You load sixteen tons,
And 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.
TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD HELPED PUT country on the map. As he expressed in such hits as 1955’s “Sixteen Tons,” as well as dozens of gospel albums, altogether selling tens of millions of copies around the world, Ford had a natural feel for the lives of simple, God-fearing folks who didn’t drive late-model cars or vacation at the shore. With a bass-baritone voice the consistency of summer molasses, he took the heartfelt hopes and pentecostal sentiments of the rural South and poured them into the mainstream of American culture. Fair to say that “the ol’ pea picker,” as Ernie Ford liked to call himself, cleared the road from Nashville to New York City for the likes of Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson.
Inducted last year into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Ford, 72, was enjoying his twilight years with his second wife, Beverly (his first wife, Betty, died in 1989 after 47 years of marriage) on their ranch in Portola Valley, Calif. Then, on Sept. 28, after attending a state dinner at the White House, Ford fell ill at Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport and was rushed to the H.C.A. Reston Hospital Center in nearby Virginia. He never recovered and died there Oct. 17 of complications from a longstanding liver ailment. His best friend and former manager, Cliffie Stone, summed up the Ford charm: “Ernie was just an ordinary person, not an actor. So many people try to be somebody else, and they’re just not really good at it. He was totally unique.”
Born Ernest Jennings Ford in 1919 and raised in the small farming community of Bristol, Tenn., on the Virginia border, Ernie grew up singing in the local Methodist church. He attended Virginia Intermount College, then went to work back in Bristol as a $10-a-week disc jockey to subsidize his voice studies at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. His nascent singing career was interrupted by World War II, in which he served as a bomber-navigator and rose to the rank of lieutenant.
After the war he began singing on Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree radio show out of Pasadena, Calif. Stone persuaded Capitol records to sign Ford in 1948, and Ernie rewarded their confidence with a string of country hits (“Mule Train,” “The Cry of the Wild Goose,” “Shotgun Boogie”) that crossed over to the popular music charts.
At the time, country types weren’t considered suitable for television. But Ford, with his lanky 6′ frame, easygoing manner and a look of down-home trustworthiness, caught the notice of TV producers. Starting in the early ’50s he made frequent guest appearances, notably as a lovable rube on I Love Lucy. Said Ford: “Lucy was a fantastic inspiration. But she could be a piece of cold steel if things weren’t going right.”
In 1953 Ford became the first country singer to appear at the Palladium in London. But it was the smash success of “Sixteen Tons” that established him as a bona fide recording star. Written and recorded by his friend Merle Travis in 1947, Ernie’s bluesy rendition, which eventually sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, propelled him to his own TV variety show, The Ford Hour. There he boasted a pretty fair staff of writers—Danny Arnold (who later cocreated Barney Miller) as well as young Norman Lear—but he frequently rewrote their scripts, inserting such homespun homilies as “Feels like I been rode hard and put away wet” and “Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rockin’ chairs” into his patter. His signature sign-off to his adoring fans, “Bless your pea-pickin’ hearts,” was pure Tennessee Ernie and hokey as all get out, but it worked; the top-rated show ran for five seasons.
Ford frequently halted his public and TV appearances to spend time in California with his family, which included sons Buck and Brion. But sooner or later he’d reappear, as popular as ever. Genuinely religious, Ernie invariably ended his shows with hymns, which he called “the finest love songs of all.” And with those songs he brought the promise of hope and redemption to millions of Americans. As he once reflected, “When I’d work the big rooms in Reno and Vegas, the first question guests would ask is, ‘You are going to sing gospel, aren’t you?’ So many entertainers are afraid to sing that kind of music and sing it like it ought to be done.” Ford wasn’t. “And listen,” he said, “if the audience gets a little twinge from it—fine.”