Ernest “Tennessee Ernie” Ford (1919-1991) was the sort of figure we don’t seem to have in American pop culture any more: a country artist with mass, mainstream appeal, less because the country itself was going hillbilly, but because he gave off dignity and class. He was a broadcast announcer for years in addition to being a singer and musician, and he’d studied classical music at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He was still a pop culture personality when I was a kid in the ’70s and I remember him well. With his pencil thin mustache and his rich bass-baritone voice and grown-up diction (which is almost extinct now) he reminded me a lot of newscaster Walter Cronkite (though his voice would often descend to a low bass rumble not unlike that of Tex Ritter). Counterintuitively, he was also known for playing rube characters in comedy sketches and as a special guest on sit-coms, in a manner not unlike Andy Griffith (another smart and educated guy from the Smoky/Blue Ridge region).
“Crossover” was baked into Ford’s background. His hometown was Bristol, a community which straddles both Tennessee and Virginia (guess which side of town he was born on). Bristol makes the news every so often because of its two-state predicament (I most recently saw it in a TV news item about Covid regulations, which were different in the two parts of the town, because Tennessee and Virginia had different rules.) Further, Bristol is relatively close to both North Carolina (40 minutes away by car) and Kentucky (an hour and a half). Cincinnati, where Ford went to school, is just on the other side of Kentucky. Because of its location, Cincinnati has always played an interesting south-to-north gateway role, a fitting place for Ford’s first “Yankee” experience.
From 1937 through 1949 was a radio personality, starting at his local Bristol station and winding up in Southern California (with an interlude of a few years whole he served as a bombardier in the Pacific theatre during World War II). In 1949 he began hosting his own local TV country-variety program called Hometown Jamboree in the L.A. area, launching his recording career at the same time.
Like many, he was a star of both the country and pop charts simultaneously. The pop hits included “Mule Train” (1949, #9), “The Cry of the Wild Goose” (1950, #15), “The Shotgun Boogie” (1950, #14), the theme song to the western film River of No Return (1955), “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (1955, #5), his 1955 cover of Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons” (his only #1 hit), and “In the Middle of an Island” (1957, #23). He also recorded numerous duets with Kay Starr, Betty Hutton, Helen O’Connell, Ella Mae Morse, Molly Bee, and many others, many of which became hits. He made records in nearly every style, not just country and pop, but also, folk, gospel, big band/swing/jazz, and other sounds, giving him a broad appeal. This suited him quite naturally to national television.
Staring in 1954, Ford was in the first of three episodes of I Love Lucy, in which he played Lucy’s country bumpkin cousin, a variation on bits he had been doing on radio and TV for years. This raised his profile, immensely, providing a gateway for him to shine on his account. There were versions of The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show telecast nationally from 1956 through 1965, giving Ford the same kind of institutional authority that figures like Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, and Dinah Shore enjoyed. He also appeared on other variety programs like The George Gobel Show, Colgate Comedy Hour, Kraft Music Hall, and many others.
In 1968, he voiced the narrating character in the Rankin-Bass Thanksgiving special The Mouse on the Mayflower. The following years are when I was liable to catch him on his occasional TV appearances on shows like Hee Haw, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Johnny Cash Show, and Dolly! as well as less countrified platforms like Sonny and Cher, Merv, Mike Douglas, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and so forth. By the ’80s his TV shots were rare. His last public appearance was at a White House dinner organized by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. He died just a few days afterward, when, after years of alcohol abuse, his liver finally gave out. He was only 72.
His hobnobbing at a conservative event gives some indication of his political orientation in his last years. Like a lot of people from his region Ford has started out as a Democrat. His biggest hit “Sixteen Tons” is about the plight of a exploited mine worker. But he later got turned by the likes of Nixon and Reagan and their “Southern strategy”. He disliked rock and roll, despite having paved the way for Elvis’s mainstream success by his own example. The worst thing you will encounter about him on the internet is (not a few )photographs of him in front of a Confederate flag. We don’t defend the association when we point out it was common at the time or that his 1961 record Civil War Songs of the South was accompanied by another one called Civil War Songs of the North. This kind of “balance” has been responsible for much lingering evil in this country, extending never more so than today. His strangest association was a Texas club known as the Confederate Air Force, a group of Southern air force vets that put on annual air shows, and is now known as the Commemorative Air Force. The real Confederate Air Force was no doubt composed of ten guys in goggles flying hot air balloons. Anyway, it should go without saying that the Confederate “cause” had more in common with that of the Nazis, Fascists and Imperial Japanese than with the country Ford actually served, which gave the world its first Constitutional Bill of Rights. But I think it’s safe to say that many of the people who do these things don’t think very deeply about them, and that was as true than it is now. But people are flying that traitorous flag at this minute, so if you’re rolling your eyes at the sermon, I’m unmoved by your impatience. Yes, we have a First Amendment, but social permission to fly that flag ought to have been nipped in the bud 150 years ago.
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To learn more about the variety arts, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.