The son of an aircraft mechanic turned country musician and songwriter, Ernie was on-stage at numerous community musicales from S. Texas to Oklahoma before he was out of elementary school. His Dad would pull a chair up to the microphone for Ernie to sing. Tee Lee scored with a couple of regional radio hits in the mid-fifties, and Ernie tagged along with his father. Ernie was a regular on the WTAW radio show his father hosted in Bryan in the late 1950s, with stars like Billy Walker, Lefty Frizzell, and his father’s producers Ted Daffin and Floyd Tilllman. Ernie was either on stage or backstage at the Opry, Midnight Jamboree, Louisiana Hayride, Big D Jamboree, and many local fairs and rodeos before he was out of high school. Influenced by his father, and having the opportunity to share the stage at an early age with stars such as Ernest Tubb (for whom he was named), George Jones, Johnny Horton, Hawkshaw Hawkins (who took a special interest in Ernie before the tragic plane crash), Johnny Cash, and others (the list goes on forever) helped shape Ernie’s early musical education and future. “I wish I had realized how fortunate I was then,” Ernie says. “I thought everyone lived that way. The personalities I came into contact back then were just normal people, who happened to have great talent – they were all very kind and open to me.”
After his father’s health declined because of emphysema, the elder Lee’s musical career diminished, but he never gave up music. Vietnam changed Ernie’s direction. The only thing that could turn Ernie from music was the dream of being a fighter pilot. Poor eyesight made that impossible, but Ernie stuck with his military career for twenty-two years. Along the way he performed a various enlisted and officer clubs, USO shows, and Tops In Blue. Meanwhile his father was hosting a community show north of Abilene in the late 1960s. As fate would have it, Ernie was stationed at Dyess AFB at the time, and was able to perform with his father regularly. One of the stars that grew out of that small local production was Ernie’s cousin by marriage Jeanie C. Riley. This experience put Ernie into contact with even more stars like Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Wilburn Brothers, and many others. The 1970s brought Ernie to Austin, Texas during the big music boom. Teaming up with Buster Doss in Austin, Ernie learned the ropes of booking and music management from a legend in the business. One of Ernie’s most prized possessions is a copy of a booking contract with the famous Armadillo World Headquarters during that period. The booking operation brought Eddie Rabbitt to Austin for the first time in 1976 just in time for his first national #1 hit. For several years Ernie booked acts at the Armadillo and at the Broken Spoke, Lumberyard, Crystal Chandelier, Antone’s, and almost every venue from Austin to San Antonio. Ernie was making good progress in his own music and writing, when his career was again interrupted by military obligations.
With a growing family, and remotely stationed in Turkey with little opportunity to perform or interact with the musical community, Ernie turned his attention to education. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Business and Management from the University of Maryland, and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Texas State University. After retirement from the USAF, he embarked on a career in government, which was more stable and financially predictable than music. Ernie was a City Manager in Flat River, Missouri before returning home to a career in public procurement. Ernie became an educator with a professional purchasing association, gaining a national reputation, and many requests to speak and make presentations all over the USA. Ernie taught at San Antonio College and Palo Alto College, and operated his own professional training company offering seminars all over the country.
Still Ernie never lost his love of music, continuing to write his songs and pitch them whenever possible. A new century found Ernie back in the studio, recording six sides in an attempt to revive his musical career. He was making fair progress, but before he could record the final six sides to complete his album, he was stricken with cancer – stage 4. Through the grace of God, many prayers, a loving family, a lot of chemotherapy, and wonderful doctors, Ernie survived cancer. But, less than a year out of cancer treatment, Ernie experienced a serious fall that permanently damaged his right leg. After a long recovery, he learned to walk again, and regained almost full use of his legs. Through it all, he never lost his deep love of country music and songwriting.
Today Ernie is busy with a new venture – The Indie Country Road Show and Aim-Hi Music. Through this new media of computer podcasts (and hopefully satellite radio soon) Ernie wants to provide a musical showcase for independent songwriters and artists around the country and the world. “Not having to depend on music for your financial livelihood is a tremendous advantage.” Ernie hopes to provide encouragement for artists and songwriters still out there developing their careers.
Having been on the fringes of musical success all of his life, Ernie realizes that sometimes all it takes is a little boost and a leap of faith!