Inarguably a major recording act, Tennessee Ernie Ford (1919-1991) sold an estimated 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.
On September 25, 2015, Bear Family Records will release Tennessee Ernie Ford: Portrait of an American Singer (1949-1960). The deluxe 12x12x1.5-inch box set contains 154 tracks on five CDs including all of the secular-themed studio recordings from the first dozen years in the career of one of the most important crossover acts in the history of American popular music. The package also contains a 124-page hardcover book with newly written essays, track-by-track album notes, a discography, label scans, and many 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.
The set contains early country hits including the chart-topping “Mule Train” (1949) and the pioneering “hillbilly boogie” smash “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 such as “Rock City Boogie” (with the Dinning Sisters, 1951) and “Blackberry Boogie” (1952) as well as such overlooked delights as the train song “Tennessee Local” (1952), and Ford’s 1953 interpretation of Willie Mabon’s R&B hit “I Don’t Know.”
This boxed set includes a never-before-released song (“Slow Down”), numerous singles and album tracks not previously reissued on CD, and several rarities, including Ford’s 1955 recitations of Davy Crockett tales, as well as his 1958 public service jingles to promote the U.S. Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots charitable program.
Ford’s hit “hillbilly boogie” singles from 1949 to 1953 — including “Smokey Mountain Boogie” (1949), “The Shotgun Boogie” (1950), “Rock City Boogie” (1951), and “Blackberry Boogie” (1952) — blended black and white stylistic influences and are widely considered to have been pioneering rock ’n’ roll records.
In the early months of 1955, Ford’s version of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” was a top five hit on the country chart as well as on the pop chart, foreshadowing the artist’s ultimate crossover achievement. Also that year, his hit “Give Me Your Word” was the #1 pop single in the U.K. And toward the end of ’55, Ford’s smash single “Sixteen Tons” topped both charts simultaneously, and rose to #1 in the U.K., selling more than four million copies and proving to be one of the most influential singles of the 1950s, reaching #1 on the country chart for ten weeks, and #1 on the pop chart for eight weeks. Long considered Ford’s signature song, “Sixteen Tons” was eventually inducted into the GRAMMY® Hall of Fame and into the National Recording Registry.
This boxed set provides a thorough exploration of Ford’s first dozen years (1949-1960) as a recording act, and listeners today can marvel at the range of his repertoire and (considering that for much of that period he was a musician part-time and a television host full-time) at the extent of his productivity.
Although he spent his career in California, Ford was from Bristol, Tennessee, which has been called “The Birthplace of Country Music” for its role is hosting the legendary 1927 recording sessions in which Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were first recorded. (Bear Family Records released the definitive version of the so-called Bristol Sessions in 2011.)
In 1984 Ford became the first country artist to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest governmental award given to a civilian. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990 and into the Gospel Music Association’s Gospel Hall of Fame in 1994.
The wide range of artists who have specifically cited Ford as a formative influence on their own music include American musicians such as Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Glen Campbell, Micky Dolenz, Odetta, Della Reese, Dolly Parton, Tom Waits, Steve Young, Tom Petty, Meat Loaf, and the bands ZZ Top and They Might Be Giants, as well as British musicians including John Lennon, Eric Burdon, Tom Jones, Jeff Beck, Billy Fury, Elton John, Nick Lowe, and the Clash.
Ford made innovative and influential recordings, all of which can be heard in Portrait of An American Singer.
According to producer Olson, “In recent years Tennessee Ernie Ford has been primarily remembered for his mid-1950s crossover smash hit ‘Sixteen Tons’ and for some of his gospel records. But the singer made many other exciting recordings, and Bear Family Records and I decided it was time to showcase Ford’s influential early studio recordings in order to make a case for his enduring significance as a compelling popular recording artist. Presenting all of Ford’s secular-themed recordings from the most influential period (1949-1960) of his long career while providing a written and illustrated narrative of his varied and pioneering roles in the entertainment industry, this new box set, we hope, will help people realize that Ford was not only a figure of historical importance but also an inimitable American singer who left us many timeless and delightful recordings.