Tennessee Ernie ford’s isn’t a name familiar to many people
past that wave of 1950’s born baby boomers. Even to them he likely represents a
square even cornball style of show business that was part of their parents’
popular culture that they were ready to jettison once the rock and roll
alternative came along. Ford parlayed a highly successful radio career as an
MC, singer and hayseed comic into a long steady stretch as a TV talk show
guest, recording artist and host of two very popular variety shows of his own.
He also hit the pop charts with his hit “Sixteen Tons” a stark, spare lament
about working in a coal mine. “Sixteen Tons” – whose disputed authorship is
usually credited to Merle Travis – brilliantly conveyed the despair ,the
worn-out hamster on a wheel frustration of a man who spent his days deep in the
dark, dismal bowels of the Earth mining coal and his nights working up the grit
to go back down the net day. Ford’s deep rich baritone had the testosterone and
the “Ol’ Man River”-weariness to give authenticity and authority to the
performance. Ford had a respectable run as a recording artist but after “Tons”
he concentrated mostly on religious or novelty material; his biggest hit
besides “Tons” was “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” the theme to the Walt Disney
produced television show. Going in that direction obscured another aspect of
his legacy, one which this disc does a great job of refreshing.
Between April and June of 1953, Ford and his ace band, which
included pedal steel pioneer Speedy West, recorded 250 shows worth of what were
called “transcripts.” These were sent to radio outlets which would broadcast
them according to their own schedule, interspersing local commercials and
programming with the music, banter and skits provided by artists like Ford. 23
of the more than 1300 songs recorded in those short months are in this
collection and they are brilliantly re-mastered prompting hope that there is
more to come.
Because Ford’s music combined Country and Western influences
with jazz and blues music there are inevitable similarities to people like Bob
Wills. But Ford’s music was a little more uptown, a little slicker than Wills’.
And of course it was more vocal oriented. It was Ford’s show after all and
voices like his didn’t come along every day; with the possible exceptions of
Redd Volkaert and Junior Brown they still don’t and that’s stretching it. When Ford sings en semble with other
band members (“Up A Lazy River”; “Hot Toddy”) the influence of the Mills
Brothers is clear with Ford joining Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and other pop
stars of yesteryear in acknowledging that group’s importance.
Recorded in an informal atmosphere where cigarettes and
“refreshments” were essential elements, everything is loose about these
recordings but the quality of the music. Ford had a straightforward but relaxed
style and his appeal is immediately apparent Sure, many of the cuts here are
standards that have been recorded by the best of pop singers over the years.
But they are standards because they can hold up to repeated reinterpretation.
What’s better than great songs sung by great singers? Was Ford one of the
greats? If spin or two of Ford taking on “Lazy River”
or “Try A Little Tenderness” has you thinking so you can bet your pea-pickin’
heart you’re not alone.
Standout Tracks: “Up A Lazy River”; “I Can’t Get Started” RICK ALLEN