Loretta Lynn at 90, and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop

photo: Brad Coolidge

It’s Loretta Lynn’s 90th birthday today (4-14), and a reminder of what a legendary career and life she has lived, and how fortunate the rest of us are to live during an era when we get to inhabit the same ball of rock hurtling through space with her, whether we grew up right beside her and listening to her music in the present tense, or grew up in an era reflecting back on the heart of her career, and discovered her through the albums, stories, and perhaps one of the best country music biopics ever cut, Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Loretta Lynn is now one of the oldest living legends in all of country music, with only a couple just ahead of her in line when it comes to age. But in her career, Loretta was kind of a late bloomer. Married at 15 to her muse, adversary, and staunchest champion Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn in 1948, Loretta lived an entire life before she even tried to become a performer, giving birth to four children before making her first recording (two of which she’s outlived), when Doolittle bought her a $17 Harmony guitar, and tried to convince her she could make a living as a performer. If nothing else, Loretta Lynn’s life is a testament to how it’s never too late to pursue your dreams.

It’s always interesting to ponder just how an entertainer “makes it,” and becomes a top-tier legend in their field like Loretta Lynn unarguably is, while so many others either colossally fail, or never get nearly as far. For sure, there’s a good bit of luck and fortuitous timing involved every time. And though talent and skill are also certainly a component, there are plenty of skilled and talented country artists whose careers cashed and burned, or never achieved the heights they should have.

With so many of the artists that reach superstar status, there is a “moment” that put them there. Sometimes, it’s a number of these moments. For Loretta Lynn, that moment came through Ernest Tubb, and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop’s Midnite Jamboree.

Why do we care if the Ernest Tubb Record Shop goes the way of the dinosaur? What exactly are we losing? With all the concern that the venerable country music institution could be in peril with a pending sale, there may be no better illustration of why the property and business are worth preserving than the story of Loretta Lynn.

It was Patsy Cline who would ultimately become Loretta Lynn’s biggest champion, confidant, and best friend. But it was Ernest Tubb who gave Lynn her first real shot at stardom.

After traveling around the country with Doolittle, trying to get radio stations to play her first single “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” Loretta Lynn finally arrived in Nashville in the fall of 1960, supposedly showing up to the Mother Church of Country Music—The Ryman Auditorium—and kissing the steps outside. Of course, she couldn’t play the Opry at that point. Getting that opportunity sometimes took years for performers to achieve. It was such an exclusive opportunity because in 1960, a performance on the Grand Ole Opry could immediately make a country artist a star.

But only weeks after arriving in Music City, Loretta Lynn unexpectedly was told someone had bestowed her the opportunity to perform on the hallowed stage. Not knowing how or why she was being given this opportunity, she made her Opry debut on October 5th, 1960. It wasn’t until afterwards that she learned that Ernest Tubb had given up his performance slot that night so Lynn could have the opportunity. At that point, the two performers hadn’t even met before.

“That was something for him to do that because he didn’t know me,” Lynn recalled later.

But of course, it didn’t stop there. Ernest Tubb had opened the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in 1947 on Commerce St., and then moved it to its current location on Lower Broadway in 1951. As a way to attract customers, Ernest Tubb started the Midnite Jamboree radio program and performance, which played every Saturday night after the Opry. As patrons flooded out of the Ryman, a few would make their way across Broadway to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop to catch the performance, while many others listened at home. It has since become the 2nd-longest running country radio program after the Opry itself.

Ernest Tubb insisted Loretta Lynn play the Midnite Jamboree most every Saturday night early in her career, until she became synonymous with the program. “Ernest Tubb helped me a lot,” Loretta says. To this day, in the back of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop is a shrine to Loretta Lynn, memorializing her time on the Midnite Jamboree.

Loretta Lynn had many “moments” while performing on the Jamboree, but none may have been bigger than when she sang Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” and dedicated it to Patsy who was laying in a hospital bed after a car accident on June 14, 1961. Loretta was still an up-and-comer, and Cline was an established star. Many people heard the performance on the Midnite Jamboree, and it struck a chord with them. One of them was Patsy Cline herself, who sent her husband Charlie to get Loretta and bring her to the hospital. At first Loretta was worried Patsy would be angry for singing her song. But it was the beginning of a sincere friendship.

It was also one of the many launching pads for Loretta Lynn’s career. She would ultimately become a Grand Ole Opry member in 1962, and her career as a country singer was secured. This isn’t the only story of the Midnite Jamboree helping to launch a career. It’s just the start. But it’s arguably the biggest, and most important.

None of these stories, and none of these moments in country music will ever cease, whether the Ernest Tubb Record Shop is bulldozed, converted to God knows what kind of monstrosity for Lower Broadway tourists, or remains standing forevermore.

But to still be able to visit the specific place where Loretta Lynn launched her career in the back of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop is worth so much more than the price of any real estate, and not just for the history enshrined there. It’s because of the hope and promise the story of Loretta Lynn’s career confers to us even to this day is inspiration to performers looking for their “moment” to rise above the crowd and be noticed. Four kids at home, dirt poor, with nobody really knowing who she was in the music business, Loretta Lynn beat the odds.

And this is one of the many, many reasons the Ernest Tubb Record Shop is so much more than brick and mortar. And Loretta Lynn is so much more than just a singer.

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