Ford, Ernest Jennings (“Tennessee Ernie”)

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Ford, Ernest Jennings (“Tennessee Ernie”)

(b. 13 February 1919 in Bristol, Tennessee; d. 17 October 1991 in Reston, Virginia), singer and entertainer whose recording of “Sixteen Tons” became an instant classic in country music.

Ford was one of two children born to Clarence Ford, a post office worker, and Maude Ford, a homemaker. A deeply religious family, the Fords regularly sang in their Methodist church’s choir. Ford played trombone in the band at Bristol High School. After graduating in 1937, he began working as an announcer at a local radio station and attended Intermont College in Virginia from 1937 to 1939, though he did not earn a degree. In 1939 he took singing lessons at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Ford was working as an announcer and disc jockey at a Knoxville, Tennessee, radio station when the United States entered World War II in 1941. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and served as a bombardier and flight instructor. He flew combat missions as a navigator but was stationed most often at the air base in Victorville, California. In 1942 he married Betty Jean Heminger; they had two children. Ford was discharged from the military in 1945 with the rank of first lieutenant.

Settling permanently in California, Ford resumed his radio career. While working on the country-and-western music station KXLA in Pasadena, California, he became friends with the veteran bandleader Cliffie Stone. Blessed with a rich bass-baritone voice, Ford soon became a regular singer on Stone’s popular radio program, Hometown Jamboree. Stone also put Ford in contact with Capitol Records, which signed the promising young crooner to a recording contract. In 1949 Ford recorded “Mule Train” and “Smokey Mountain Boogie”—both of which reached the top ten on the country-and-western music charts. His career took off the following year when he came out with a trio of top-ten singles—“Anticipation Blues,” “I’ll Never Be Free” (with Kay Starr), and “The Cry of the Wild Goose”—and his first number-one hit, “Shotgun Boogie.”

From 1950 to 1955 Ford had his own radio shows on the CBS and ABC networks. He also recorded “Mister and Mississippi” (1951), “Blackberry Boogie” (1952), “River of No Return” (1954), and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (1955), all top-ten hits. His “Davy Crockett” was the theme song for the popular Walt Disney television show of the same title. Ford scored his greatest success in 1955 with “Sixteen Tons,” a song written by Merle Travis. In simple but compellingly memorable lyrics, “Sixteen Tons” recounts the woes of a proud but disheartened miner who realizes that even after years of back-breaking labor, he has nothing to show for his exertions: “I owe my soul to the company store.” This plaintive tune catapulted Ford to national fame. The recording sold 2 million copies in the first nine weeks after its release, remained at the top of the charts for months, and eventually sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. Ford once described the song as an “everlasting hit. It seems that young marrieds and even high school kids know it. It caught on to every working man in the world, I guess.” In 1963 Ford’s 1956 album Hymns became Capitol Records’ best-selling record of all time. Hymns is one of the few platinum-selling religious recordings.

As he grew older Ford devoted himself increasingly to gospel music. He recorded “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Rock of Ages,” “Faith of Our Fathers,” and many other famous Christian hymns. “Of all the singing I do, hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs not only give me great pleasure but seem to be something that truly needs to be done. People may get all steamed up about big new love songs that come along, but let’s not forget that hymns and spirituals are the finest love songs of them all.” Ford’s religious songs found a wide audience. By the end of the 1960s he had sold more than 10 million gospel records, netting him six Gold Record awards from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

During the late 1950s and into the mid-1960s Ford hosted several popular television variety shows, including the College of Musical Knowledge (1954), the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, (1955-1957 and 1961-1965), and the Ford Show (1956-1961). For Americans of that era, Ford’s wholesome, homespun demeanor and unpretentious charm had an irresistible appeal. He would introduce his shows with the trademark folksy line “Bless your little pea-pickin’ hearts, this is Ole Pea-Picker here.” His shows included a mix of pop and country music, and he usually closed his program by singing a hymn.

Ford’s popularity led to guest appearances on numerous television shows, including Love Lucy, This Is Your Life, Hee Haw, and the variety shows hosted by Steve Allen, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, Danny Thomas, Jack Benny, Andy Williams, Red Skelton, Jim Nabors, Mike Douglas, and Dinah Shore. In his career, Ford recorded more than eighty albums, among them Civil War Songs of the North (1961), Civil War Songs of the South (1961), Long, Long Ago (1963), Favorite Hymns, The Very Best of Tennessee Ernie Ford (1963), Great Gospel Songs near the Cross (1964), Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Country Hits (1964), World’s Best Loved Hymns (1965), God Lives! (1966), America the Beautiful (1970), and Ernie Sings and Glen Picks (1975).

Ford was the first Country-music singer to perform in London’s Palladium Theatre. Queen Elizabeth II, who had a special liking for “Shotgun Boogie,” included herself among his fans. He was also part of the first group of country singers ever to tour the Soviet Union. Ford received many prestigious awards for his career achievements. Motion Picture Daily cited his TV show as the best program of the 1956–1957 season. Ford received a Grammy Award for “Great Gospel Songs” in 1964; he was nominated seven other times for Grammys. He also received two Emmy nominations for his work on television. President Ronald Reagan presented him with the Medal of Freedom in 1984, and he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990. After his first wife’s death, Ford married Beverly Woodsmith in 1989. He died of a liver ailment and is buried in Alta Mesa Cemetery in Palo Alto, California. His place as a pop-culture icon of the post—World War II years is secure, and it is likely that his signature song, “Sixteen Tons,” will continue to be enjoyed by music lovers for generations to come.

Ford’s autobiography is titled This Is My Story, This Is My Song (1963). There is one full-length biography, Ted Hilgenstuhler’s Tennessee Ernie Ford (1957). He is also covered in Patrick Carr, ed., The Illustrated History of Country Music (1979). There are obituaries in the New York Times (18 Oct. 1991) and Current Biography Yearbook (1992).

Irina Belenky