One of the most iconic photos Ernest Tubb shows the country legend grinning and giving “thanks” by flipping his guitar backwards. Tubb thanked more than the expected applause at every live appearance. The snapshot encapsulates one of the most historic country music careers to ever grace Nashville. You’ve likely seen the image, but you may not know his well-placed show of thanks was made possible by one of the original country music superstars, Jimmie Rodgers.
During his influential six-year mainstream run in the 1920s and ’30s, Rodgers yodeled as he strummed a custom Martin 00-18 guitar, emblazoned with Rodgers’ name on the neck and the word “thanks” on the back. Artist names on their guitars’ necks remain a proud tradition, kept alive by Margo Price and others. The “thanks” text caught on to a lesser extent, thanks to Tubb, a performer who’d further early country music in his own right.
Everyone from Merle Haggard to Lynyrd Skynyrd sang Rodgers’ praises over the years, but perhaps no mainstream artist was quite as devoted to keeping the “Singing Brakeman’s” music alive as Tubb. Early in his career, Tubb sang and yodeled just like his hero. Tubb’s talent impressed Rodgers’ widow Carrie, who lent him her late husband’s iconic guitar. Tubb kept and played the guitar for nearly 40 years.
Tubb stopped copying Rodgers’ voice after complications from a 1939 tonsil surgery left him unable to yodel. His adapted vocal style popularized honky tonk music just two years later with his 1941 hit “I’m Walking the Floor Over You.”
In the decades to come, Tubb remained one of the faces and voices of country music, due in part to the influence of his weekly Midnite Jamboree radio show. Along the way, he kept the memory of Rodgers alive by occasionally flashing a polite “thanks” to fans with his idol’s trusty old guitar. This sustained enthusiasm for the past might’ve made Tubb the first great mainstream traditionalist.
The guitar now resides in the Jimmie Rodgers Museum’s permanent collection. It’s hard to think of many objects that played a more sustained role in country music history, thanks to two all-time greats.