Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Portrait of an American Singer' Revives The Memory Of Tennessee Ernie Ford


This is FRESH AIR. Tennessee Ernie Ford was a hugely popular singer in the 1950s and '60s best known for his hit "Sixteen Tons." He was a fixture on television with his own variety show and as a frequent guest on other shows. These days, few people remember Ford. A new five-disc box set called "Portrait Of An American Singer" attempts to introduce Ford to a new audience. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.


TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD: (Singing) Some people say a man is made out of mud. A poor man's made out of muscle and blood. Muscle and blood and skin and bones, a mind that's weak and a back that's strong. You load 16 tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store. I was born one...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Baby boomers may well remember that song, "Sixteen Tons," a number one hit on both the pop and country charts for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955 selling millions of copies and enjoying a long afterlife on oldies radio. Anyone younger is probably saying, Tennessee Ernie who? The five-disc "Portrait Of An American Singer" answers that question and raises new ones. Its truest portrait is of a man with a rich, powerful voice who is one of the most versatile vocalists of his generation.


FORD: (Singing) There it stands in the corner with the barrel so straight. I looked out the window and over the gate. The big, fat rabbits are jumping in the grass. Wait until they hear my old shotgun blast. Shotgun boogie, I done saw your track. Look out Mr. Rabbit when I cock my hammer back. Well, over on the ridge...

TUCKER: That's the first big hit Ford had, the "Shotgun Boogie" from 1950. It's a prime example of what the industry at the time was calling hillbilly boogie music that would soon get folded into the bigger catch-all fraise rockabilly. The "Shotgun Boogie" is at once tidy and efficient and yet also Ernie Ford at his loosest. It also helps that he had crack Capitol Records session players behind him. In particular, steel guitar player Speedy West and guitarist Jimmy Bryant. Drummer Muddy Berry provided the "Shotgun" percussion. Another softer side of Ford can be heard here on "Jealous Heart" from 1960. It had been a country hit for Tex Ritter, but Ford rearranged the song as jazzy pop, and it really works.


FORD: (Singing) Jealous heart, oh, jealous heart, stop beating. Can't you see the damage you have done? You have driven her away forever. Jealous heart, now I'm the lonely one. I was part...

TUCKER: Ford was born in Bristol, Tenn. in 1919. That city was central to early country music, and early on in his career, Ford played up his rural background never hiding his drawl and referring to himself as the old pea picker. From the start, however, Ford set himself apart by wearing business suits on stage and cutting a dashing, debonair image. He sang middle-of-the-road pop and novelty songs as frequently as he interpreted country, R and B and gospel music. As a sizable percentage of the 154 tracks on this collection reveals, his pursuit of hits, done primarily at Capitol Records in Hollywood not in Nashville, led him to squander his marvelously deep, resonant voice on a lot of silly, mediocre material.


FORD: (Singing) One suit, one suit was all I had. One suit, one suit was all I had. One suit, one suit was all I had, and it was nothing but an old, gray, beat-up plaid.

TUCKER: Bob Dylan cited Ford as a singer he admired even as Ford had little use for Bob Dylan, once suggesting that Dylan shouldn't sing his own compositions because Ford found Dylan's voice wanting. Ford could have been another mainstream pop act that got sidelined once The Beatles and Dylan made rock the pop that mattered. Tennessee Ernie Ford was the kind of singer who doesn't exist anymore, a vocalist who prided himself on a very wide range of material who wasn't interested in being hip or histrionic.


FORD: (Singing) Oh, yes, I'm losing you, losing you. I know I'm losing you. That's why I'm so sad and blue. Darling, I'm losing you, losing you. I know I'm losing you, crying my heart out for you. You say...

TUCKER: When I was a kid, my parents love the old pea picker. He was authentic enough to appeal to my country music-loving father. And I think my mom had a bit of a crush on him, with his pencil-thin moustache and his virile vocal delivery. For me, he was a friendly face on TV shows and a singer easy to ignore as I became devoted to rock mock. But now I hear Tennessee Ernie Ford as a modestly remarkable performer, a singer who wanted to reach into every living room in every town, big or small, and reassure listeners that there was a voice here that understood you no matter who you were.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed the five-disc box set, "Tennessee Ernie Ford: Portrait Of An American Singer."

If you want to catch up on interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Iris DeMent, who performed some of her songs, our interview about birdsong with great recordings of birds and my conversation with the parents of a transgender daughter and the author of a book about their family, you can listen to those and more on our podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.