Opryland and at Pigeon Forge – there was an ET Record Shop on Music Row as well as one in Fort Worth, another in Branson. A miniature version of ET’s existed out at the airport.
About the only time McCormick took off came after an intruder at his Donelson condo bashed him in the head with a railroad spike – “I kept that in an extra bedroom. Wish I still had it” – and left him in need of physical therapy and a new place to live.
Not surprising, he moved a block from his beloved Lower Broad store, which he bought with the rest from the estate after the Texas Troubadour’s 1984 death.
“Mr. Tubb was a great man. Spent his life helping people. Back then in those years, someone like him had the power to get somebody on the Opry or get someone a writer’s contract or a record contract.
“He brought Jack Greene to prominence. He and Cal Smith were in his band. Mr. Tubb got Jack an Opry membership.
“Opry’s big-time corporate now. He wouldn’t be able to do that today.”
While he greets Lower Broad’s rebirth with enthusiasm – “I love it. Having all these people here all the time” – he notes heavy question marks on his stores’ future.
After all, it remains a record shop, not an online download outlet. “We saw the end of an era that may not ever be again,” he says of the boom years of the vinyl albums, then cassettes and then the CDs.
“I don’t know now what the future holds. It’s scary a little bit, especially if they do away with CDs…
“I’m not predicting gloom and doom. But I’ve got to look at reality. I think the majority of the stuff the major labels are doing now are downloads. They are focused on that.”
But there aren’t so many available downloads of Johnnie and Jack, Jim and Jesse, Charlie and Ira. That’s why people visit ET’s.
As long as folks like to hold a physical product in their hands, McCormick says his mercantile niche has a bright future. “Our audience are diehard, traditional country music fans, and they can’t find what we have in their local record shops.
“Some towns don’t even have record shops anymore.”