Tennessee Ernie Ford – ‘Portrait Of An American Singer’ (BOX SET REVIEW)


When Tennessee Ernie Ford passed away in 1991 at the age of 72, exactly 36 years had passed since he had released “Sixteen Tons”. Despite its tragic tale of life working in a coal mine, the Merle Travis-penned song had been a mega-hit, selling 20 million copies from the time it was released in 1955 until Ford’s death. A Capitol Records ad from the year of its release even depicted a cash register bursting with cash and bearing the title “16 Tons” in place of the dollar amount, and below it read, “The Biggest and Fastest Breaking Million Seller in Two Years”. Songs like “16 Tons” and “The Shotgun Boogie” may be what Ford is best known for today, but they are only the tip of the iceberg for an artist who left behind a massive body of work that – in a nutshell – encapsulates nearly every corner of American music. The beautiful and hefty new box set, Portrait Of An American Singer, from the folks at the German label Bear Family Records presents us with a thorough collection of music from one of America’s most criminally underappreciated artists of all time.

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“A song, if it is to live and breathe, depends upon a compelling, committed human voice, and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s voice animated many a song during his lifetime,” writes Ted Olson in the first sentence of the coffee table book that comes alongside the five discs, each spanning roughly thirty songs, in this new box set. Loaded with photos from throughout Ford’s career and Olson’s insightful commentary on his life, the book proves to be far more than just liner notes and would be a worthwhile purchase even without the music. Ford was born in the storied town of Bristol, Tennessee, and with his smooth bass-baritone voice it seemed only natural that he would end up in radio and eventually television. Music went hand in hand with those professions, and before long Ford caught the ear of Capitol Records, who signed him in 1949. At Capitol, the singer maintained a prolific output of records that lasted for years, occasionally scoring a hit and always applying his robust vocals as best he could.

Ernie Ford Records

But the best way to understand “The Ol’ Pea-Picker” is to dive right into his tunes. It’s remarkable that Tennessee Ernie Ford isn’t more of a household name given the sheer variety and quality of music he recorded. For much of his music, Ford brought his quaint country roots to the table, embracing country and western, hymns, gospel, and he often sang about rural life. The best-known example of this would be “Sixteen Tons”, but there were also songs like “Country Junction”, “Mule Train”, “Hey! Mr. Cotton Picker”, and “Chicken Road” to name just a few. Ford was multi-faceted, and singing about that country life and the power of the lord were only some of what he did. There was also the singing cowboy spinning enchanting tales of the Wild West in tunes like “The Cry of the Wild Goose”, “I’m A Bad Man”, and, of course, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”. Then there were Christmas tunes and more oddball fare like “That’s All” – a colorful song (politically incorrect by today’s standards) where Ford preaches the dangers of not living by the Lord’s word.

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Ford even veered into boogie-woogie, western swing, pop, and opera, proving that there were few places he was afraid to go when it came to his music. His distinctive croon seemed to find no song it couldn’t sing. Songs that had been recorded by tons of other artists immediately became a Tennessee Ernie Ford tune the second he laid down his vocals. Regardless of the style Ford was singing in, he always embodied the character and story of the song as if he was playing a role.  His music is fascinating to listen to just to sink into the mood and the story, as Ford was an artists with the ability to sing so many different styles and create a new world with each and every song.

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In 1990 Tennessee Ernie Ford was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame just before his death. The honor was well deserved, yet it seems his legacy has been overlooked throughout the years. Bear Family’s Portrait Of An American Singer serves as both a reminder and a proper treatment of this legacy. It should be required listening for anyone curious how it was possible for one man to bring his voice to just about every style of American music. Looking at the box set as a whole, there is an obvious sense of care, respect, and pure adoration that went into presenting the music of the great singer Tennessee Ernie Ford. Bear Family has once again given us a vital document of a truly vital artist.

Portrait Of An American Singer is out now on Bear Family Records. 

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