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On 'Portrait Of An American Singer,' Tennessee Ernie Ford's Early Songs Shine

Tennessee Ernie Ford, circa 1950. At the beginning of his career, Ford championed other people's records as a radio announcer in the greater Los Angeles area.
Courtesy of Jeffrey Buckner Ford and Murphy Ford
Tennessee Ernie Ford, circa 1950. At the beginning of his career, Ford championed other people's records as a radio announcer in the greater Los Angeles area.

Tennessee Ernie Ford was fed up with the trappings of fame and the demands of the music business. It was 1955 and his label, Capitol Records, had threatened to sue him if he didn't make another record. He decided to fulfill his contract and leave. The song he ended up recording became a No. 1 hit, topping Billboard magazine's pop and country charts.

Ford was already popular, but his recording of "Sixteen Tons" made him a huge star on radio and TV. He became even better known for his interpretations of gospel songs and hymns. Now, Ford's earlier career in country and the roots of rock is getting a fresh look with Portrait of an American Singer, a five-disc set whose expansive liner notes are nominated for a Grammy.

Ernest Jennings Ford was born in Bristol, Tenn., in 1919 and began his career as a radio announcer at local station WOPI. During World War II, he served with the Army Air Corps as a bombardier trainer in California. After the war, Ford worked at stations in San Bernardino and Pasadena, where he hosted a popular country music program.

"He had this persona that he later developed called Tennessee Ernie Ford," says Ted Olson, who is a professor in the Appalachian Studies program at East Tennessee State University and produced the new box set. "It wasn't uncommon for radio announcers to have a persona like that. He was just particularly good at it."

Ford's radio program soon earned him a recording contract. But, unlike most country singers, he was not based in Nashville. Instead, he recorded in Hollywood, for Capitol Records. Olson says Capitol had a different approach, as exemplified with artists like Merle Travis in the 1940s and early '50s.

"They would take an artist with strong roots in the Appalachian uplands," Olson says, "and take what had been folk music and encourage the artist to kind of revise it, or re-vision it, or come up with a new interpretation and a fresh approach."

Ford went on to host several TV shows and often ended them with a religious song. When Ford's 1956 album of hymns stayed on the Billboard charts for 277 consecutive weeks, Capitol turned him into a gospel singer.

But his son, Buck Ford, wants his father to be remembered for more than just that. "Ernie Ford was not a gospel singer," he says. "He was not a country singer. He was not a jazz singer. He was not a pop singer. He was not an opera singer. He was a singer, period. He could literally cross from genre to genre, and I mean literally from opera to pop, without blinking an eye."

Buck says his father made so many gospel records not because of the style's popularity, but because Capitol saw Ernie Ford as a gospel singer, rather than a singer of American music.

Ted Olson says Tennessee Ernie Ford was also one of the first artists to help bring the music of black Americans to the pop charts. "People have focused on the Sun Studio role in popularizing Southern black music," Olson says. "They were, in some respects, students of people like Tennessee Ernie Ford, who were doing similar sorts of things earlier than that."

Olson points out that although Ford was a pioneer of early rock 'n' roll music, he remains uncredited by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ford was, however, inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1994. The latter honor was posthumous; Ford died in 1991.

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Wayne Winkler