Tubb was born on a cotton farm near Crisp, in Ellis County, Texas (now a ghost town). His father was a sharecropper, so Tubb spent his youth working on farms throughout the state. He was inspired by Jimmie Rodgers and spent his spare time learning to sing, yodel, and play the guitar. At age 19, he took a job as a singer on San Antonio radio station KONO-AM. The pay was low so Tubb also dug ditches for the Works Progress Administration and then clerked at a drug store. In 1939 he moved to San Angelo, Texas and was hired to do a 15-minute afternoon live show on radio station KGKL-AM. He drove a beer delivery truck in order to support himself during this time, and during World War II he wrote and recorded a song titled "Beautiful San Angelo".
In 1936, Tubb contacted Jimmie Rodgers' widow (Rodgers died in 1933) to ask for an autographed photo. A friendship developed and she was instrumental in getting Tubb a recording contract with RCA. His first two records were unsuccessful. A tonsillectomy in 1939 affected his singing style so he turned to songwriting. In 1940 he switched to Decca records to try singing again and it was his sixth Decca release with the single "Walking the Floor Over You" that brought Tubb to stardom. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc in 1965 by the RIAA.
Tubb joined the Grand Ole Opry in February 1943 and put together his band, the Texas Troubadours. Tubb's first band members were from Gadsden, Alabama. They were: Vernon "Toby" Reese, Chester Studdard, and Ray "Kemo" Head. He remained a regular on the radio show for four decades, and hosted his own Midnite Jamboree radio show each Saturday night after the Opry. Tubb headlined the first Grand Ole Opry show presented in Carnegie Hall in New York City in September 1947.
Tubb always surrounded himself with some of Nashville's best musicians. Jimmy Short, his first guitarist in the Troubadours, is credited with the Tubb sound of single-string guitar picking. From about 1943 to 1948, Short featured clean, clear riffs throughout Tubb's songs. Other well-known musicians to either travel with Tubb as band members or record on his records were steel guitarist Jerry Byrd and Tommy "Butterball" Paige, who replaced Short as Tubb's lead guitarist in 1947. Billy Byrd joined the Troubadours in 1949 and brought jazzy riffs to the instrumental interludes, especially the four-note riff at the end of his guitar solos that would become synonymous with Tubb's songs. Actually a jazz musician, Byrd — no relation to Jerry — remained with Tubb until 1959.
Another Tubb musician was actually his producer, Owen Bradley. Bradley played piano on many of Tubb's recordings from the 1950s, but Tubb wanted him to sound like Moon Mullican, the honky tonk piano great of that era. The classically trained Bradley tried, but couldn't quite match the sound, so Tubb said Bradley was "half as good" as Moon. When Tubb called out Bradley's name at the start of one of the piano interludes the singer always referred to him as "Half-Moon Bradley".
In 1949, Tubb helped the famed boogie-woogie Andrews Sisters crossover to the country charts when they teamed on Decca Records to record a cover of Eddy Arnold's "Don't Rob Another Man's Castle" and the western-swing flavored "I'm Bitin' My Fingernails and Thinking of You." Tubb was impressed by the enormous success of Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne, and he remembered that their 1947 recording of "The Blue Tail Fly (Jimmy Crack Corn)" with folk legend Burl Ives produced a Top-10 Billboard hit, and he was therefore eager to repeat that success. He brought the upbeat "Fingernails" tune to the session, hoping that the trio would like it, and they did. Not realizing how tall the Texas Troubadour was, the recording technicians at Decca had the sisters stand on a wooden box on one side of the one microphone they shared with Tubb so that the audio would balance. The rhythm trio also wasn't used to Tubb's vocal style, as Maxene once remembered, "He sang different than anybody I've ever heard. He sang the melody of the song, but the timing was different. It wasn't like we were used to...you sing eight bars, and then you sing eight bars, and then you sing eight bars. Not with him. He just sang eight bars, ten bars, eleven bars, and then stopped, whatever it was. So, we'd just start to follow him, and then got paid on 750,000 records sold that never came above the Mason-Dixon Line!"
Tubb never possessed the best voice: he always sang flat, and actually mocked his own singing. He told an interviewer that 95 percent of the men in bars would hear his music on the juke box and say to their girlfriends, "I can sing better than him," and Tubb added they would be right. In fact, he missed some notes horribly on some recordings. When Tubb was recording "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry" in 1949 and tried to hit a low note, Red Foley, his duet partner at the time, was sitting in the booth when somebody said, "I bet you wish you could hit that low note." Foley replied, "I bet Ernest wishes he could hit that note." The two, who released seven albums together, maintained a friendly on-air "feud" over the years, and Tubb appeared on Foley's Ozark Jubilee on ABC-TV.
In 1957, he walked into the lobby of the National Life Building in Nashville and fired a .357 magnum, intending to shoot music producer Jim Denny. Tubb shot at the wrong man but did not hit anyone. He was arrested and charged with public drunkenness.
In the 1960s, Tubb was well known for having one of the best bands in country music history. The band included lightning-fingered Leon Rhodes, who later appeared on TV's Hee Haw as the guitarist in the show's band. Buddy Emmons, another pedal steel guitar virtuoso, began with Tubb in fall of 1957 and lasted through the early 1960s. Emmons went on to create a steel-guitar manufacturing company that bears his name. Buddy Charleton, one of the most accomplished pedal steel guitarists known, joined Ernest in spring 1962 and continued to fall of 1973. Buddy Charleton and Leon Rhodes formed a nucleus for the Texas Troubadours that would be unsurpassed.
Beginning in the fall of 1965, he hosted a half-hour TV program, The Ernest Tubb Show, which aired in first-run syndication for three years. That same year, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame; and in 1970, Tubb was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Tubb inspired some of the most devoted fans of any country artist — and his fans followed him throughout his career, long after the chart hits dried up. He remained, as did most of his peers, a fixture at the Grand Ole Opry where he continued to appear. He continued to host his Midnite Jamboree radio program a few blocks away from the Opry at his record shop. A notable release in 1979, The Legend and the Legacy paired Tubb with a who's who of country singers on the Cachet Records label, a label which Tubb was connected to financially. This long out of print duets album was re-released in 1999 as a CD on the First Generations label, on the 20th anniversary of its release, and it quickly went out of print again.
In 1980, he appeared as himself in Loretta Lynn's autobiographical film, Coal Miner's Daughter with Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.
His singing voice remained intact until late in life, when he fell ill with emphysema. Even so, he continued to make over 200 personal appearances a year, carrying an oxygen tank on his bus. After each performance he would shake hands and sign autographs with every fan who wanted to stay. Health problems finally halted his performances in 1982. On August 14, 1982, he made his final appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.
He died from his illness in 1984 at the Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. He is buried in Nashville's Hermitage Memorial Gardens.
Tubb was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, and he ranked number 21 in CMT's 40 Greatest Men of Country Music in 2003.
One of his sons, Justin Tubb, made a minor splash on the country music scene in the 1950s; and Justin's sons, Carey and Zachary Tubb, also became musicians. Tubb's nephew, Billy Lee Tubb, was his lead guitarist briefly (fall 1959–April 1960). He also had solo careers under several pseudonyms (Ronny Wade, X. Lincoln) and played with John Anderson, writing several songs with him. Tubb's great nephew, Lucky Tubb, has toured with Hank Williams III.
Cal Smith, who played guitar for the Texas Troubadours during the 1960s, went on to a successful country music career of his own in the 1970s, recording hits such as "Country Bumpkin". Jack Greene, who played drums for the Texas Troubadours, also went on to become a successful country music star following his departure from Tubb's band, recording the hits "There Goes My Everything" and "Statue of a Fool".
Ernest Tubb's nephew, Glenn Douglas Tubb, wrote his first hit song for his uncle in 1952. He then went on to write more than 50 hits songs for more than two dozen country and rock music superstars, including Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, BJ Thomas, George Jones, Kentucky Headhunters, Charlie Pride, Ann Murray, and Kitty Wells. Glenn won a Grammy Award for "Skip a Rope". He currently performs "The Ernest Tubb Tribute Show" at The Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree broadcast on WSM Radio, and theaters across America.
The song "Set 'Em Up Joe", recorded and made famous by Vern Gosdin, was a tribute to Tubb's music, particularly the song "Walking the Floor Over You".
The Ernest Tubb Record Store, founded in 1947, is still in operation in Nashville. (See external link)