I’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.”
Tubb 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?