Tennessee Ernie Ford was one of the brightest stars of the '50s, skillfully walking the line between country and pop, his resonant voice feeling equally at home with country boogie and big-band crooning. Over the years, his smoothness obscured his roots in Bristol, Tennessee, a city often pegged as one of the birthplaces of modern country music, but the "Tennessee" in Ernie Ford's stage name wasn't a mere affectation. He sounded country, particularly in the years after WWII and before rock & roll, and his gift was how he read country to a pop audience and pop to a country audience. It's what helped turn him into a screen star -- he had cameos on film and then, beginning in 1956, he hosted a television variety show that ran nearly a decade -- and also something of a pivotal figure. At a time when hillbilly phrasing wasn't much heard in pop, Ford could seem exotic to the mainstream. Certainly that was the case with two of his biggest hits, the career-making 1949 single "Mule Train" and "Sixteen Tons," the latter arriving in 1955, just before rock & roll exploded, and it caught the attention of plenty of early rockers, along with listeners who loved the elegance of his phrasing.
As Portrait of an American Singer -- a 2015 Bear Family box set containing all the non-gospel recordings Ford made between 1949-1960; 154 tracks in all, only two of which are unreleased ("Slow Down," "Small World") but there is a host of rarities -- makes clear, Ford followed a softer path in the wake of "Sixteen Tons," gradually working his way toward the opulent strings that close this collection, but in the years prior to that smash he specialized in corking country boogie and Western swing, records that hopped so hard they suggested the rhythms of rock & roll. Even here, Ford's immaculate phrasing helped push him in the direction of Hollywood: although he never ran from his Southern roots, he possessed no twang in his voice, a conscious decision that meant he sounded at home in front of big bands or singing cowboy tunes. Some of that versatility now seems a bit antiquated. Over the course of this five-disc box, the lush productions where Ford stands out against depthless strings and sweetened backing voices now seem old-fashioned, but they're instructive in illustrating just how far this country boy from Bristol crossed over and they're surrounded by records that still sound dynamic because they either swing to their own hillbilly rhythm or because they hit a clever hybrid of backwoods boogie and Hollywood sophistication. These records may have been forgotten but their influence has certainly been felt -- Elvis Presley adopted elements of Tennessee's croon, as did Nick Lowe many decades later; the Everly Brothers and Johnny Cash both paid debt to Ford; plenty of baby boomers cite "Sixteen Tons" as a pivotal record -- and by putting this music back into circulation, the thorough Portrait of an American Singer helps restore Tennessee Ernie Ford's reputation as an American roots pop pioneer.