Does Swift Have Tubb Appeal?

  

ernest-tubbI’ve had this post in mind for a while, but couldn’t find a segue. Since Paul W. Dennis profiled Ernest Tubb for The 9513 yesterday, I’ll take that as a sign that the time is right. While we still have Tubb on the brain…

First, let’s acknowledge that any sort of comparison between teen pop phenomenon Taylor Swift and barrom king Ernest Tubb will seem a little fanciful… one that dares suggest they have something pretty substantial in common, even more so. Let’s also note that this might anger some people who like one artist but not the other, including people with whom my tastes basically align (that’s anti-Swift, pro-Tubb for those keeping track). So, I’ll try to qualify the argument carefully.

First, take a gander at this passage from Jeffrey J. Lange’s Smile When You Call Me a Hillbilly in which he sifts some quotes from Bill Porterfield (The Greatest Honky Tonks in Texas) and Ronnie Pugh (Ernest Tubb: The Texas Troubadour) in explaining the appeal of Tubb’s unique vocal style:

Unpretentious and identifiable, Tubb’s singing style paved the way to his success as a country music performer. Bill Porterfield grew up listening to Tubb and explains the singer’s instantaneous appeal: “He can’t sing any better than you and me. . . . To hear Ernest was to hear your uncle, the one that lost his farm to the bankers and lost his heart to a good-looking mama who treated him like dirt. It wasn’t pretty singing, but Lord, it was real. Out of the old rock.” Commenting on Tubb’s singing style and lyrical repertoire, historian Ronnie Pugh points out the underlying reason for Tubb’s magnetism: “His concerns were their concerns, voiced without frill, without metaphor, without simile, in a sparse, rough-hewn, down-to-earth style. . . . Listeners knew what he was singing about and identified with his viewpoint.”

taylor-swiftTubb was nobody’s idea of a great singer… and that made people want to sing along. Might seem counterintuitive, but personal experience tells me that it makes sense: I’ve never sung along to a Roy Orbison song without feeling terribly inadequate, but I feel pretty good about myself singing along to Tubb. With a lean instrumental style that keeps the focus squarely on that relatable voice, his songs seem specifically designed to keep you humming along as you waltz your way around the dance floor.

Swift is doing much the same thing, albeit for a drastically different audience. If Tubb was like your uncle who had fallen on hard times, Swift is like that nice girl in your homeroom class who’s constantly in the throes of relationship turmoil. One of the things that makes her songs so amenable to hairbrush singalongs (for her key teenage girl demographic… I don’t use a hairbrush) is the fact that she’s not much of a singer. Carrie Underwood can sing anything beautifully with a cool, seemingly effortless detachment; Swift has to feel it, has to wade out into that sea of heartbreak and let the waves thrash her about. She doesn’t have the option of turning in a cool, professional performance because she’s not a cool, professional singer. But neither are the girls (and boys?) in her audience. Like Swift, they have to feel their way along. Since it’s a relationship built on emotional rightness rather than technical proficiency, it’s a relationship characterized by a surprising level of intimacy.

That direct connection to the audience is key. Pugh writes that Tubb’s “concerns were their concerns, voiced without frill, without metaphor, without simile, in a sparse, rough-hewn, down-to-earth style.” In other words, in a style that would connect with the tough-minded Greatest Generation that was Tubb’s audience. Swift’s concerns are those of her generation, voiced with frills in an over-the-top, emotional style that approximates the turbulent interior life of a teenage girl in the 21st century, a member of a generation raised on reality TV drama. It’s a different approach to a different audience in pursuit of a similar emotional connection.

Topically, there’s some surprising overlap in the works of Swift and Tubb. Porterfield identifies “[losing] his heart to a good-looking mama who treated him like dirt” as a major preoccupation of Tubb’s work. Meanwhile, Swift has made a name for herself as one of the most prolific modern purveyors of the “boys are stupid” song. Of course, relationship trouble is one of the most common themes across all of country music. For a more instructive comparison of these two artists in particular, you might look at how they approach the same topic. Might I suggest a compare/contrast of Swift’s “Teardrops on My Guitar” and Tubb’s “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry”? Both songs of unrequited love, both crying songs… I think it could be interesting.

If there’s one major difference between Swift and Tubb in terms of how they use thier voices, it’s that Tubb knew his limitations and managed to work within them effectively. Swift still wants to belt it out. Over time, perhaps she’ll take a note from Ernest and learn how to work more effectively within the confines of her own voice.

For now, though, let’s spin this into a discussion:

Is there something about not having a technically great voice that can make a singer more relatable to fans? Are people more inclined to sing along to a voice that isn’t intimidatingly good? Or do singers with limited voices learn to rely on the sort of material that makes it easier to sing along? What do you make of the Tubb/Swift comparison?

Comments

  1. Rick says

    Singers with vocal shortcomings can make up for it with individual style and panache if they are being honest and genuine as fans will find them more relate-able as mentioned above. It also depends on their singing or creating quality songs on a consistent basis because who would care about a crappy singer performing lousy songs? Both Ernest and Taylor offer songs of such quality that they appeal to a broad class of listeners as separate and distinct as those listener groups may be in their nature.

    The biggest difference between the two is that E.T. was a pioneer of the “hard country/honky-tonk” style during its formative years when most country music was considered to be by and for “hillbillies”. Taylor Swift on the other hand has co-opted a whole lot of stylistic influences from the current pop and rock music scenes to synthesize her own unique albeit screechy sound and style. Taylor’s skillful use of vocal syncopation techniques borrowed from hip-hop artists like Eminem is perfectly suited to today’s young music fans and sets her apart in the mainstream country music marketplace (and has opened doors to the pop music realm). Where E.T forged ahead musically where no man had gone before, Taylor is just extremely gifted at combining and repackaging what already exists in the current pop and rock music scenes in a unique signature style that has mass appeal to young women. Where E.T.’s voice invites bands with better vocalists to cover his songs, Taylor’s sound and songs are a total package that other’s likely won’t be able to duplicate successfully. The question is whether Taylor will be able to carry her large fan base along with her over the year’s the way Ernest did, and especially when they outgrow their teenage years….

  2. says

    This is fascinating and extremely well written. I never would have come up with this comparison myself, but I see what you mean, now that you bring it up.:)

    I probably feel the way you feel about singing along with less than great singers versus great ones. While I do alright (or all right for Chris N’s sake), my range could be wider. Therefore, it’s no fun trying to sing along with singers who have a good range. Then again, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to scream it out like Taylor Swift either. I think I like to sing best with average singers like me, I guess.

  3. Paul W Dennis says

    Excellent article. While I am not a big Taylor Swift fan, and at age fifty-seven, I am definitely NOT her target audience, I agree that the emotional connection that Swift has with her audience is that same emotional connection that ET had with his audience. The fact that she is no better a vocalist than ET probably furthers that connection.

    It will be interesting to see how her songwriting develops as she ages, and if she can continue to pull her audience with her . I’m betting that she can do it for at least another five years, although after that she may fall into the role of writing other people’s hits

    Only time will tell

    p.s. while Tubb was a pioneer in the honky-tonk style that was the dominant force in country music for many years, another artist who deserves equal credi is the completely forgotten Floyd Tillman. Willie Nelson will tell you that (if you ask him) , as would ET were he still around to do so.

  4. says

    Broken record here, but seriously, fantastic article. I’m among those who don’t mind the fact that Swift and Tubb aren’t particularly good singers (although like you pointed out, I do wish Swift would be more mindful of it), and and this piece really helps shed some light on why that is.

    As an aside, isn’t it interesting see how much Swift already fascinates scholars and critics and the like? I have a feeling historians are going to be writing about her for a long time, just because she’s such a unique case study within a “country music” context. If she were marketed as a straight pop act, which most of her music tends toward anyway, she probably wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, because she would honestly fit in pretty well there (does anyone else think “You Belong With Me” sounds like a Katy Perry song?). But her success as a “country” artist illuminates a lot of interesting bigger points.

  5. Bob Loblaw says

    Im just now discovering this article, and at the time it was written I was not a Taylor Swift fan in any stretch of the imagination. After Speak Now, though, I have to say she has won me over. I also think that her collaboration with The Civil Wars on “Safe and Sound” shows that she may be learning to work very effectively within the confines of her voice and points to a promising creative future.

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