Tennessee Ernie Ford: Sixteen Tons - His 30 Finest 1949-1957

Tennessee Ernie Ford (1919-1991) was one of the most successful Country artists to crossover and gain mainstream popularity. His deep, warm voice, humour and easy country-boy charm made him ‘Mister Country Music’, a huge star in the 50s. Sixteen Tons was both his biggest hit and Capitol’s fastest-selling single to that date, and is the title of Retrospective’s generous 30-track programme packed with all his finest recordings from 1949-1957. It demonstrates that there was far more to him than just Sixteen Tons. There are fully 17 top ten smashes, headed by three more Number Ones: Mule Train, The Shotgun Boogie and his huge UK success Give Me Your Word.
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One of the earliest examples of an artist crossing over from country music into the mainstream popular music scene, Tennessee Ernie's rich, deep voice is heard to full advantage on this compilation which mainly focuses on the earlier years of the selected time span. There are the two duets with Kay Starr, I'LL NEVER BE FREE and AIN'T NOBODY'S BUSINESS BUT MY OWN and one each with Helen O'Connell (HEY GOOD LOOKIN'), Ella Mae Morse (I'M HOGTIED OVER YOU) and Betty Hutton (THE HONEYMOON'S OVER). On many of the tracks Ford is backed by Cliffie Stone, (who was largely responsible for securing Ford his Capitol contract) but on SIXTEEN TONS the distinctive accompaniment is that of Jack Fascinato while on the other two big hits, RIVER OF NO RETURN and GIVE ME YOUR WORD, perhaps rather surprisingly, Billy May takes the baton. Gerry Stonestreet, June in Tune

Tennessee Ernie Ford was a staple of the Country charts and rose to become a star on American television – he appeared on I Love Lucy and College of Musical Knowledge in the 1950s. He was a Nashville favourite and the tracks on this disc, recorded between 1949 and 1955, contain 17 Top Ten hits and four number ones. 

The title track is actually a Merle Travis composition, but it suits Ford well and was, not unexpectedly, a Country No.1 in 1955. He slid lightly through the repertoire. There is the Vaudevillian Country Blues of Milk ‘em in the Morning Blues – Travis plays electric guitar on this one – and the generic Country Boogie of Smokey Mountain Boogie where Harold Hensley and Wade Ray are the fiddlers but who is the pianist not noted in the track listing? There’s some necessary yodelling on Anticipation Blues where Travis again provides some neat fills on electric guitar – a springy, sprightly, superficial number. Mule Train was a cut above and a big hit – No.1 in the Country charts, No. 9 in the US charts – and soon he was duetting with Kay Starr in I’ll Never Be Free. This was real crossover territory which he cemented with Starr in a fantastically up-tempo Ain't Nobody's Business But My Own – a number best immortalised two decades earlier via the stentorian minstrelsy of Frank Stokes. 

By now there were novelty, populist additions to the roster, such as the Starlighters vocal group and the Carr-Hops, who help Ford turn in a truly risible Stack-o-Lee in Joe ‘Fingers’ Carr’s arrangement, for which no penance will suffice. The Dinning Sisters had at least listened to the Andrews Sisters so are much more acceptable even if the roster of souped-up traditional fare and cod Boogie was beginning to pall. Fortunately, there are still gems along the way - Hey, Good Lookin’ with Helen O’Donnell for one and the ever-wonderful Ella Mae Morse backed by Cliffie Stone and his orchestra. Give Me Your Word was backed by Billy May, and pretty elite backing one would have thought, but it offers a strange combination of quasi-concertante piano, odd recording quality and over-butch balladry.

The Ballad of Davy Crockett
 should bring a smile to the face and the final track, appropriately calledThat’s All and just as appropriately written by Merle Travis, has some genuinely witty lyrics. It’s a vein that Ford should have pursued elsewhere and dumped the commercial boogie pastiche, but then there was money to be made in them thar boogies. 

Nice restorations and pertinent notes from the ever-reliable Peter Dempsey ensure another fine Retrospective.  Jonathan Woolf, Musicweb

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