Written by 4:04 am Audiophile Music

Tennessee Ernie Ford – Country-Rock Before Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Mark Smotroff explores a country-rock crossover superstar from times past

He’s one of those names that if you grew up in the 60s and 70s, inevitably you have heard his name spoken or written. You might have even seen him on TV or in re-runs of I Love Lucy. If you are a crate digger like me, there is no doubt you have come across endless copies of his albums on Capitol Records at garage sales, flea markets and thrift shops.  

AR-bearcdernieford225.jpgBut few of us these days really have a clue as to what his music sounds like. 

I’m talking about Tennessee Ernie Ford who is the focus of a massive new boxed set from Germany’s Bear Family label: Portrait of An American Singer. A major recording act back in the day, Ford reportedly sold some 90 million albums worldwide, and charted 17 Top Ten country singles and four Top Ten pop singles over a 35-year recording career. And he played significant — and pioneering — roles in radio and television broadcasting.

The super deluxe LP-sized box set contains 154 tracks spread across five CDs including all of the non-religious-themed — aka “secular” — studio recordings from the first dozen or so years in his career. 

Even if you don’t dig all of his music, its hard to deny his importance as one of the earliest and most significant Country Western – Pop crossover acts. Consider that (according to label promotional materials) in 1955 Ford’s smash single “Sixteen Tons” rose to #1 in the U.K., selling more than four million copies there. The song reached  #1 on the country chart for ten weeks, and #1 on the pop chart for eight weeks. “Sixteen Tons” was eventually inducted into the GRAMMY® Hall of Fame and into the National Recording Registry.

AR-16TonsAd225.jpgThe Bear Family set contains the chart-topping hit “Mule Train” (which according to the wiki spent nine weeks on the Billboard Magazine pop charts, ultimately reaching the #10 spot in 1949 and also making it to #1 on the Country charts). It also includes “The Shotgun Boogie” (1950), as well as Ford’s first major crossover hit, the 1950 duet (with Kay Starr) “I’ll Never Be Free.” There are classics-of-the-period such as “Rock City Boogie” (with the Dinning Sisters, 1951) and Ford’s 1953 interpretation of Willie Mabon’s rhythm ‘n blues hit “I Don’t Know.”

So how does Portrait of An American Singer sound?  Real good, as can be expected from a Bear Family release. Everything is as full fidelity as early 50s country swing recordings can sound on a 16-bit, 44.1 kHz CD.  Just don’t go into this expecting Jazz at the Pawn Shop or some other such audiophile touchstone. These are legacy recordings and should be viewed as such. This set is all about the music which is presented in a clean, clear and convenient form.  The set is about the history behind the tunes and also a snapshot of the quite remarkable diversity of styles the guy could pull off genuinely — from rocking swing to country hoe downs to sweet and dramatic ballads as well as poignant love songs, he covers all bases and covers them well. 

To do at least a little bit of “due diligence” in preparing this review, I admittedly had to go out to one of my favorite thrift shops and found a clean copy of one of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s albums (Ford Favorites from 1957 on Capitol Records, probably an early 60s pressing on the rainbow label) and compared some tracks to the CD.  “The Watermelon Song” sounds great on both the CD vs. the LP, the CD sounding immediately brighter and clearer than the record; the vinyl however gets some edge for pure punchy monaural analog warmth. 

AR-bearernieford225.jpgThis is especially true on a track like “Call Me Darling, Call Me Sweetheart, Call Me Dear,” a bluesy slow-burning jazz-flavored swing track replete with a big horn section and vocalizing that might have given Elvis Presley a bit of pause back in the day. Ford’s signature tune “16 Tons” sounds a bit bigger on the original LP than the CD….

But, really folks, this is hair-splitting on an admittedly stupid level! 

I mean… honestly… how many of you audiophiles out there are really going to go out digging around thrift shops to find a genuinely clean copy of a 1957 album by this fine artist when you can simply order up this exhaustive review of all his work with the push of a button?  

Yeah, the two of you sitting in the back row there. I figured as much. 


So, yeah, I’m happy to have this set ’cause I know how unlikely it is to find all of these 154 tracks on sed LP in even decent playable condition, much less mint shape.  

This massive boxed set is all about the joy of the overview, the big picture if you will. 

AR-ErnieFordTVGuide225.jpgAnd you get a whole bunch of big pictures — and loads of informative background on Mr. Ford — in the 124-page hardcover book that comes with Portrait of An American Singer. It features newly written essays, track-by-track album notes, a discography, label scans, and loads of rare photographs and illustrations. The book was authored by three-time Grammy Award-nominated music historian Ted Olson, Ph.D., from the department of Appalachian Studies/Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies Program at East Tennessee State University. Olson also produced the reissue.

So you can rest pretty well assured that this is the definitive study on Mr. Ford’s work and its impact on the world of country and pop music.

Its pretty remarkable to hear how Mr. Ford can switch from plaintive ballads and love songs to a genuine rocking growl on the more upbeat stuff.  Tunes such as “Tennessee Local” swing and rock like nobody’s business falling this side of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and Louis Jordan. “Blackberry Boogie” was a big proto-rock hit in 1952 — sounding very much like the kinda stuff Elvis Presley would hit big with a few years later, it reached #6 on the Country charts (according to the Wiki).  

AR-TennesseeErnieFordRecordShopping225.jpgHeck, he even hit big with his version of the Davy Crockett song was one of three versions that hit the Top 10 in 1955 when Walt Disney’s TV show of the same name became a big hit.  You’ll find that hit and some follow on story telling tracks from that period on this collection as well.

That said, there are more than a bunch of way groovy tunes here I could imagine a cool DJ sneaking into the mix alongside more modern tracks from Bryan Ferry to Amy Winehouse.  

This is good stuff.  If you are a fan of Tennessee Ernie Ford, Portrait of An American Singer will not doubt make you happier fan. If you want a well prepared, fine sounding historic overview of the best stuff from Tennessee Ernie Ford all in one place, there is no doubt that Portrait of An American Singer is your ticket to hayride!

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