Tennesse Ernie Ford - An Appreciation
Article from Tom Graves
Appeared in Rock and Roll Disc March, 1991
Tennessee Ernie Ford – Guilty Pleasures
My mother tells the story of a Bob Hope television special that aired in the 1950’s. The comedian had just made a crack about the new summer swimsuit fashions that were “so skimpy the girls will have two sets of cheeks to powder instead of one,” when the screen suddenly went blank then to an “Experiencing Network Difficulty” super that remained on until the top of the hour.
It was in the climate of these squeaky clean times – when to overhear the F-word in a lady’s presence called for an instant showdown with the offender – that an unlikely character named Tennessee Ernie Ford with an offhand, easygoing brand of Southern humor became one of television’s most beloved personalities and one of Capitol Records’ biggest recording stars. Ernest Jennings Ford, from the mountains of East Tennessee, was singled out early in high school as having the makings of a great singer. His booming baritone was folkish and untrained enough to communicate almost effortlessly with his audience (not an easy thing if you have operatic potential), yet skilled enough to bend a song to his will and deliver a powerhouse performance.
His resonant speaking voice is what originally got him out of the hills of Bristol, Tennessee and into a prominent deejay spot on KXLA outside Los Angeles – the city’s number one country and western station. He became a local celebrity by dint of his quick, natural wit, daily doses of “Ernie-isms,” and by opening the mike and singing along with the records. While doing the latter, he was discovered by talent scouts and given a spot on the Hometown Jamboree show alongside country artists like Merle Travis and steel guitar great Speedy West.
It was here that Ford, who had developed a hillbillyish rube character for the show he called “Tennessee Ernie,” began to delve into pulse-quickening country boogie numbers, which had grown in popularity after the Second World War. With his likeable persona and naturally funny demeanor, Ford was an instant hit and soon found himself with a daily network television show, a Capitol Records contract, and more engagements than he could fill.
Ford’s first singles for Capitol did almost unbelievably well. With his stunning, big voice he took the widely-covered “Mule Train” straight to Number One on the country charts in 1949, followed by huge hits with “The Shot Gun Boogie,” “Tennessee Border,” and “I’ll Never Be Free.” His boogie-woogie numbers, such as “Catfish Boogie,” “Blackberry Boogie,” and “Rock City Boogie” were also enormously popular in England, where Ford was and still is considered one of the great pre-rock and rollers. But Ford’s voice isn’t the only thing to recommend these tracks: Capitol employed some of the most daring session men in the business, such as Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West who could take even a bland number and rocket it into the stratosphere with breakneck guitar fills, great blasts of bass note twang, and Speedy’s incredible “bar crashes” on pedal steel.
But it wasn’t until 1955 that Tennessee Ernie Ford made recording history with an obscure number written and recorded earlier by Merle Travis. The song, “Sixteen Tons,” was initially performed by Ford on his television show, and over 1,200 requests poured in for him to sing it again. No fools, Capitol seized upon those requests and rushed out a single. Upon release the song sold over 400,000 units in 11 days. To date it has sold a minimum of four million copies – and probably much more than that if one could accurately assess the total of sales worldwide.
Even after fifty years “Sixteen Tons” remains one of the most unflinching, crystalline images of the common laborer ever recorded. Its bitter tone against the almost palpable evil of the coal company coupled with the pride expressed in the sheer physical strength required of a coal miner actually caused some in those McCarthy times to brand the song “Communistic.” It is a song that has already become a part of American lore and embedded into the national consciousness. No one was surprised when the Soviet Union took the song to heart when Tennessee Ernie Ford toured there during the ‘70s.
Two recent CDs, ‘Sixteen Tons’ on Bear Family and ‘The Best of Tennessee Ernie Ford’ on Rhino, splendidly document the country boogie and country pop sides of Ol’ Rockin’ Ern, and thankfully leave out of the hymns and sacred music that comprise the bulk of his recorded legacy. After reading Ernie’s autobiography in preparation for this piece, I’m more convinced than ever of the man’s great humor, compassion, and humanitarianism. At heart a humble family man, he said this about his career in 1954:
“I love show business, don’t get me wrong. But I’d retire today, if I could and I’m not kidding. As soon as I made enough money [sic], and it doesn’t have to be a whole potful, I’m going to quit and retire to a farm.”
Speaking for those of us who’ve ever owed our souls to a company store, I wish you, Mr. Ford, a pleasant farm life and many years of pea-pickin’.