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It’s the Christmas Eve edition of The Eddie Stubbs Show on WAMU.
Perhaps you’re doing some baking, maybe your family is gathering for Christmas dinner a little ahead of time, or maybe you’re putting the last decorations on your tree, or you’re even out doing some last-minute shopping. Whatever the case, we’re delighted to have you with us.
Even though Christmas is nigh, Stubbs is busy embarking on another journey into the past. As the veteran DJ does every Sunday afternoon on 88.5 FM, he spins records from the golden age of country music, impossibly obscure honky-tonk tunes, bluegrass songs, and hits of a half-century ago. Today’s show features the annual rite of all-Christmas country songs.
Let’s go back to the holiday season of 1965 with a tune by the Wonderin’ Boy, Webb Pierce….
It all rolls out in the sort of sober, ultramasculine baritone that hawked Lucky Strike cigarettes during World War II. Above it all but right next to you, it’s a voice of the utmost seriousness, without a hint of hayseed corniness.
Under Stubbs’ guidance, traditional coun-
tryonce mocked as hillbilly noisesounds as epic as opera, as deep as Delta blues. Chock-full of fiery fiddles and crying steel guitars, this is sad, hard-bitten stuff, and the playlist alone tells much of the story : “Blue Christmas Lights,” “I’m Tired of Playing Santa Claus to You,” “Christmas Is Lonely,” “Gift of the Blues,” “I’m Trimming My Christmas Tree With Teardrops.”
The Christmas Eve show is less a celebration of yuletide than of country music’s rich past, a tradition ignored by today’s country radio, which blares only twangy, MOR pap. In the studio and behind the microphone, Stubbs is more altar boy than disc jockey, reverently listing session musicians and tracing the ancestry of various songs, a practice usually reserved for jazz and classical. His cut-to-the-bone playlist and deadpan devotion have made the show a cult favorite for everyone from heavy-metal headbangers to former President Bush. Tapes of his better broadcasts pass hands like Grateful Dead bootlegs.
His simple introduction to “There Won’t Be Any Tree This Christmas,” a maudlin, death-of-a-child song that’s been out of print for years, is classic Stubbs:
This was without a doubt the most requested song that I aired last year on WAMU during the Christmas season. I recently played this record, and the artists featured on this releaseKitty Wells and her husband, Johnny Wrighthappened to be tuned in, and it was the first time they’d heard the song in many, many years. Johnny Wright told me that he almost cried when he heard ithe had forgotten how sad the actual message in this one is. I think it’s a very beautiful tune.
Many of the artists he plays are dead, and the ones who are still alive haven’t had a hit in decades. Radio is still a place where the listener supplies the picturesno wonder many a longtime listener has envisioned Stubbs as a portly 65-year-old country gentleman with a pipe in his mouth and a dog at his feet. Truth be told, Stubbs is a lanky 34-year-old who wasn’t even born when most of these songs were released. But he is indeed a throwback. In an age of fuchsia T-shirts and Garth Brooks, Stubbs wears somber suits and worships Hank Williams.
The Eddie Stubbs Show is an ongoing experiment in time-travel and musical obsession. And it doesn’t end with the broadcast: Stubbs lives his music. In addition to broadcasting classic gutbucket country, Stubbs is a fiddler, writer, and award-winning researcher and historian, all of it just a way of living his abiding obsession: real country music from the ’40s to the ’60s. Straight up.
“Eddie’s found the time machine,” marvels fellow WAMU DJ Dick Spottswood. He compares Stubbs to artist Robert Crumb and other iconoclasts living in a bygone era of their own making. “It’s his suit of armor that he put on and locked up and threw away the key. That’s now him.”
A year ago, his beloved radio show was about all Stubbs had. His dream of bringing classic country concerts back to Washingtonin the ’50s, D.C. was a hotbed of traditional country musichad fizzled: His heroes had been relegated long ago to the county-fair-and-firehouse-carnival circuit far outside the Beltway. Stubbs’ Grammy-nominated bluegrass band, the Johnson Mountain Boys, called it quits after more than a decade together. To pay the bills, he painted houses and worked as a substitute DJ on WAMU in addition to his Sunday show. His marriage to a classical violinist broke up.
Stubbs’ life had become a country song.
Then he got a call to play fiddle in Kitty Wells’ backup band in Nashville. Without children or a marriage to tie him down, the lifelong Gaithersburg resident became the first Stubbs ever to move away from his native Montgomery County. Nashville, a destination point for countless wannabes (Johnny Cash’s nephew performs nightly karaoke) and has-beens, took Stubbs into its bosom. Lightning struck Stubbs almost as soon as he moved to Music City: Just weeks after arriving, he became an onstage announcer for WSM-AM’s Grand Ole Opry, country music’sand the world’soldest continuously running radio show, broadcast in 38 states and Canada. From the day he took over the mike, it seemed as if Stubbs had been born to stand in that spot, anchoring country’s most durable legacy.
Stubbs soon began hosting a Saturday-morning show on WSMthe so-called “Air Castle of the South”that’s become the highest-rated program in its time slot in Nashville. Like his WAMU gig, it mostly features traditional music”real country,” as Stubbs calls it. But Nashville’s new native son remains loyal to his former hometown audience: He still puts out his weekly WAMU Sunday show, taping the broadcast (“live,” of course) in a WSM production studio in Nashville.
In that town, Stubbs’ obsession with country’s past seems right on time. Despite the unprecedented national success of pop-influenced country, the Nashville scene is different, undergoing a sort of retro-revolution. Locally, Stubbs’ favorite music has hit a nerve with young and old alike, from Vanderbilt University coeds to middle-aged fans who bought the records in their heyday. The city’s hottest band is BR5-49, a group of college-age pickers playing hard-core honky-tonk the old-fashioned way: sock-rhythm guitar, lap-top steel, and doghouse bass.
Long an anachronistic throwback in Washington, Stubbs has found his true home in music-crazy Nashville: There, he’s not the only person who seems to stake his very life on hard-core country music, who believes that Hank Williams is the greatest singer of the centuryit’s pretty much general consensus (though not everyone can tell you everything except the shoe sizes of Hank’s backup band, the Drifting Cowboys).
In Music City U.S.A., Eddie Stubbs is hip.
“You’re on sacred ground, son.” Eddie Stubbs’ deep voice resounds over the phone with signature formality, but all I can see from my hotel windowbesides the roof of a scuzzy Huddle House diner next doorare the skyscrapers of downtown Nashville. Stubbs patiently explains that the hotel at 7th and Union is near the location of the old WSM radio studio where Williams recorded some of his greatest songs.
Stubbs is a devout pilgrim in the Holy City, and he’s constantly on the lookout for relics of the saints, like those at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The shrine includes precious treasures, like Hawkshaw Hawkins’ battered cowboy hat and Bible, found in the wreckage of the fatal 1963 plane crash that also claimed Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline. “Whatever you do, don’t leave town without going to the Hall of Fame,” Stubbs tells me. “That’s very, very important stuff.”
We decide to meet at a restaurant near lower Broadway. A seedy section getting spiffed up for tourists, this remnant of ’50s-era Nashville remains a prime spot for local music. Tootsie’s Orchid Loungeperhaps the world’s most famous divestill features Hank-alikes playing for tips; a few doors down is Robert’s Western Wear, a combination clothing store and bar. Stubbs often fiddles here, guesting with local musicians, but BR5-49 is the unofficial house band, packing the place on a weekly basis. And every block boasts a record store crammed with seemingly every country record ever made.
Up the street, the Spaghetti Warehouse, next to a line-dancing palace called Wildhorse Saloon, is decorated with entire families outfitted in souvenir-wear, Mastercarded from a nearby Hard Rock Cafe. Eddie Stubbs’ sober suit and mien cut a distinct figure, like some Kafkaesque extra from a black-and-white movie trapped in a Technicolor world: His tall, thin frame, stooped stride, and long, artist’s handsand his drab, old-fashioned clothes (gray slacks, dress shirt, and ancient wingtips)make Spottswood’s Crumb comparison seem uncanny. Stubbs’ long, gaunt facehigh, balding forehead, jutting ears, and piercing, deep-set eyesrecalls a Depression-era hillbilly in Sunday clothes, staring from some WPA photo.
We get a table, and Stubbs suggests the $5.95 Manager’s Specialspaghetti with a special house sauceand orders it along with a cup of black decaf. Right off, it’s obvious that Stubbs the DJ and Stubbs the person are pretty much the same guy. He speaks in the precise, plain, eloquent tone of his broadcasting voice; he’s as deathly serious in person as he is on the air. Stubbs is a friendly man, but he’s not one to flash an easy smile, and he rarely laughs. Even when he raves about Nashville, he remains reserved and careful not to offend anyone: “I’ve never felt so welcome in a place in all my life, and that’s no disrespect to the people back home. I miss Washington, I miss my friends and familythat’s my roots, my heritage. I’ll always be proud to be from Montgomery County.”
Stubbs knows I’m a longtime fan of his Washington show, but I still feel compelled to opine that the records he plays are the only ones that truly deserve to be called “country music.” I confess to him that Hank Williams’ undeniable genius was one of the few things my father and I could agree on when I was a ’70s teen blasting the Clash from my bedroom. Without a word of encouragement from Stubbs, I wind up delivering a full-fledged rant: I damn today’s so-called country singers as Billy-Joels-in-boots and cowboy-hatted cream puffs. I finish by announcing that Garth Brooks is full of shitfrom his Madonna microphone headset to his Journey-style smoke-and-light showand that if I saw him around Nashville I would personally kick his assor at least try to pick a fight with one of his bodyguards. (Nashville’s like that: It makes you say and do things you would not ordinarily say and do.)
Stubbs beholds me with the sort of scolding glare that Clint Eastwood used to give Clyde when the honky-tonkin’ orangutan misbehaved in Every Which Way but Loose. I am expecting some good ol’ Garth-bashing between Hank Sr. fanatics, but Stubbs will have none of it: “Garth Brooks is a really nice man,” he says sternly. “I saw him here when he played the Opry. He stayed backstage ’til 2 a.m. signing autographshe’s good to his fans, and that tells me a lot about him.”
Though Stubbs admits he doesn’t “care much” for Brooks’ music, he says he’s never really cared for any type of music other than traditional country. When he was a boy growing up in Gaithersburg in the ’60s, the rock revolution left him completely cold: “That music just didn’t hit me,” he says bluntly. “It sounds far-fetched, but it’s the God’s own truthit did nothing for me.” The music that made Eddie Stubbs, well, Eddie Stubbs, drifted from an AM radio in the family car, which his father always kept tuned to the now-defunct WDON in Wheaton. He rattles off the playlist of his toddlerhood: “The three earliest songs that I remember hearing as a kid that stand out in my mind are ‘Walk on By’ by Leroy Van Dyke, ‘Lonesome 7-7203’ by Hawkshaw Hawkins, and ‘Once a Day’ by Connie Smith.”
Stubbs’ father, a building contractor, is a fiddler, as was his father, and young Eddie’s hands were already wrapped around a fiddle by the time he was 4. Raised in a strict Catholic household, music was it in the fun department. By his early teens, Stubbs was tuning into the Grand Ole Opry and collecting records. His brother, a fan of Ted Nugent and Kiss, often turned off the power in the house to shut down the Flatt and Scruggs and other bluegrass music blasting from Stubbs’ stereo.
It’s an obsession that has only intensified over the years: A seemingly harmless chat about music can get serious fast when you’re talking to Eddie Stubbs.
“Kitty Wellsshe’s still the queen of country music,” says Stubbs. “I love that woman to death.”
What about Loretta Lynn or Patsy Cline or Tammy Wynette, I ask. What about Reba McEntire? Aren’t they also queens of country music?
To Eddie Stubbs, the question smacks of blasphemy: Though he’s not an outwardly emotional man, it’s obvious he’s seething inside.
“Kitty Wells was and always will be the queen of country musicALWAYS,” he says. “She can never be replaced. First of all, she’s the true essence of a first-class lady. You’ll never hear anyone say anything bad about Kitty Wells. She commands respect and dignity, but she never looks down at anybody to command that. She’s just one of those people who radiate class, and everyone loves her.”
“One time I asked herbecause Kitty is a very decent Christian woman, always has beenI asked her, ‘Did it bother you to sing these honky-tonk songs about cheating and being the abused wife?because you didn’t live that lifestyle.’ She said, ‘No, because I sang what the people wanted to hear. You don’t have to live those songs to be able to perform them.’”
After the meal, we walk down toward Broadway, but something catches Stubbs’ eye: “You want to look for some records, c’mon in here.” We enter a store called the Great Escape, which has bins of used recordsall country.
Stubbs rifles through the albums lightning fast; he’s seen it all but he’s just making sure nothing old-but-new gets by him: “You never know what you might find,” he says. He yanks out a worn record from the stacks: Ray Price’s Greatest Hits. “This is one of the greatest country records of all time,” he announces. “Man, this is shuffle city.” He admires the cover for a while, then puts it back.
We head back outside into the chilly February night and stop at the corner of 2nd and Broadway, a few blocks down from Tootsie’s and the historic Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Stubbs looks down the street and says, “I’m living out a dream, I really am. Sometimes I still can’t believe it. The Opry is the greatest thing in the world, and nobody loves it more than me.”
He pauses, reflecting for a moment: Again, he wants to cover his bases back home. “If it hadn’t been for WAMU, I wouldn’t be here. The show in Washington was my calling card to Nashville.”
I ask if he wants to go get a beer at Tootsie’s: “I’m not a drinking man, but thank you,” he says. “I’ve got to go home and iron some shirts.”
I head up the street to Tootsie’s, a tiny, dark hole, where a croaking crooner is playing cowboy songs for a handful of sloshed faithful. A couple announces that it’s their 30th wedding anniversary, and they embracecig in her hand, Bud in histo raucous applause. In the bathroom, above the toilet, someone has scrawled “BR5-49.” I take it as a good omen and help close the place down.
In 1992, country singer Whisperin’ Bill Anderson was on the road; he’d enjoyed many hits in the ’60s, mostly sentimental tunes like “Po’ Folks” and “Mama Sang a Song.” Like many aging stars of his generation, he hasn’t had a songold or newon country radio in many years, but fans still love him at the Grand Ole Opry. And he still plays venues in small towns across the country.
Anderson was due to perform at in the summer haze of a carnival in Boonsboro, Md., about an hour-and-a-half northwest of Washington, D.C. Then a sudden, relentless afternoon rainstorm canceled the concert: “We were sitting around in the bus bored to death, and I turned on the radio and just turned the dial trying to pick something up, and I came across some of this old country music. I said, ‘What in the world have I run upon here?’ and I just sat there and listened for an hour or two. It was like a breath of fresh airI just couldn’t believe it. No one was doing anything like that anywhere in the country.”
The Eddie Stubbs Show on WAMU had gained another convert.
For six years, the program has featured what Stubbs proudly dubs “the best in classic honky-tonky, traditional country, and vintage bluegrass” from the ’40s to the ’60s. It is a sort of re-creation of a country-music show of the era, but Stubbs brings an inordinate scholarship and passion to his mission.
“For years I’d wanted to have a hillbilly radio show,” says Stubbs, adding, “and I use the term hillbilly with all due respecta lot of people thought it denigrated the music, but the term has become acceptable again. The word ‘hillbilly’ is almost hip now.”
While today “hillbilly” is mostly an aesthetic description, it’s been a loaded word since it was coined back in the ’20s, as Bill Malone writes in his classic tome, Country Music U.S.A.: “The music took shape as a commercial entity during a decade when the South’s reputation seemed at a particularly low ebb. To many people hillbilly music was just one more example, along with Ku Kluxism, Prohibition, sharecropping, racial violence, and religious bigotry, of the South’s retarded and degenerate culture.”
No one, most especially the unassuming men and women who wrote and performed them, could then have dreamed that those songs would be championed as an American art form and broadcast regularly over the 50,000-watt signal of the nation’s leading public radio station.
For years, Dick Spottswood has broadcast the wildly eclectic show that precedes Stubbs’ every Sunday; unlike Stubbs, Spottswood plays all sorts of pre-World War II music from around the globe, from rural and urban blues (called “race” records) to Cajun reels to Ukrainian folk music to early hillbilly string bands from the ’20s and ’30s. A storied ethnomusicologist and author, Spottswood values these records as priceless masterpiecesshiny diamonds of native American brilliance that have outlived the abuse and outright hatred of the industry and the general public when they were first released.
“We want these recordings to be heard much as you would view a painting at the National Gallery,” says Spottswood. “We think that these records areeven if they aren’t intended to be works of artthey are certainly works of artistry, and we want the art to be taken seriously, because for too long this music was the object of scorn and ridicule.”
Spottswood regards Stubbs as a worthy evangelist whose mix of passion and humility reflects the best of the country-music ethic. He sees Stubbs’ formal dress code and courtly manners as a defense adopted by someone sensitive to the stereotypes. “Of course he wants to be in a coat and tie,” says Spottswood. “He’s well aware of the inferior labels that the music was tagged with all those years. He above all wants to bring a sense of dignity by being in a suit and tie all the time.”
And yes, Stubbs was country a long time before country was cool.
“Eddie was born into the culture, and that was part of the ethos he grew up with,” says country-music scholar and author Charles Wolfe. “He comes from an honest-to-God working-class background. His folks lived this musiche didn’t suddenly discover it at some folk festival up in New York.”
Wolfe, a Nashville resident and English professor at Middle Tennessee State University, first met Stubbs when the latter was a 20-year-old fiddler with the Johnson Mountain Boys. In the early ’80s, the Gaithersburg-based group wowed the bluegrass world with a stubbornly traditional sound that echoed the music’s pioneers, Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.
Impressed by Stubbs’ fiddling, Wolf also saw the promise of a scholar in Stubbs, even though Stubbs only had a high-school diploma. While working on the liner notes to a Johnson Mountain Boys LP, Wolfe realized that Stubbs had kept incredibly extensive notes on sessions and recording dates, much of it through total recall. “There are people who get Ph.D.s who can’t do as good a job as Eddie,” says Wolfe. “He’s a natural-born historianhe has an instinct for preserving the details and a sense of what’s important.”
Wolfe discovered that Stubbs had been doing his own research on his honky-tonk heroes, focusing on obscure session players and even interviewing them backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. Though extensive studies had been done by Wolfe and others on the country music of the ’20s and ’30s, little had been written about the so-called golden age, the ’50s and ’60s. “He’s rushed into a void where hardly any work had been done, and he knows more about that era than anyone,” says Wolfe, perhaps the foremost authority on early country string-band music.
Wolfe and Stubbs have collaborated on several projects, including liner notes for Bear Family Records, the renowned German label specializing in massive box sets of the complete works of country artists. Stubbs’ exhaustive workall of it diligently handwritten on legal padson the 6-CD collection, Johnny and Jack & The Tennessee Mountain Boys, won the 1993 Best Research award from the Association of Recorded Sound Collections.
Even in Nashville, Stubbs’ fervent fanaticism sets tongues wagging. Wolfe recalls a lunch with some Music Row cronies shortly after Stubbs came to town. “Somebody said, ‘You know, Eddie needs to find him a good woman,’ and then somebody else said, ‘Yeah, what he wants is a blonde with a great big butt who owns every Cowboy Copas record ever made.’”
Stubbs weaves filial grace and archival energy into his weekly show, which always begins with an uninterrupted broadcast of a wild instrumental, “Steelin’ Away,” an obscure 45 by Bud Isaacs and his Cryin’ Steel Guitar. (Stubbs found the single in a Louisville, Ky., record store while on the road with the Johnson Mountain Boys.) It is a fitting theme song for a show that honors the unsung sidemen who created the unmistakable sounds of honky-tonk: “To me, a good country record is going to have fiddle and steel in it,” says Stubbs. “I think fiddle and steel guitar make a country record.”
On a recent show, Stubbs paid a special three-hour tribute to fiddler Chubby Wise, who had just died. The program featured taped interviews with Wise, a crucial member of Bill Monroe’s classic ’40s-era lineup of the Bluegrass Boys. It turns out that Wise had never been given credit for co-writing the most famous fiddle tune of all, “Orange Blossom Special”; Stubbs made sure to set the record straight. To produce the tribute, he holed up in a WSM studio from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. “That was a labor of love, I assure you,” he says. “But you have to do that or you can’t be at peace with yourself.”
One of his most popular shows remains his annual special honoring Hank Williams, who died in the back of a Cadillac on his way to a show on New Year’s Eve 1952.
Stubbs’ devotion to the memory of Williams and other lesser-known martyrs transcends music. Spottswood recalls that Stubbs’ fanaticism devotion made the WAMU studio into something as reverential as a confessional box: “If I was in the station, he’d be playing something very maudlin. I’d say, ‘Play something cheerful, Stubbs,’ but I didn’t mess with him much, because when he’s programming that music he’s like a priest in the middle of a service.”
The morning after I meet Stubbs, I’m
driving a black Dodge rental through the streets of Nashville on a mad hunt for obscure country records. I’ve got all the names of Stubbs-approved stores scrawled on a scrap of paper: Phonolux, the Great Escape (the one near the Country Music Hall of Fame), the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, Lawrence Brothers. Mysterious, legendary sanctuaries of honky-tonk heaven. In a couple of hours, I’ve got an armful of out-of-print vinyl treasures I’ve been looking for in vain for years: Bobby Bare’s Drunk & Crazy, Waylon Jennings’ Dreamin’ My Dreams, an ancient album by my namesake Eddie Deanthe singing cowboyboasting his signature tune “I Dreamed of Hillbilly Heaven,” two incredibly rare Johnny Paycheck LPs on the Little Darlin’ label, including the charming “Pardon Me, I Think I’ve Got Someone to Kill.” It’s a goddamn bonanza.
On my way back to the hotel, I pass a strip bar that also sells firearms and swear aloud that Nashville’s the greatest city on the planet.
I turn on the car radio to WSM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. The DJ is paying tribute to the late honky-tonk singer Ernest Tubb, whose birthday is today. “E.T. would have been 84 years old today,” says the DJ, spinning E.T.’s famous, “Walkin’ the Floor Over You.” After the song ends, the DJ apologizes, “I stand correctedEddie Stubbs just called to inform me that Ernest would have been 82 years old today. Thanks for setting me straight.”
Backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, it’s chaos, as performers and fans and hangers-on go through the time-honored, exhausting ritual of being down-home with one another.
Eighty-four-year-old Bill Monroe has wandered off from his Bluegrass Boys. Weaving down the corridor, Monroe spots Ricky Skaggs, his former protégé and the star of tonight’s show, who’s losing patience with a fan who is explaining the intricacies of his newfangled videocam while the missis snaps photos of the summit meeting. As Monroe approaches, Skaggs seems almost relieved until the Father of Bluegrass proceeds to give him a series of head-butts that look to have the punch of pro wrestler Wahoo McDaniel. All Skaggs can do is pretend it doesn’t hurt and remember that being a country star isn’t always a bed of roses, even if you’re born again.
In the smoking lounge, a country band from Germany nervously awaits its moment on stage, duded up refugees from a Wim Wenders road movie. They shift uncomfortably in their crinkly new hats and boots, and gawk at the only black person in the entire Opry building, a woman named Rosa who politely serves coffee and lemonade at a corner table.
I move to the shadows backstage right, where Stubbs readies for his first segment of the evening. He’s dressed in an ash-gray suit and tie, with black dress shoes he’s had since high school. Stubbs is all undertaker next to the outlandish Nudie suits and Western wear of the performers. Earlier, he had told me that even the three Opry appearances by the Johnson Mountain Boys can’t top the weekly gig he now has at the hallowed microphone: “The highest pinnacle of country-music broadcasting that you can reach is working as an announcer at the Opry.” Indeed, Stubbs is working in the shadow of the show’s legendary announcer and founder, George D. Hay, “The Solemn Judge.” Following a 1927 NBC Musical Appreciation Hour, Hay introduced the WSM Barn Dance with the immortal words: “For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from the grand opera, but from now on we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’ ” It’s been the name of the world’s longest-running radio program ever since.
“We have a term in the business for people like Eddie Stubbs,” says WSM program director Kyle Cantrell, who hired Stubbs as Opry announcer after an impromptu onstage audition last spring. “The term is ‘good pipes’his voice has a resonance, a maturity, and perfect enunciation. He is the textbook example of what a good radio announcer should be. But on top of that, he’s not sterilethere’s a folksiness and friendliness that other announcers don’t have.”
“We’re a commercial station, and our real mission is to entertain, but our sub-mission is to educate people and make them aware of the roots of country music,” says Cantrell. “Country music is now the most popular music in America, and a lot of younger folks, were it not for people like Eddie, wouldn’t have a feel for where the music’s come from.”
It’s almost show time, and Stubbs comes over and says, “Don’t ever forget what you see here tonightthis is history.” Waiting in the wings near him is a pantheon of country gods and demigods: Porter Wagoner, Little Jimmie Dickens, Bill Anderson, Charlie Walker, and pretty Connie Smith, the muse who first inspired Stubbs. These are his lifelong idolsonce just voices on the recordsnow men and women who know him by name and greet him with respect.
“The Opry is like a living museum,” says Wolfe. “And Eddie’s just been given the keys.”
Behind a podium at the side of the stage, Stubbs kicks off another Grand Ole Opry; he’s all knuckles and know-how, whether he’s introducing Wagoner (who flashes the crowd a glittering, rhinestone-studded “HI!” message sewn on the inside of his coat) or hawking an ad for the segment’s sponsor, Cracker Barrel Country Restaurants: Getting started on these cold wintry mornings isn’t easy, but Cracker Barrel has got a breakfast that’s worth getting up for: The country fireside breakfast. Two flaky buttermilk pancakes topped with whipped cream and served up with two eggs cooked to order and your choice of thick-sliced bacon or sausage. MMMMM. That’s the way to get any day off to a good start.
The stars come and go, and Stubbs plays the solemn master of ceremonies, providing eloquent introductions to his heroes and exhorting the spectators in their applause. Before he leaves the stage, Ricky Skaggs addresses the audience and makes a plug for the new kid in town: “If you want to know about the history of country music, listen to Eddie Stubbs’ show. I believe he even knows the serial number on Bill Monroe’s mandolin.”
The crowning glory of the grand gaudiness that is Opryland is the Opryland Hotel. This gargantuan, almost Prussian-style buildingostentatious enough in every way to make Graceland seem tastefulhas 1,891 rooms and a 5-acre enclosed Victorian garden with a 40-foot waterfall. In the cold off-season, visitors can spend their entire vacations indoors here, shopping at the two dozen boutiques (Miss Prissy’s Gifts, Scarlett’s Jewelry, etc.) and socializing at the Jack Daniels Saloon. For a casual country-music fan, there’s no real reason to ever leave the place, since The Nashville Network now broadcasts highlights of the Grand Ole Opry (located at the other end of the complex) on TV.
In a carpeted corridor near the main entrance sprawls the luxurious Magnolia Lobby, where WSM’s broadcast studio hums quietly. Hotel guests saunter by in Billy Ray Cyrus sweatshirts, occasionally peering in the window to watch the DJs at work. It’s 8 a.m., and Eddie Stubbs has already been on the air for two hours: “Good morning, come on in the house,” Stubbs greets me cheerfully as he opens the door to the small studio.
Stubbs shares the studio with Dot King, a wisecracking elderly woman who takes phone requests, and Tom Robinson, a genial advertising executive and country-music devotee who’s brought along his young daughter, Amelia, and a box of Martha White biscuits.
Compared to his cool, controlled demeanor at the Opry, Stubbs is wired. His classic country show on Saturday morning is the hottest thing in town: Already about 50 requestsall written by Dot on pieces of paperare lying on table. Dot mentions that her friend George Jones listens faithfully to the show, sometimes even on the radio on his riding lawn mower: “Eddie, what was that song of George’s I had never heard before?” Frantically searching for the next record to cue up, Stubbs doesn’t miss a beat: “Relief Is Just a Swallow Away.” “Oh yeah,” murmurs Dot, returning to the flashing phone lines.
I played this next record by Little Jimmy Dickens two weeks ago and already we’ve gotten several requests for it today. Sarah called in from Murfreesboro, Otis in Antioch, and David in Nashville. Tom Robinson is here with me this morninghe calls this a ‘brake-stomper song’ because he was riding down the road when he first heard me play it and nearly slammed on his brakes. It’s one of the saddest songs everif you’ve been through a divorce, this song will hit home. Bill Anderson wrote this tune, and Curly Chalker starts it out on pedal steel. It’s called “A Death in the Family.”
As Jimmy Dickens pours himself into the mournful dirge, Stubbs rips off his headphones and shouts, “God Almighty! They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
Tom nods his head in agreement: “No one can do a heart-stompin’-that-sucker-flat ballad like Jimmy. Boy, is that a song or is that a song?”
A woman suddenly approaches the window and presses her massive body against the glass; she opens her jacket to reveal a black Neil Diamond tour jersey. She repeats this maneuver several times until she catches Stubbs’ attention; he waves his arms. “She’s been flashing me all morning,” sighs Stubbs. “She wants me to play Neil Diamond, but our format doesn’t allow it. You see everything here.”
Dot slams down the phone receiver, grumbling about a request: “I cannot stand Slim Whitman. I just don’t like Slim Whitman.”
Taking a biscuit from Tom (“Thank you, sir”), Stubbs rifles through his boxes of 78s and records and CDs for the next selection; he never brings a premeditated playlist; he just spins “what he feels.” Suddenly, he’s figured out the next segue: “Hold on, Dot,” says Stubbs. “We’ve got some George Jones coming at yousome deep-catalog George.”
“Deep catalog” is the WSM euphemism for incredibly, almost impossibly obscure records. Stubbs’ listeners crave them.
This goes back to 1965, written by Dallas Frazier, a good shuffle-beat record. I want you to listen real close to the singing on thereGeorge does a great job, and the tenor singer is none other than Johnny Paycheck, who’s also playing bass for the Jones Boys. This is from their first album for Musicornever a hit song, but I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a good country record: “If You Won’t Tell on Me, (I Won’t Tell on You).”
The fiddles swell and then Jones’ amazing vocals (“the sound of spirit trapped in flesh,” as one critic has noted) kick in, as Dot closes her eyes in rapt silence. She has a strict rule of complete silenceno one dares even make a peepduring a George Jones song.
Stubbs is really wound up now, so he can’t help but break Dot’s Law. “This is what makes getting up at 4 a.m. possible,” he says, flashing a rare smile. “This is country music, ladies and gentleman.”
The show nears its end, and a sort of sadness and tiredness envelopes the studio. As the next DJ begins his show of more contemporary songs (“All I Need Is a Brew and Little Ole You” leads off the show), Stubbs begins to show some exhaustion; he had only three hours of sleep last night, and he’s got to host another Opry show tonight: “I’m going to the Waffle House to get fed and watered and then get some shut-eye.”
It’s midnight, and the Saturday Opry is over: There was a bigger crowd and more performers, and Stubbs was flawless again. But it was pretty much the same show as Friday’sexcept the Germans weren’t invited back for a repeat performance of their Teutonic yodeling.
Everyone has crossed the freeway to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop Theater, where the Midnite Jamboree is under way: It’s a live show that traditionally follows the Opry broadcast, and it features all sorts of legendary guests. The headlining act tonight is BR5-49, but Stubbs only decided to attend after he found out that Rose Maddox, the ancient Ba-kersfield honky-tonk singer, would be making a guest appearance.
Stoking the mostly young, ultrahip audience, BR5-49 doles out real, traditional country. Stubbs seems bothered by their hokey costumes, but musters brief, if faint, praise. “They’re pretty good.” It’s Rose Maddox that he came to see; the gray-haired fireball joins the band and rips through decades-old stand-ards as if she was 20 again. After the show, Stubbs congratulates Maddox, who in turn thanks him for playing one of her songs on his show that morning.
We head back into the record store (it stays open on Saturdays as long as people want to buy something); the groupies head to the BR5-49 autograph table: The band just signed a major-label deal with Arista Records.
Stubbs is standing at the threshold when a young boy steps up, tipping his white cowboy hat in deference to an idol: Maybe 13, he hails from some boondock Tennessee town, but he’s seen Stubbs perform at the Ernest Tubb Theater on previous trips with his parents to Opryland: “Mr. Stubbs, I wanted to ask you about a fiddle tune.”
“Are you a fiddler, son?”
“Yes sir, I am, but I also play the dobro.”
“What is it I can help you with?”
The boy wants some tips on the proper wrist technique to play “Orange Blossom Special.”
“You got a fiddle here?”
“Yes sir, back at the motel.”
“OK, bring it back here, and I’ll show you a few tricks.”
My last day in town, I stop by WSM to say goodbye to Stubbs. He has been subbing since noon, and he’s just found out that he has to engineer the religious broadcasts until midnight. He doesn’t seem to mind a whit, except that he hasn’t eaten since breakfast. He’s wearing a suit and tie: He attended a church service earlier this morning, he explains. In the past 48 hours, he’s had about eight hours of sleepthe rest of the time was devoted to country music.
It’s a long-standing WSM tradition to set aside Sunday night for religious shows, Stubbs explains as he sets up the tape, and a frantic preacher’s static-sparking voice blasts through, as if gushing from an unplugged hole: UH-UH-UHDon’t touch that dialThis is the Jesus Time Network, preaching the Apostolic Jesus-name message around the world on shortwave radio.
I tune out the preacher, and try to pin down Stubbs about the connection between his own life and the music he reveres. Maybe Kitty Wells didn’t live the songs she sang, but what about Stubbs and his obsession with this music? His worn suit hanging loose from his frame, Stubbs is obviously dog-tired, but suddenly the room seems electric with his intensity: He stops me short and stares a hole through me: “I’ve lived a lot of this music,” he says, and we lapse into a silence.
Outside the studio window, the Magnolia Lobby is empty; a custodian vacuums the wall-to-wall carpet. It seems like the entire Opryland Hotel has gone to sleep, everyone except for me and Eddie Stubbs.
Then the Jesus broadcast swerves from motormouth testimony to a stark, hair-raising rendition of the classic “Dust on the Bible,” and I realize that this preacher is none other than Brother Walter Bailes of the Bailes Brothers, former stars of the Opry back in the ’40s. It turns out that Stubbs has become good friends with Bailes, and Bear Family will soon be issuing a collection of long-lost, historic recordings by the group.
Over the rousing old-time country number that closes the show, as Bailes bids his listeners farewell, he shoutsto the WSM audience, to 38 states, and to Canada:
“Good night, Eddie StubbsGod bless you, brother!” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.