Depending on your age or how you discovered his music, Tennessee Ernie Ford might be a country music hit-maker from the '50's, a cornpone humorist with a successful '60's variety show, a member of Hee Haw's gospel quartet or a name seen in every discount record bin alongside Andy Williams and Barbra Streisand.
All of that and more applies to Bristol, Tennessee native Ernest Jennings Ford (Feb. 13, 1919- Oct. 17, 1991), one of the first country stars to translate television exposure into sustained mainstream stardom. An argument can be made that singing cowboys came first, but they used the silver screen more so than the small screen to become part superheroes, part singing sensations.
The deep-voiced, mild-mannered Ford's career began as an announcer for Bristol radio station WOPI. He stepped away from the live radio era of "hillbilly music" in 1939 to study bass-baritone singing at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Shortly after that, he served in the US Army Air Corps during World War II.
Ford settled down in California after the war, positioning him to work for Pasadena and San Bernardino radio stations. There, he adopted the over-the-top persona Tennessee Ernie to set himself apart from other regional radio personalities.
While at KXLA in Pasadena, Ford joined the cast of Cliffie Stone's Dinner Bell Roundup and Hometown Jamboree radio shows as a vocalist. Stone happened to be a talent scout for Capitol Records, opening the door for Ford's first record deal.
Ford became one of the top country artists of the '50's behind "Shotgun Boogie" (1950), a Ford-penned boogie-woogie number featuring Speedy West on steel guitar, and "Sixteen Tons" (1955), a Merle Travis original that'd soon become a pop culture standard. Other early hits include "Mule Train" (1949), "Blackberry Boogie" (1952) and "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" (1955). He continued soaring in the '60's with 1961's album sequence Civil War Songs of the North and Civil War Songs of the South.
A year before "Sixteen Tons" sealed Ford's musical legacy, he appeared on an episode of I Love Lucy as lovable bumpkin Cousin Ernie. Ford also hosted a short-lived 1954 relaunch of NBC game show College of Musical Knowledge.
The Ford Show followed on NBC from 1956 to 1961. It exposed the singer as a well-rounded entertainer, known as much for his down-home catchphrase "bless your pea-pickin heart" as his singing talent. A man of faith, Ford ended every episode of his secular TV show with gospel music despite NBC's hesitations. The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, later billed as Hello, Peapickers, followed on ABC from 1962-1965.
Through all of this, he remained an active recording artist, with his Capitol deal lasting until 1975. Many of Ford's albums over the years reflected his interest in spiritual matters. As implied before, albums like Hymns (1956) and Grammy award winner Great Gospel Songs (1964) are super easy to find. There's that many copies out there for a good reason though, as the record-buying public ate up soul-stirring songs cut by someone more associated with the country charts than religious music.
His gospel bonafides got a boost when he performed alongside Buck Owens, Grandpa Jones and Roy Clark in Hee Haw's gospel quartet. Ford's humor suited the show, he looked sharp in a pair of overalls and he sustained the country-gospel legitimacy of a role sometimes held by the equally great Kenny Price.
By his 1991 passing in Reston, Virginia, Ford had earned accolades in Nashville, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. as a member of Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, a three-time Hollywood Walk of Fame honoree (for radio, television and music) and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.
As a recording artist not beholden to a particular Billboard chart and a multi-talented television host, Ford paved the way for Jimmy Dean, Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton and others as comfortable in front of a camera as they are on stage at the Ryman.