When it comes to duets, country music is where it’s at. Sure, the golden age of Motown/R&B comes close, but there’s nothing quite like a pair of voices singing over pedal steel. From Kitty and Red, Johnny and June, and Dolly and Porter to Australian husband and wife team Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, duet singers have played a vital role in the country music tradition.
One of country’s most influential duet singers is the incomparable Loretta Lynn. She’s famous for her classic singles with Conway Twitty, and 2004’s “Portland, Oregon”, the one-night stand song she sang with Jack White exposed her—and her comeback album Van Lear Rose—to a new, younger audience, but I’ve always much preferred the recordings she did with Ernest Tubb in the ‘60s: three excellent albums that haven’t received the credit they deserve.
When Tubb and Lynn recorded their first album together in 1965, the clear-voiced Lynn, barely 30-years-old, was a rising star thanks to the efforts of the Wilburn Brothers and a handful of successful singles including “Honky Tonk Girl” and “Wine, Women and Song”. Texas Troubadour Ernest Tubb had been in the country music spotlight for over 20 years with songs like “Walking the Floor Over You”, “Waltz Across Texas” and “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin”; furthermore, he was an Opry constant.
Tubb was hardly a technically “good” vocalist; sure as the sun rising in the east, you could count on Ernest to sing flat, and on occasion miss the note completely. But he was great; few artists have been able to capture listeners’ attention and hearts the way Tubb did in his prime. So what if he never sang harmony on any of his duets?
So Tubb and Lynn were a bit of a musical odd couple: the old pro and the sassy Kentucky ingénue. But it was obvious from the start that this was a pretty special collaboration.
Ronnie Pugh’s biography Ernest Tubb: The Texas Troubadour details the beginnings of this partnership: “Tubb fan club president Norma Barthel says that the initial idea for Ernest Tubb to record with a female was Decca’s: ‘When the boy-girl duet craze broke out a few months back [thanks in part to the success of Carl and Pearl Butler’s 1962 hit “Don’t Let Me Cross Over”], Decca began looking for a girl to team with E.T.…[Tubb] suggested Loretta because he knows her as a sincere little country girl with a lot of talent.’”
Lynn gives her own account in her autobiography: “Ernest Tubb, who recorded on Decca, was looking for a duet album and he had his choice of women singers. Just on Decca alone he could have sung with Kitty Wells [who is one of Lynn’s primary musical influences] or Brenda Lee. But he chose me, after I’d had just a couple of hits. I remember Ernest chose me because he said I was an ‘honest country performer who sang with her heart and soul.’”
The duo’s first LP, Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn: Mr. & Mrs. Used to Be, was released in March, 1965. It sold over 86,000 copies and peaked at #13 on the country charts. It’s a solid album from “Our Hearts Are Holding Hands” (written by Bill Anderson) to the honkytonk shuffle of Harlan Howard’s “Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming In”, wrapping up with a cover of country standard “A Dear John Letter”.
Buoyed by the success of Mr. & Mrs. Used to Be, the duo recorded Singin’ Again in 1967. This album, which sold approximately 81,000 units, features some of Lynn and Tubb’s best work, starting with the record’s opening track. “Sweet Thang” is one of those songs that never gets old, no matter how many times I listen (however, it peaked at #45, so clearly listeners in ‘67 didn’t like it as much as I do 40 years later). Tubb’s vocal is downright playful, and you’d be hard-pressed to think of another singer who can pull off Lynn’s feisty declaration: “I wanna tell all you barroom roses/ If my sweet thang should happen by/ You better take my advice and if you blink more than twice/ You better have somethin’ in your eye.” Translation: Loretta Lynn will beat your skanky ass if need be, and “she ain’t kiddin’” according to Ernest.
The rest of the album is equally enjoyable, though less lighthearted than “Sweet Thang”. “Bartender” is a song/recitation hybrid with Tubb playing the role of the sage behind the bar offering up some advice to a heartbroken Lynn: “Now I don’t believe a honky tonk/ Is a place for a girl like you… it’s not too late so stop and think/ Before all your pride is gone/ You could end up like all the rest/ With a barroom for your home”. Lynn, of course, sees the wisdom in these words and heads home… probably to drink and be miserable there.
If We Put Our Heads Together (1969) was the final album from these two singers; it hit #19, but sold only 48,000 albums, a sharp decline from Singin” Again just two years earlier. The record’s title single failed to even chart, and thus the days of the Loretta Lynn-Ernest Tubb duo faded away. The lackluster sales of If We Put Our Heads Together led to the Lynn-Twitty partnership that would see wild commercial and critical success in the ‘70s with a string of duets like “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” and “After the Fire is Gone”.
Tubb appeared as himself in Loretta Lynn’s biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter in 1980, but would die from emphysema just four years later, his legacy as one of country music’s finest firmly in place. Lynn’s made no secret of her admiration and respect for Tubb, even naming her son Ernest Ray. Ernest will, on occasion, sing with his mother in concert; unfortunately, they seem to mostly stick to the Lynn-Twitty duets.
Unfortunately, these three Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn albums (four, if you count a 1973 compilation) haven’t been rereleased on CD. But what’s a few weekends spent searching your couch cushions for change and haunting the local record stores when you can come across music like this?