Tennessee Ernie Ford: Portrait Of An American Singer (Bear Family Records) Five-Cd And Book Boxed Set Scores Grammy Nomination For Best Album Notes
Ted Olson, traditional country music scholar and professor at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn. a stone’s throw from Bristol, Tenn. — country music’s birthplace and the hometown of Tennessee Ernie Ford — was producer and annotator of the Ford set.
BRISTOL, Tenn. — 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. He also played significant roles in radio and television broadcasting. But although he left a legacy of diverse and singular recordings and was a major influence on the generation of country and rock musicians that emerged in his wake, Ford’s stature as a culture figure receded from view to the point that recent generations have not recognized his name or his music.
Tennessee Ernie Ford: Portrait of an American Singer, a 2015 boxed set from Bear Family Records featuring 5-CDs and a hardcover book, has gone a long way toward rehabilitating Ford’s reputation as a pioneering crossover artist and as an early shaper of rock ’n’ roll. That set has now been nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Album Notes category. The album notes writer for the new Tennessee Ernie Ford set, Ted Olson, also served as producer of the release.
Journalist and author Barry Mazor wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “Ford’s adventurous 1949-1960 secular recordings for Capitol Records are the focus of a new, enormously entertaining 154-track boxed set, Tennessee Ernie Ford: Portrait of an American Singer (Bear Family Records). Music historian Ted Olson’s detailed notes track this ‘stellar singer who refused to let arbitrary genre rules dictate how he should interpret a song.’ The records themselves, though, as they evolve in production and performance, ultimately tell the rich story.”
The online music magazine The Second Disc praised the release: “Bear Family’s presentation of Portrait of an American Singeris naturally exquisite in the label’s traditional fashion. The LP-sized box houses its five discs in individual jewel cases with unique artwork and track listings. The accompanying hardcover book written by the set’s producer, Ted Olson, would be worth the price of admission on its own. With more than 125 pages, it includes a remarkable text that amounts to a biography of Ford even beyond the period covered in the set. This exceptional essay is joined by an array of photographs from the Ford family archives, plus detailed track-by-track liner notes (a rarity even among Bear Family boxes!), and an expectedly comprehensive discography by Bear Family’s Richard Weize and Russ Wapensy. Though the focus here is on Ford’s secular material (he would later immerse himself even more fully in gospel and spiritual recordings), the track-by-track notes and discography even address the sides which aren’t included. Ulf Hattwig’s remastering is superb.”
Ford launched his recording career in the late 1940s within the Country & Western field, and scored a dozen Top 20 country chart hits through the end of 1951. Yet within that same period he placed half a dozen Top 20 hits on the pop singles chart, demonstrating to his label, Capitol Records, and to disc jockeys and fans across the U.S. that there was broad appeal for his music. 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 Ford’s ultimate crossover achievement. Toward the end of that same year, his smash single “Sixteen Tons” topped both charts simultaneously, and rose to #1 in the U.K. That release sold more than four million copies, and proved to be one of the most influential singles of the 1950s, inspiring many among the next generation in the U.S. and the U.K. to pursue careers in music. Becoming Ford’s signature song, “Sixteen Tons” was eventually inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and into the National Recording Registry.
After “Sixteen Tons,” Ford could not compete with the younger upstarts of the rock ’n’ roll era (only two of his releases after “Sixteen Tons” rose into the Top 40 pop chart), yet he had already shown all comers — from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis to Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Glen Campbell — that an artist need not be limited by an artistic persona shaped in previous performances and recordings. For younger musicians wanting to be unbound by any fixed artistic identity, Ford was a worthy and proven role model, and the fascinating story of his life and career is conveyed in Portrait of an American Singer through Ford’s innovative, influential recordings and through Olson’s comprehensive, compelling notes.