The booming baritone voice of Tennessee Ernie Ford was best known for his 1955 cover of Merle Travis' grim coal-mining song "Sixteen Tons," watered down by the dulcet strains of a Hollywood studio orchestra but retaining its innate seriousness thanks to the sheer power of Ford's singing. But there was more to Tennessee Ernie Ford than that. Over his long career, Ford sang everything from proto-rock & roll to gospel, recorded over 100 albums, and earned numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. His popularity and recognition transcended country music, and he was among the earliest and most successful "crossover" artists to come out of country music, paving the way for such diverse popular culture figures as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Reba McEntire, and many more.
Born Ernest Jennings Ford in 1919, he was a native of Bristol, TN, a town that subsequently came to be regarded -- thanks to the Ralph Peer field recording sessions (featuring Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family) conducted there in 1927 -- as one of the birthplaces of modern country music. He started singing as a boy and, after graduating from high school, became a voice student at Virginia Intermount College. The latter was officially a women's college but admitted a limited number of male students to its daytime study program, and it was with the help of one of his teachers and her husband that Ford, with his deep and resonant voice, broke into radio, as an announcer on WOPI in northeast Tennessee. By 1939, he'd moved to Cincinnati, OH, and was studying at that city's Conservatory of Music. He moved around the country in the year leading up to America's entry into World War II, holding announcer jobs in Atlanta, Georgia, and Knoxville, TN. Following America's entry into World War II with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ford enlisted in the United States Army in early 1942 and was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Corps, which kept him stateside, serving in Alabama and later in California, where he was posted to a bomberdier school. His talent wasn't dormant during this period, and he was able to participate in various special services entertainment programs.
After the war, Ford -- who had married while serving in the military -- moved his family to San Bernardino, CA, and took a DJ job on a local radio station. It was there that he first took on the name "Tennessee Ernie," which became the focus of his comedic on-air persona, a kind of good-hearted bumpkin who was smarter than he let on and funnier (and more eccentric) than he seemingly knew; in some respects, "Tennessee Ernie" was a bit like some of the more benign rural characters that had been essayed in the movies by Walter Brennan. In reality, Ford had extraordinary flexibility and range, so much so that some employers and potential employers in radio were astonished to learn that they were drawing on the services of a vast array of "characters" and personas -- he could speak and sing in a magnificent, full-bodied baritone that would have been the envy of many an operatic singer, but he had an array of twangy, Southern- (and distinctly rustic Southern) inflected voices that he used, along with catch phrases that quickly got picked up by his listening audience, in Pasadena and Los Angeles. He was almost a one-man radio network and cast at one point on KXLA, and drawing an ever-larger audience. In 1947 he also made the acquaintance of Cliffie Stone, a musician, announcer, and producer who was rapidly becoming one of the most influential figures in country music on the West Coast. Initially, Ford appeared on Stone's Hometown Jamboree, which started on radio and moved to television later in the 1940s, and in 1948 Stone brought him to Capitol Records, the beginning of a relationship that would last for 40 years, covering the rest of the singer's life.
Five singles had been released by late 1949, including "Tennessee Border" and "Smokey Mountain Boogie" (both Top Ten) and his first number one single, "Mule Train." His Western songs and boogie-flavored numbers offered an energy level and sexual suggestiveness that made them rock & roll in all but name, and his recordings featured the fabulous instrumental talents of Merle Travis on guitar and Speedy West on pedal steel. Early in 1951, "Shotgun Boogie" became his second number one, spending 14 weeks at the top of the country charts. By the beginning of 1953, although Ford wasn't having as many hits, he remained popular in America and also in England. He became a television quizmaster in 1954, hosting NBC's presentation of Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge. He also had his own daily show and continued recording. A series of appearances on I Love Lucy (then one of the top-rated shows in the country) as "Cousin Ernie" in two 1954 episodes was so funny and so popular that he made a follow-up appearance the next year on the same series in the identical role, using his comedic rural country persona. These performances only helped him maintain and broaden crossover appeal, and at the same time he was a downright ubiquitous figure on country music variety shows of the period, including the Old American Barn Dance. On many of these programs, he was billed simply as "Tennessee Ernie," owing to the fact that producers felt that using his last name would promote a car company that wasn't necessarily a sponsor. The public was never confused, however, and knew exactly who he was. He also contributed to movies as a singer. As early as 1946 he'd shown up uncredited as a hillbilly performer in the multi-Academy Award-winning drama The Best Years of Our Lives, but a decade later his presence in movies was a selling point, as with his performance of the title song over the credits of the Marilyn Monroe/Robert Mitchum adventure film River of No Return in 1954, which became a pop hit. And all of these activities serve to illustrate Ford's extraordinary range as a singer and performer, of music and comedy, and an appeal that cut across regional and cultural -- and even national -- lines. And although his hits tended to be written by others, he also composed songs, including "Hogtied Over You," "Kiss Me Big," and "Softly and Tenderly."
Ford had two Top Ten country hits in 1955 with "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" and his biggest success, "Sixteen Tons," which spent ten weeks at number one on the country charts and eight weeks at number one on the pop charts. From 1956 to 1965 he was a primetime network television host, making "Bless your little pea-pickin' hearts" a household catch phrase and providing powerful exposure for Ford's increasingly middle-of-the-road music. For all of his occasionally risqué lyrics and humor, Ford also had a seriously religious side to his work and persona, and his voice was ideally suited to big arrangements of traditional hymns. His first gospel album, Hymns (1956), became the first religious album to go gold, while his second gospel album, Great Gospel Songs, earned him a Grammy. He was immensely popular as the 1960s commenced and remained a popular fixture on television for most of that decade, and his recordings were as ambitious as they were successful. We Gather Together, a 1963 release made with the San Quentin Prison Choir, was the first recording ever made at the prison. A year after that -- a period in which he issued two more religious-oriented albums, one a Christmas recording and the other a gospel collection cut with the Jordanaires -- he released Country Hits - Feelin' Blue, a back-to-basics recording on which Ford, backed solely by Billy Strange on guitar and John Mosher on bass, ran through a dozen country music standards; the latter is regarded by many fans as the best country LP of Ford's career. In 1965, he had his last major chart entry with the Top Ten single "Hicktown," but he continued to record gospel music and the occasional country album over the next two decades, interspersed with an album of patriotic songs in 1970 and a folk album the following year. He began working with Cliffie Stone's son Steve Stone early in that decade, which led to a revival of his presence on the sales charts with Country Morning, released in 1973, which yielded a brace of new singles including one hit, "Printers Alley Stars." His most enduring album of the decade, however, was Ernie Sings & Glen Picks, released in 1975; cut with Glen Campbell, it was similar to Country Hits - Feelin' Blue from 12 years before as a stripped-down country effort, and it not only sold well at the time but found a new audience as a CD in the 1990s. Ford joined the ranks of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990, at age 71. By that time, he was a beloved and somewhat enigmatic elder statesman in the field, having willingly stepped out of the limelight apart from the occasional gospel recording. The first serious reissues of his music began appearing on CD in 1990, starting with Rhino Records' 16 Tons of Boogie: The Best of Tennessee Ernie Ford, which covered material going back to his early honky tonk sound, and collections of his gospel recordings began appearing from Capitol during this same period. At the time of his death from liver failure in the fall of 1991, he remained a much-loved figure far beyond the boundaries of the country music audience.