Tennessee Ernie Ford

Ernest Jennings Ford (February 13, 1919 – October 17, 1991),[1] known professionally as Tennessee Ernie Ford, was an American singer and television host who enjoyed success in the country and western, pop, and gospel musical genres. Noted for his rich bass-baritone voice and down-home humor, he is remembered for his hit recordings of "The Shotgun Boogie" and "Sixteen Tons".

Tennessee Ernie Ford
Ford in 1957
Ford in 1957
Background information
Birth nameErnest Jennings Ford
Born(1919-02-13)February 13, 1919
Bristol, Tennessee
DiedOctober 17, 1991(1991-10-17) (aged 72)
Reston, Virginia
Years active1949–1991
LabelsCapitol Records, Word Records


Early yearsEdit

Ford was born in Bristol, Tennessee, United States,[1] to Maud (née Long) and Clarence Thomas Ford. He spent a lot of his time in his early years listening to country or western musicians, in person or on the radio.[2]

Ford began wandering around Bristol in his high school years, taking an interest in radio and began his radio career as an announcer at WOPI-AM in 1937, being paid 10 dollars a week. In 1938, the young bass-baritone left the station and went to study classical music at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio. He returned for the announcing job in 1939 and did it from 1939 to 1941 in stations from Atlanta to Knoxville. A First Lieutenant, he served in the United States Army Air Corps in World War II as the bombardier on a B-29 Superfortress, but the War ended before he was to be sent to Japan.[3] He was also a bombing instructor at George Air Force Base, in Victorville, California.[2][4]

After the war, Ford worked at radio stations in San Bernardino and Pasadena, California. At KFXM, in San Bernardino, Ford was hired as a radio announcer. He was assigned to host an early morning country music disc jockey program, Bar Nothin' Ranch Time. To differentiate himself, he created the personality of "Tennessee Ernie", a wild, madcap, exaggerated hillbilly. He became popular in the area and was soon hired away by Pasadena's KXLA radio. He also did musical tours. The Mayfield Brothers of West Texas, including Smokey Mayfield, Thomas Edd Mayfield, and Herbert Mayfield, were among Ford's warmup bands, having played for him in concerts in Amarillo and Lubbock, during the late 1940s.[4][5]

Ford's appearance as "Cousin Ernie" in three episodes of I Love Lucy made him a household name.

At KXLA, Ford continued doing the same show and also joined the cast of Cliffie Stone's popular live KXLA country show Dinner Bell Roundup as a vocalist while still doing the early morning broadcast. Cliffie Stone, a part-time talent scout for Capitol Records, brought him to the attention of the label. In 1949, while still doing his morning show, he signed a contract with Capitol. He became a local TV star as the star of Stone's popular Southern California Hometown Jamboree show. RadiOzark produced 260 15-minute episodes of The Tennessee Ernie Show on transcription disks for national radio syndication.[6]

He released almost 50 country singles through the early 1950s, several of which made the Billboard charts. Many of his early records, including "The Shotgun Boogie" and "Blackberry Boogie", were exciting, driving boogie-woogie records featuring accompaniment by the 'Hometown Jamboree' band, which included Jimmy Bryant on lead guitar and pioneer pedal steel guitarist Speedy West. "I'll Never Be Free", a duet pairing Ford with Capitol Records pop singer Kay Starr,[7] became a huge country and pop crossover hit in 1950. A duet with Ella Mae Morse, "False Hearted Girl" was a top seller for the Capitol Country and Hillbilly division.[8]

Ford eventually ended his KXLA morning show and in the early 1950s, moved on from Hometown Jamboree. He took over from bandleader Kay Kyser as host of the TV version of NBC quiz show College of Musical Knowledge when it returned briefly in 1954 after a four-year hiatus.[9] He became a household name in the U.S., largely as a result of his portrayal in 1954 of the 'country bumpkin', "Cousin Ernie", in three episodes of I Love Lucy. In 1955, Ford recorded "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" (which reached number 4 on the country music chart) with "Farewell to the Mountains" on the B-side.

"Sixteen Tons" cover version successEdit

Sixteen Tons album cover

Ford scored an unexpected hit on the pop chart in 1955 with his rendering of "Sixteen Tons", a sparsely arranged coal-miner's lament. Merle Travis had first recorded it in 1946. It reflected experiences of the Travis family in the mines at Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.[10] The song's fatalistic tone and bleak imagery were in stark contrast to some sugary pop ballads and rock & roll also on the charts in 1955:

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go;
I owe my soul to the company store...[11][12]

With Ford's snapping fingers[11][12] and a unique clarinet-driven pop arrangement by Ford's music director, Jack Fascinato, "Sixteen Tons" spent ten weeks at number one on the country chart and seven weeks at number one on the pop chart. The record sold over twenty million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.[13] The song made Ford a crossover star, and became his signature song.

The Ford ShowEdit

Ford subsequently hosted his own prime-time variety program, The Ford Show, which ran on NBC television from October 4, 1956, to June 29, 1961. Ford's last name allowed the show title to carry a unique double entendre by selling the naming rights to the Ford Motor Company (Ford had no known relation to the Ford family that founded that company). The Ford Theatre, an anthology series also sponsored by the company, had run in the same time slot on NBC in the preceding 1955–1956 season. Ford's program was notable for the inclusion of a religious song at the end of every show, a tradition he recalled during his days as a cast member on Cliffie Stone's Hometown Jamboree live radio and TV show. Ford insisted on ending with a hymn on his own show despite objections from network officials and the ad agency representing Ford, who feared it might provoke controversy. Everyone relented after the hymns received overwhelmingly favorable viewer response. The hymn became the most popular segment of his show. He earned the nickname "The Ol' Pea-Picker" due to his catchphrase, "Bless your pea-pickin' heart!" He began using the term during his disc jockey days on KXLA.[2][14]

Later yearsEdit

In 1956 he released Hymns, his first gospel music album, which remained on Billboard's Top Album charts for 277 consecutive weeks; his album Great Gospel Songs won a Grammy Award in 1964 and was nominated for several others.[5][15] After the NBC show ended, Ford moved his family to Portola Valley in northern California. He also owned a cabin near Grandjean, Idaho, on the upper South Fork of the Payette River, where he would regularly retreat.[2] In 1961, he recorded two albums of American Civil War songs, one for songs of the Union and another for songs of the Confederacy.

From 1962 to 1965, Ford hosted a daytime talk/variety show, The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (later known as Hello, Peapickers) from KGO-TV in San Francisco, broadcast over the ABC television network. In 1968, Ford narrated the Rankin/Bass Thanksgiving TV special The Mouse on the Mayflower for NBC. The mouse narrator seen at the beginning of the special, William the Churchmouse, was a caricature of Ford, in keeping with a Rankin/Bass tradition. Ford was the spokesman for the Pontiac Furniture Company in Pontiac, Illinois, in the 1970s. He also became the spokesman for Martha White brand flour in 1972.

Although he left his own TV show, he went on other shows like The Dolly Show and on Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters in the early 1980s.[15]

Ford left Capitol Records in 1975. By that time the quality of his country albums had become uneven and none of his releases were selling well. He would never record for a major label again.[14]

Ford's experiences as a navigator and bombardier in World War II led to his involvement with the Confederate Air Force (now the Commemorative Air Force), a war plane preservation group in Texas. He was a featured announcer and celebrity guest at the annual CAF Airshow in Harlingen, Texas, from 1976 to 1988. He donated a once-top-secret Norden bombsight to the CAF's B-29 bomber restoration project. In the late 1970s, as a CAF colonel, Ford recorded the organization's theme song "Ballad of the Ghost Squadron".

Over the years, Ford was awarded three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for radio, records, and television. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990.[15]

Out of the public eye, Ford and wife Betty contended with serious alcohol problems; Betty had the problem since the 1950s, as well as emotional issues that complicated both their lives and the lives of their sons. Though his drinking began to worsen in the 1960s, he worked continuously, seemingly unaffected by his heavy intake of whiskey. By the 1970s, however, it had begun to take an increasing toll on his health, appearance and ability to sing, though his problems were not known publicly. After Betty committed suicide in 1989 because of prescription drug abuse, Ernie's liver problems, diagnosed years earlier, became more apparent, but he refused to reduce his drinking despite repeated doctors' warnings. His last interview was taped on September 23, 1991, by his long-time friend Dinah Shore for her TV show, and was later aired on December 4 that year.[16][17]

Ford received posthumous recognition for his gospel music contributions by being added to the Gospel Music Association's Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1994.[5]

Personal lifeEdit

Ernie and Betty Ford at home in 1962

Ford was married to Betty Heminger from September 18, 1942, until her death on February 26, 1989. They had two sons: Jeffrey Buckner "Buck" Ford (born 1950); and Brion Leonard Ford (born 1952, in San Gabriel, California), who died on October 24, 2008, in White House, Tennessee, of lung cancer, aged 56. In 1980 Ford lived in the Smoke Tree neighborhood of Palm Springs, California.[18]

Less than four months after Betty's death in 1989, Ford married again. On September 28, 1991, he suffered severe liver failure at Dulles Airport, shortly after leaving a state dinner at the White House, hosted by then-President George H. W. Bush. Ford died in H. C. A. Reston Hospital Center, in Reston, Virginia, on October 17.[1][2] Ford was interred at Alta Mesa Memorial Park, Palo Alto, California.[19] His second wife, Beverly Wood Ford (1921–2001), died 10 years after Ernie; her body was interred with his.[20]

Ford was a member of the Bohemian Club.



Year Album Chart Positions RIAA Label
US Country US
1956 This Lusty Land! 12 Capitol Records
Hymns 2 Platinum
1957 Spirituals 5 Gold
Ford Favorites
Ol' Rockin' Ern'
1958 Nearer the Cross 5 Gold
The Star Carol 4 Platinum
1959 Gather 'Round
A Friend We Have
1960 Sing a Hymn with Me 23
Sixteen Tons
Sing a Spiritual with Me
Come to the Fair
1961 Civil War Songs of the North
Civil War Songs of the South
Looks at Love
Hymns at Home 67
1962 Mississippi Showboat 110
I Love to Tell the Story 43
Book of Favorite Hymns 71
1963 Long, Long Ago
We Gather Together
Story of Christmas 14
1964 Great Gospel Songs
Country Hits Feelin' Blue
World's Best Loved Hymns
1965 Let Me Walk with Thee
Sing We Now of Christmas 31
1966 My Favorite Things
Wonderful Peace
God Lives
Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart
1967 Aloha
Faith of Our Fathers
1968 Our Garden of Hymns (w/ Marilyn Horne)
World of Pop and Country Hits
O Come All Ye Faithful
The Best of Tennessee Ernie Ford Hymns
1969 Songs I Like to Sing
New Wave
Holy, Holy, Holy
1970 America the Beautiful 192
Everything Is Beautiful
1971 Abide with Me
Folk Album
1972 Mr. Words and Music
Standin' in the Need of Prayer
1973 Country Morning 46
Ernie Ford Sings About Jesus
1974 Make A Joyful Noise 35
1975 Ernie Sings & Glen Picks (w/ Glen Campbell)
1976 Sing His Great Love
For the 83rd Time
1977 He Touched Me Word Records
1978 Swing Wide Your Golden Gate
1979 Ramblin' Down Country Roads With Tennessee Ernie Ford
1980 Tell Me the Old, Old Story
1982 There's A Song In My Heart
1983 Sunday School Songs For Children of All Ages
1984 Keep Looking Up
2009 6000 Sunset Boulevard: Featuring The Billy Liebert Band Sundazed Records
2014 Amazing Grace: 14 Treasured Hymns 19 159 Gaither Music


Year Single (A-side, B-side)
Both sides from same album except where indicated
Chart Positions Album
US Country US
1949 "Tennessee Border" 8 Non-album track
"Milk 'Em in the Morning Blues" 15 Ol' Rockin' Ern
"Country Junction" 14
"Philadelphia Lawyer" Sixteen Tons
"Smokey Mountain Boogie"
b/w "You'll Find Her Name Written There" (non-album track)
8 Ol' Rockin' Ern
"Mule Train" 1 9 Sixteen Tons
"Anticipation Blues" 3 Ol' Rockin' Ern
1950 "The Cry of the Wild Goose"
b/w "The Donkey Serenade"
2 15 Sixteen Tons
"My Hobby"
b/w "I've Got to Feed 'em in the Morning"
Non-album tracks
"Ain't Nobody's Business but My Own" (with Kay Starr) 5 22
"I'll Never Be Free" (with Kay Starr) 2 3
"What This Country Needs"
b/w "The Lord's Lariat" (from Ol' Rockin' Ern)
"Cincinnati Dancing Pig"
b/w "Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Women"
Both sides with The Starlighters
"Little Juan Pedro"
b/w "Bryant's Boogie"
"The Shotgun Boogie" 1 14 Ol' Rockin' Ern
"I Ain't Gonna Let It Happen (No More)" flip
1951 "Tailor Made Woman" (with Joe "Fingers" Carr) 8 Non-album tracks
"Stack-O-Lee" (with Joe "Fingers" Carr)
"Ocean of Tears" (with Kay Starr) 15
"You're My Sugar" (with Kay Starr) 22
"Mr. and Mississippi"
b/w "She's My Baby" (from Ol' Rockin' Ern)
2 18
"The Strange Little Girl" 9
"Kentucky Waltz" flip
"Kissin' Bug Boogie"
b/w "Woman Is a Five Letter Word"
"Hey Good Lookin'"
b/w "Cool, Cool Kisses"
Both sides with Helen O'Connell
"Rock City Boogie"
b/w "Streamlined Cannonball"
Both sides with The Dinning Sisters
"Christmas Dinner"
b/w "A Rootin' Tootin' Santa Claus"
1952 "Hambone" (with Bucky Tibbs)
b/w "The Gandy Dancer's Ball"
"Everybody's Got a Girl but Me"[a]
b/w "Put Your Arms Around Me"
"Snowshoe Thompson"
b/w "Fatback Louisiana USA"
"Blackberry Boogie"
b/w "Tennessee Local" (non-album track)
6 Ol' Rockin' Ern
"Hog-Tied over You"
b/w "False Hearted Girl"
Both sides with Ella Mae Morse
Non-album tracks
1953 "I Don't Know"
b/w "Sweet Temptation"
"Hey, Mr. Cotton Picker"
b/w "Three Things (A Man Must Do)"
"Don't Start Courtin' in a Hot Rod Ford"
b/w "We're a-Growin' Up"
Both sides with Molly Bee
"Kiss Me Big" Ol' Rockin' Ern
"Catfish Boogie" flip
1954 "Honeymoon's Over"
b/w "This Must Be the Place"
Both sides with Betty Hutton
16 Non-album tracks
"River of No Return"
b/w "Give Me Your Word"
9 Ford Favorites
"Ein Zwei Drei"
b/w "Losing You"
Non-album tracks
"Somebody Bigger Than You or I"
b/w "There Is Beauty in Everything"
1955 "The Ballad of Davy Crockett"
b/w "Farewell"
4 5
"His Hands"
b/w "I Am a Pilgrim"
13 Spirituals
"Sixteen Tons" 1 1 Ford Favorites
1956 "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry" 78
"That's All"
b/w "Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Women" (from Sixteen Tons)
12 17
"Rovin' Gambler"
b/w "John Henry"
60 This Lusty Land!
"Rock and Roll Boogie"
b/w "Call Me Darling, Call Me Sweetheart" (from Ford Favorites)
Non-album track
"First Born"
b/w "Have You Seen Her"
46 Ford Favorites
1957 "Watermelon Song" 87
"One Suit" 93
"False Hearted Girl"
b/w "Lonely Man" (from Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart!)
This Lusty Land!
"In the Middle of an Island" 23 Non-album track
"Ivy League" Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart!
1958 "Bless Your Pea Pickin' Heart"
b/w "Down Deep"
"Sunday Barbeque"
b/w "Love Makes the World Go Round"
"Glad Rags"
b/w "Sleepin' at the Foot of the Bed" (non-album track)
1959 "Black-Eyed Susie"
b/w "Code of the Mountains"
I Love You So Much It Hurts Me
"Love Is the Only Thing"
b/w "Sunny Side of Heaven"
Non-album track
1960 "O Mary Don't You Weep"
b/w "Joshua Fit the Battle"
Sing z Spiritual with Me
"Little Klinker"
b/w "Jingle-o-the-Brownie"
Non-album tracks
"Bless This Land"
b/w "Lord of All Creation"
1961 "Dark as a Dungeon"
b/w "His Love (Makes the World Go Round)" (non-album track)
This Lusty Land!
"Little Red Rockin' Hood"
b/w "I Gotta Have My Baby Back" (from Ernie Looks at Love)
Non-album track
1962 "Take Your Girlie to the Movies"
b/w "There'll Be No New Piano Tunes on This Old Piano"
Here Comes the Tennessee Ernie Ford Mississippi Showboat
"Work Song"
b/w "Rags and Old Iron" (from I Love You So Much It Hurts Me)
Everything Is Beautiful
"How Great Thou Art"
b/w "Eternal Life" (from God Lives!)
I Love to Tell the Story
1965 "Hicktown"
b/w "Sixteen Tons" (from Sixteen Tons)
9 Non-album tracks
"Girl Don't You Know"
b/w "Now It's All Over" (from I Love You So Much It Hurts Me)
"Sing We Now of Christmas"[b]
b/w "The Little Drummer Boy"
Sing We Now of Christmas
1966 "God Lives"
b/w "How Great Thou Art"
God Lives
1967 "Lahaina Luna"
b/w "Pearly Shells"
Aloha from Tennessee Ernie Ford
"The Road"
b/w "Hand-Me-Down Things"
Non-album tracks
1968 "Talk to the Animals"
b/w "What a Wonderful World"
World of Pop and Country Hits
1969 "Honey-Eyed Girl (That's You That's You)"
b/w "Good Morning, Dear"
54 The New Wave
1970 "Rainy Night In Georgia"
b/w "Let the Lovelight in Your Eyes Lead Me On"
Everything Is Beautiful
1971 "Happy Songs of Love"
b/w "Don't Let the Good Life Pass You By" (from 25th Anniversary Yesterday–Today)
58 Non-album track
1972 "Pea-Pickin' Cook"
b/w "The Song" (non-album track)
It's a Ford
1973 "Printers Alley Stars"
b/w "Baby"
66 Country Morning
"Farther Down the River (Where the Fishin's Good)"
b/w "You've Still Got Love All Over You"
"Colorado Country Morning"[c]
b/w "Daddy Usta Say"
1974 "Sweet Child of Sunshine"
b/w "She Picked Up the Pieces" (non-album track)
"I've Got Confidence"
b/w "I'd Like to Be" (from Country Morning)
Make a Joyful Noise
1975 "Come On Down"
b/w "Bits and Pieces of Life" (non-album track)
b/w "I'd Like to Be"
Both sides with Andra Willis
63 Country Morning
"The Devil Ain't a Lonely Woman's Friend"
b/w "Smokey Taverns, Bar Room Girls"
96 Non-album tracks
1976 "I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train"
b/w "Baby's Home" (non-album track)
95 For the 83rd Time
"Sweet Feelins"
b/w "Dogs and Sheriff John"
  1. ^ "Everybody's Got a Girl But Me" peaked at No. 2 on the Capitol Records' "Top Country & Hillbilly" best sellers list in 1952
  2. ^ "Sing We Now of Christmas" peaked at No. 2 on the RPM Top Singles chart in Canada
  3. ^ "Colorado Country Morning" peaked at No. 85 on the RPM Country Tracks chart in Canada


  1. ^ a b c Collins, Glenn (October 18, 1991). "Tennessee Ernie Ford Dies at 72; Folksy Singer Recorded '16 Tons'". The New York Times. Retrieved December 27, 2008.
  2. ^ a b c d e Country Music: The Encyclopedia. Macmillan. July 14, 2000. ISBN 9780312264871.
  3. ^ From 'River of No Return" 2009 by Jeffrey Buckner Ford, his oldest son.
  4. ^ a b Bronson, Fred (2003). The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. Billboard Books. ISBN 9780823076772. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c "On 'Portrait Of An American Singer,' Tennessee Ernie Ford's Early Songs Shine". NPR. January 16, 2016. Retrieved May 22, 2020.
  6. ^ Billboard magazine, November 7, 1953, p. 3
  7. ^ Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 2 – Play A Simple Melody: American pop music in the early 1950s [Part 2]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.
  8. ^ "Billboard". Nielsen Business Media, Inc. October 4, 1952. p. Front cover. Retrieved August 6, 2021 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ The New York Times, Jack Gould column, July 7, 1954, p. 28
  10. ^ The song's authorship is attributed to Travis by BMI on the recording itself, and in virtually all reference works. George S. Davis, however, claimed that his similar song was its original basis.
  11. ^ a b Tennessee Ernie Ford interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
  12. ^ a b Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Tennessee Ernie Ford Tribute 2". YouTube. Retrieved August 6, 2021.
  13. ^ Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 136. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  14. ^ a b Moore, Bobby (May 19, 2020). "Tennessee Ernie Ford: Country Music Star Turned Multi-Media Success Story". Wide Open Country. Retrieved May 22, 2020.
  15. ^ a b c "Tennessee Ernie Ford". Los Angeles Times.
  16. ^ "Tennessee Ernie's Last Interview Will Be Broadcast Dec. 4". Associated Press. November 4, 1991.
  17. ^ Spell, Lurah (April 8, 2018). "Tennessee Ernie Ford's Overwhelming Success Led to His Later Downfall, Son Says". The Life and Time of Hollywood. Retrieved May 23, 2020.
  18. ^ Meeks, Eric G. (2014) [2012]. The Best Guide Ever to Palm Springs Celebrity Homes. Horatio Limburger Oglethorpe. pp. 305–306, 309. ISBN 978-1479328598.
  19. ^ Ernie “Tennessee Ernie” Ford at Find a Grave
  20. ^ Stanton, Scott (September 6, 2003). The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians. Simon and Schuster. p. 317. ISBN 9780743463300. Retrieved August 6, 2021 – via Google Books.

External linksEdit