For many record stores, vinyl has been an economic savior, and that's true for Ernest Tubb Record Shop — even if it came to the rescue more than 60 years ago. In the early days, Ernest Tubb sold brittle and easily broken 78s through the mail, as general manager Rick Luningham tells it. "Roughly 50 percent of all records that left here had to be replaced, and Ernest insisted on you getting a good product," says Luningham. "There's a picture of [shop co-founder Charles Mosley] holding up a 45 saying, 'This is the one thing that will save us!' "
A devotion to customer satisfaction has been the top priority for Ernest Tubb Record Shop since it first opened in 1947. Whether it was replacing broken 78s, tracking down hard-to-find releases or stocking the music of obscure and seemingly forgotten artists, the shop has stayed true to their founding principles of placing country music fans first.
Founded by the Grand Ole Opry star Ernest Tubb in partnership with his tax accountant Charles Mosley, the store was primarily envisioned as a service for fans. In his travels around the country, Tubb was constantly approached by fans who had trouble finding their favorite records. Even in Nashville, few retailers carried large stocks of country records, preferring to play it safe with pop and classical selections. Tubb opened the shop as a mail-order business in early 1947, with its first retail location, at 720 Commerce St., opening on May 3 of that same year.
Despite the fact that the store specialized in records few retailers carried, the initial reaction from record dealers and even some jukebox operators was anger. Many threatened to never carry Tubb's records again. Within a few months of the shop opening, however, dealers around the country found their business increasing through customers requesting specific records they heard advertised on the Grand Ole Opry.
From the beginning, Tubb was buying airtime on the Opry to promote the mail-order business, and this eventually evolved into the Midnight Jamboree radio program. The main shop moved in 1951 to its current location at 417 Broadway to allow more room for the live in-store broadcasts on Saturday nights.
Over the years, Ernest Tubb Record Shop expanded to other locations, including the Music Valley Drive store near the Opryland Hotel (current home of the Midnight Jamboree, broadcast every Saturday night on WSM-AM), a location in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., that focuses on bluegrass music, and a franchised location in Fort Worth, Texas. The current owner, David McCormick, began as a store manager at the Broadway store in 1973, later becoming a partner and eventually full owner after Tubb's death in 1984.
In the early days, mail order was approximately 80 percent of the business, with the remaining 20 percent coming from store sales. Today, those percentages have flipped, but mail-order customers still have access to a personal touch when they place their orders. "Most of our business is people who like to have somebody on the other end of the phone," Luningham says. "We have four phone lines. So you ain't never gonna get, 'If you like traditional country press 2.' We have a lot a people who call and say, 'I heard a song about three weeks ago, and it's about some woman cheating on her husband or vice-versa.' We'll sit there and figure out what they're looking for. Generally speaking, if it had anything to do with country and bluegrass, we have someone here who will know it."
That level of knowledge and the devotion to classic country music is essential for all Ernest Tubb employees. "When I interview someone for a job," says Broadway store manager Steve Bowen, "that's question number one. 'Do you know your country music?' " That requirement has led to an interesting mix of personnel behind the counter. Country music fan veterans, some of whom have worked at the shop for 40 years, work side by side with younger post-punk hillbilly devotees who have gotten hip to the glory days of traditional country music thanks to reissues and the Internet.
And while Ernest Tubb does sell the latest Music Row flavor of the month, the consistent best-sellers for the store are artists who are long gone from the radar of mainstream country music radio, or others who have never even been detected — older and some unexpected favorites like Gene Watson, Mel Street and Charley Pride, along with newer artists like modern Western swing quintet The Quabe Sisters Band, Texas shuffle beat king Justin Trevino and 21st century honky-tonk angel Amber Digby.
Even vinyl has made a comeback at Ernest Tubb with mostly younger consumers.
"We can't keep it in stock," Bowen says. "Taylor Swift is our No. 1 seller on vinyl, followed by The Civil Wars, Eric Church and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Dylan's Nashville Skyline and all the Johnny Cash also sell well. One of our distributors still has an old supply of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty LPs, and we sell a lot of them."
With its creaking hardwood floors, walls lined with vintage autographed photos and a staff that's always happy to talk great country music, Ernest Tubb's Broadway store is an essential stop for anyone wanting to experience the hillbilly heritage of Nashville. And after 65 years of upheaval and changes in the record store business, the main reason for its founding still applies today. As Bowen says, "Every day I get customers on the floor saying, 'I can't get this at home.' "