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100 Greatest Men: #73. Tennessee Ernie Ford

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Bristol, Tennessee is often referred to as the birthplace of country music.  It was also the birthplace of country music legend Tennessee Ernie Ford.

A classic crooner with a baritone voice, Ford got his start as a radio announcer in his hometown.  He then went to study voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, before a stint serving overseas during World War II.   Though classically trained, Ford invented a hillbilly persona to go with a country radio program he’d been hired to host.  It was an instant hit, and he quickly gained national prominence.

He alternated between radio announcing and live performing, and the dual exposure led to a recording contract with Capitol in 1949.  A string of country hits soon followed, and while Ford soon retired his radio announcing, he gained tremendous national television exposure.  One of his most prominent appearances was a string of guest stints on I Love Lucy playing Cousin Ernie.

1955 proved to be the peak of his musical career.  After scoring a solid hit with “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”,  Ford covered the Merle Travis coal-mining tune, “Sixteen Tons.” It was a surprise hit, topping the country chart for ten weeks and the pop chart for eight weeks.  It became his signature song, one that is still so closely linked to him that for many casual music fans, Ford and “Tons” are inseparable.

He parlayed the mainstream success of “Tons” into his own television show. The Ford Show ran for five years on NBC, and was actually named after the motor company that sponsored it.   That hit show was followed by a daytime show that ran in the mid-sixties.    Ford also was very successful singing gospel music, and his best-selling studio albums were spiritual, not secular.

He remained a popular media presence and product spokesperson for the remainder of his life.   His accolades include induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and no less than three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: for radio, for music, and for television.

Essential Singles:

  • Mule Train, 1949
  • I’ll Never Be Free (with Kay Starr), 1950
  • The Shotgun Boogie, 1951
  • The Ballad of Davy Crockett, 1955
  • Sixteen Tons, 1955

Essential Albums:

  • Hymns, 1956
  • Spirituals, 1957
  • Ford Favorites, 1957
  • Star Carol, 1958

Next: #72.  Vern Gosdin

Previous: #74. Sons of the Pioneers

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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Album Review: LeAnn Rimes, Lady and Gentlemen

LeAnn Rimes

Lady and Gentlemen

A new covers album from LeAnn Rimes would likely draw comparisons to her 1999 self-titled effort, which found her covering the likes of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.  But this time, there’s a twist:  All of the songs she’s covering were originally recorded by male artists.  Thus, Rimes is re-interpreting them in a female perspective.

And while 1999’s LeAnn Rimes album might have given you a feeling that you were listening to really good karaoke singer, as her versions seldom strayed far from the originals, Rimes’ new collection Lady and Gentlemen finds her taking substantial liberties with these classic hits.  She even alters lyrics on Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman” and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” (re-titled as “The Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line”).  The songs are given modern, yet reverent, production arrangements, with Rimes adding her own personal style to each one, resulting in a uniquely creative effort.

Besides the obviously strong song material, what really makes Lady and Gentlemen a keeper is the fact that, although she covers everyone from Jennings to Jones to Haggard, the project remains first and foremost a LeAnn Rimes album.  She sounds entirely in her element – After all, she grew up listening to these songs – and the result is a strong set of performances that sound natural, sincere, and unaffected.

Rimes and her co-producers Vince Gill and Darrell Brown craft arrangements that sound simultaneously vintage and modern, never treating the songs as museum pieces.  The albums kicks off with Rimes’ cover of John Anderson’s “Swingin,” which was released as the project’s first single last year.  Though it barely made a ripple on the charts, it easily ranked as one of the best singles of the year.

While everything about the original Anderson recording screamed “eighties,” LeAnn speeds up the tempo, and transforms the über-cheesy hit into a modern-day jam session.  In listening to Rimes’ vocal delivery, you’d think she chugged down a pot of espresso before heading into the recording studio.  Like an auctioneer at the county fair, Rimes calls out the verses in rapid-fire succession, while the band furiously plucks away behind her.

The better part of the album finds Rimes backed with simple acoustic and steel guitar-driven arrangements, such as on the Freddy Fender cover “Wasted Days and Wasted Night” – worth hearing for her Spanish accent alone.  She utilizes a similar sonic approach on Merle Haggard’s “I Can’t Be Myself,” notable also for a vocal that sounds deeply plaintive, while also casting a feminine tone over the classic lyric.  While her version of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” carries a deep retro vibe, she adds an extra layer of sass to the lyric, which makes the song one of the album’s most interesting tracks.

She deviates from the vintage approach with her cover of Vince Gill’s “When I Call Your Name,” and instead puts a blue-eyed country soul spin on the nineties hit.  Such an approach accents the deep bluesy tone in her voice, but the unnecessary addition of a gospel choir distracts from the raw emotion that came through in Gill’s original recording.  Though interesting, her take on “When I Call Your Name” is less satisfying than many of the album’s other tracks.

Perhaps the song that gives her the biggest shoes to fill is the classic Bobby Braddock/ Curly Putman composition “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a hit for George Jones in 1980, and widely regarded as the greatest country song of all time.  Appropriately, Rimes and Gill’s approach places the classic lyric front and center, with no superfluous bells or whistles.  Rimes is backed by little more than an acoustic guitar as she recounts the dark tale of a man who loved his woman until the very end, even when his love was no longer requited.  She gives a remarkably moving performance of the familiar ballad, even when delivering the spoken-word portion.  Vince Gill adds his distinctive harmony touch to the track, and the result sounds absolutely haunting, making “He Stopped Loving Her Today” a strong contender for being the album’s best track.

The album closes with the original songs “Crazy Women” and “Give,” both of which have seen release as singles.  “Crazy Women” sounds like something out of a Broadway musical (or a Laura Bell Bundy album, for that matter), and Rimes deftly pulls it off with a broadly entertaining performance of the wickedly snarky tune.  Current single “Give” returns Rimes to a fully modern pop-country style.  While the philosophical song – a call for proactivity and benevolence in the world – is a strong composition, the musical styling is an awkward fit for an album that is largely retro in style.  It’s a good song – It just sounds like it belongs on a different album.

As a special treat for her fans, Rimes offers a re-recorded version of her classic 1996 debut single “Blue,” commemorating the fifteen-year anniversary of the song’s release.  The new version sounds even more traditional than the original, which is saying a lot, while also displaying Rimes’ growth as a vocalist and lyrical interpreter.  She gives a performance with more restraint than the original, connecting with the underlying emotions on an even deeper level than before, while the simpler, twangier arrangement highlights the timeless nature of the Bill Mack composition.  It’s impressive to note the ease with which “Blue” fits in among all these revered classics.  As one who’s known and loved the song “Blue” for years, I do not say this lightly:  The new version of “Blue” rivals the original.

A binding thread running throughout the set is the palpable reverence Rimes displays for these songs, which makes Lady and Gentlemen one of the most intriguing and wholly satisfying releases of 2011, and of Rimes’ own career output.  It all comes together so well that the project’s success seem perfectly natural.  LeAnn Rimes is a great singer, and these are great songs, so in her tackling these timeless tunes, it logically follows that a great album would result.

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DVD Reviews: Marty Robbins, Legendary Performances; Tammy Wynette, Legendary Performances

Marty Robbins
Legendary Performances

Tammy Wynette
Legendary Performances

In coordination with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Shout Factory! has begun a new series of country music DVDs that collect archived performances of the genre’s legends, coupled with rare interview footage and Hall of Fame inductions.   The promise of this series cannot be overstated, both for fans of the artists profiled and the need for country music’s legacy to be preserved.

Both of the debut entries in the series follow the same format.   Fifteen performance clips from old television shows are arranged chronologically, and provide the bulk of each set’s content.    The defining singles of both artists are included, and in watching the clips, viewers can get a sense of how each artist developed, along with a fascinating window into how country music itself was presented on television over the course of four decades.

For a variety of reasons, the Marty Robbins collection is the stronger of the two.   Since his career dates back to the fifties, we’re treated to four performances from Country Style USA, one of the earliest country music television programs.  As we transition into the age of color television, we’re treated to a stunning performance of “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” from the 1970 CMA Awards.    As the liner notes point out, Robbins penned the song in the hospital while recovering from his first heart attack.   In one of many appearances on these two collections by other country legends, Tennessee Ernie Ford gives a classy introduction that precedes the performance.

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