You've probably seen the shirts: a surname in bold, white block lettering, no first name necessary. They come in the "CASH" variety, as in Johnny. And then there's the "STUBBS" shirt, as in Eddie. The fact that a current hit-maker like Josh Turner is as likely to wear one of the latter as an East Nashville bar patron or a music-loving school kid says a great deal about the impact Stubbs has made on an array of people who value country music.
In person, Stubbs makes an immediate impression. There's no missing the lanky gentleman in the immaculate suit and tie who performs announcer's duties in a deep and deeply dignified speaking voice on the Grand Ole Opry. But it's offstage over the radio airwaves that he does his finest work, serving as one of traditional country music's greatest living ambassadors.
July 8 was the 15th anniversary of Stubbs' first evening show on WSM-AM. That's the longest anyone has held that shift in the station's 85-year history. It may be the longest run of any weeknight DJ in the history of Nashville radio. He marked the occasion by doing what he does best: a one-of-a-kind, on-the-fly radio show.
It was a Friday — the night listeners can call in with requests — and the Gaithersburg, Md., native had come prepared to supplement the music in the station's computers with his own CDs, 45-RPM singles and 78-RPM records (he'd left the vinyl LPs in the car this time). In other words, he had a good part of the commercial history of hillbilly music at his fingertips. Stubbs took care to alternate newer songs with older ones, ballads with driving numbers. He dug out a seldom-heard 78 and gave it a spin. He improvised conversational ads for show sponsors, and he eulogized bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker — who'd died that day — with an anecdote, a song spotlighting Baker's playing and a concise summary of his influence, delivered to listeners with neighborly directness. It was business as usual for Stubbs, and a spectacular contrast to rigidly formatted commercial radio.
The attention Stubbs devotes to long-forgotten recordings and the people who made them — and to stylistic lineage, historical context and seemingly a million other relevant details — shows just how seriously he takes country music, its musicians and its fans. He is, he emphasizes, a "student of the music." And a passionate one at that.
"If all you know about an artist is the No. 1 hits, the Top 10 hits, the songs that get repackaged year after year in greatest hits collections," says Stubbs, "you've missed out on a lot. When I was a teenager, when I liked somebody's music and became a fan, I wanted to get everything they ever recorded, and I researched it. ... I got Xeroxed copies of the ledger sheets from the record companies of those artists. That's how bad I wanted it."
Nowadays people tune in to Stubbs' show to get their deep-catalog fix. Before he moved to Nashville, Connie Smith and Marty Stuart had him sending them tapes of the weekly show he did on Washington, D.C.'s prestigious public radio station WAMU. During his WSM anniversary show, Stubbs was paid a visit by Bailey George, a surprisingly knowledgeable 13-year-old who'd come to town for Uncle Dave Macon Days and has — to Stubbs' great delight — been calling in and requesting old-time tracks for the past two years.
It makes you wonder what Stubbs himself was into at that age, considering that was roughly at the dawn of the disco era. "I never listened to any of the music of that time that would've been popular," he says. Taking after his fiddler father, he'd been playing from age 4, and gravitated toward music that made space for his instrument, namely traditional bluegrass and pre-1956 country. He jokes now that he's a "78-RPM guy in an iPod world."
Stubbs landed a fiddling gig with a part-time bluegrass outfit, The Johnson Mountain Boys, before he even finished high school. They went on to become an important trad-minded band in the bluegrass world, cutting nine albums for Rounder Records before calling it quits in the mid-'90s.
Stubbs' fiddle mostly stays in its case these days, but his picking years make a difference to everything from the savvy pacing of his shows to the understanding he shares with old and new acts who come by the WSM studios for hours-long interviews. "When they know that you rode those roads, all-night drives and five guys in the van, all sleeping in the same hotel room ... you're blessed to be a part of that fraternity," he says. "People look at you differently when they know that you've done that, because it's not an easy way to go."
Long before Stubbs' road years ended, his radio work had begun, first at WYII in Williamsport, Md., then at WAMU, where he found a mentor in disc jockey Gary Henderson. (Stubbs also mentions the influence of D.C. area jocks Don Owens and Tom "Cat" Reeder.) Stubbs fostered goodwill with the '50s and '60s stars whose records he played by plugging their nearby shows. Whenever Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright were in the area, he'd guest on fiddle. Once his band and his marriage broke up, the legendary country couple persuaded him to join them in Nashville.
Stubbs, then 33, had been here just a week when he was hired part-time by WSM to prepare tributes to Opry legends who were advanced in years. Then there was the night he was put on the spot. "I had been in town all of 17 days," he says, "had never done an air shift on the station, and I was at the Friday night Opry, just visiting and standing there in the wings. Whenever I went to the Opry, even before I came here, I always dressed appropriately. I always had on a coat and tie.
"It was about 10 minutes to 8 and [then-WSM-AM program manager] Kyle Cantrell looked at me and handed me this copy. And he said, 'Can you read this?' ... It had all these big words in it. One of them was 'peripheral.' ... I said, 'Well, I guess so.' He said, 'Good. You're gonna announce the next half-hour of the Opry and introduce Bill Monroe.' My knees knocked. They knocked. And perspiration was just rolling off my forehead."
It's hard to imagine Stubbs nervous. He's the picture of neatly pressed professionalism. But most of all, when he's in the studio doing his show, it's clear that he's having a good old time sharing the music that he loves. "I don't even sit down," he says, chuckling.