Why the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in Nashville Mattered: An Appreciation of the Country Music Mecca

midnight jamboree closing closed loretta lynn patsy cline grand ole opry lower broad downtown historic
Chris Willman/Variety

News that country music fans had long dreaded arrived this week: The Ernest Tubb Record Shop, a fixture of Nashville since 1947 and a mainstay in its current Lower Broad location since 1951, will be closing some time this spring, according to owners who purchased the iconic business and building two years ago. The store was famous not only as a very old-school physical media mecca, but for hosting performances on its rear stage for the “Midnite Jamboree” program by the likes of Loretta Lynn or even a nascent Elvis Presley.

Writer Matt Powell, who began working at the store in 1999 and was its manager from 2001-2005, penned an eloquent appreciation of the shop that Variety is sharing here: 

I arrived at the turn of the century, time enough to catch the falling tail of the old Nashville, with its honky-tonk music and easy charm. I saw a want ad in the paper; it read: “Do you love country music?” I was hired on the spot and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop became my life, my home, and my family. One of my first days, over Broadway sidewalk smoke breaks, I heard three different versions of “Crazy Arms” pouring out of three different honky-tonks, blending into a humid mid-day summer stew. I was right where I was supposed to be.

A couple years later I was managing the institution. I was a kid with no idea what I was doing, but I was all-in and well-liked and had a pretty good run. Whenever I’ve tried to write about my years at ETRS, I become overwhelmed at the onset by the enormity of emotion and material, the characters and lessons. No other experience has shaped me more than my early 20s spent at 417 Broadway.

These were the simple, offline days. There were no digital databases or algorithms. The Ernest Tubb Record Shop was the premiere classic country music resource in the world. Every day customers came or called from all corners of the globe seeking information about an old song they heard during the war, or their mother used to sing, or some such thing. A fragment of a lyric, sometimes a few bars of a melody, often only a presumed title. We got it (almost) every time. We thrived on it. If we were stumped, we’d take customers’ numbers and knock it around and call them back. If we had a question about a certain musician or artist, sometimes we’d just call them and ask. In some cases, we’d run off bootleg mix tapes of out-of-print songs and give them away. The only thing that mattered was connecting people to the music they loved and could not find anywhere else. That was the very reason ET opened the store to begin with in 1947, listening to fans at shows across the country tell him they couldn’t find his records locally.

Some of my coworkers had been at ETRS for 30 or more years. Others were wayfarers like me, out of sync with our times, cultural pilgrims seeking asylum in new old worlds. We were collectively the greatest living brain trust of country music knowledge in existence at the time. I’d put us up against any machine or digital tool to this day. The Ernest Tubb Record Shop died with that hammer in its hand.

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A statue of Ernest Tubb greets shoppers at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in Nashville during the CMA Music Festival in 2010 AP

I thought I knew a lot about classic country music. I didn’t realize until I started working at ETRS how little I knew. As part of my first duties, I took down each of the priceless framed photos and paintings, one at a time, and cleaned away the decades of dust and cobwebs from the glass and frames, getting to know each story intimately. It was an environment of total immersion, and I lived it 24/7. When we were busy, I learned from the customers and what they were into. When it was slow, I learned from the vast catalog of recorded country music at my disposal, playing records, reading every book that came through, and learning to distill the gold from the bullshit from the many stars and sidemen and almost-weres who were always stopping by, overflowing with anecdotes and insight. Endless discoveries, gems and threads and revelations.

I learned from osmosis by simply being there, descending the old wooden steps, each creak a bell ringing throughout time; the footsteps of ET and countless country legends, Army doctors taking dead kids down to the basement morgue from the days when the building was a Civil War hospital. When they replaced that dilapidated staircase I kept a plank, flaking dull-red paint, heavy wood, worn with ghostly imprints.

The nights I closed, I would wait until the last tourist or drunk had left, then gently lock the door, put Mr. Tubb’s latter-day recordings on the overnight speakerphone system, shut the lights and go downstairs to punch the clock. I’d walk back across the floor, slowly creaking, past the little stage where so many greats had played — Hank and Elvis, Patsy and Loretta — Mr. Tubb singing low and eerily through the tiny phone speakers, the neon glow of Lower Broad casting shadows through the glass, long noirish streaks of pink and blue whispering against the hardwood, a thousand faces of country music history staring back and a small bronze Ernest Tubb on a pedestal, silhouetted against the neon window. I slowed down every time, making each step longer, knowing without being able to yet articulate that these moments were irreplaceable and ephemeral.

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Inside the Ernest Tubb Record Shop after hours Matt Powell

The wooden bench by the front counter served as a sort of barber shop, where people would stop by to shoot the breeze, as people used to do before social media changed the way humans interact and perceive each other. The disheveled person in the stained tee-shirt might be Cornbread, homeless and peddling his wares, or it might be Jimmy Martin, day-drunk, dissecting George Jones’ phrasing with boyish gusto. The old man in the flashy blue suit might be Bobby Osborne hosting the Midnite Jamboree, or it might be King David, who lived alone in the flop house apartments on Seventh Avenue and took his supper at the mission and listened to the Opry every Saturday night. The guy on his bicycle buying postcards is David Byrne, and the guy that looks like Porter Wagoner, wrapped in head-to-toe denim and asking about Led Zeppelin records, is Porter Wagoner. The voice on the phone you just answered a few days on the job, sounding like a wheezy Kleenex blown over a turquoise comb, belongs to Hank Snow.

It was all such a great thrill, but even more than the history of country music, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop is where I learned about life, and people. I matured into adulthood within its hallowed walls, and the people I worked with became a second family in a strange city, having profound influence over the person I was becoming. One day I was busy with some meaningless clerical task and a couple of customers were making small talk and I wasn’t in the mood for some reason. They were not the most sophisticated folks — country come to town — and when they finally left I made some snide comment. My coworker looked at me and said, “What are you talking about? Those are our people.” My life changed utterly in that moment (and there were many such moments).

I think about that often, and it is perhaps the single greatest lesson from my tenure at ET’s. Lonely people across the country would call us late into the night to ask about records they never intended to buy, just to have someone to talk to, some reference point for engaging with another voice in the cold, uncaring world. Yes, those are our people.

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The sign outside the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, shown on Thursday Feb. 26, 1998, is one of the landmarks of downtown Nashville, Tenn. The Nashville record store that was opened by Opry legend Ernest Tubb in 1947 will close as the building is being put up for sale. AP

Ernest Tubb died years before I walked through the front door of his storefront in downtown Nashville with the want ads tucked under my arm. I’m sure he could be difficult at times; he was, after all, a human. But he never spoke to a fan with anything but sincere appreciation. It was his superpower, and I witnessed the reaping of its fruits. Daily, I would hear some story from a customer about the time they met Ernest Tubb, or their father met Ernest Tubb while in the service, or after a show at the honky-tonk down the road on a rare Saturday night out, or at this very store while on pilgrimage from wherever it was they came from … Mr. Tubb standing tall and proud and lanky, offering the warmest, sincerest smile and gratitude with equal, unending grace. Even more than the music, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop was about people.

I have not been to Nashville, or the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, for many years. I cannot speak to the current state of the store or the street or the city, although its passing seems emblematic of our culture at large. Societies shed things they no longer need. Sometimes, they shed what they need most.

I learned to be a better person because the environment Ernest Tubb set out all those decades ago was alive and well, passed down through the generations, unaffected by changing trends, cultivated with care and reverence, changing real people’s lives in reverberating ways. When institutions fall, cultures lose.

ET used to say, “Be better to your neighbors and you’ll have better neighbors.” We sold it on a bumper sticker. It’s a simple concept, oft-forgotten, ever true.

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Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop in downtown Nashville Chris Willman/Variety