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


  1. I was a big Davy Crockett fan as a little kid but I don’t recall ever hearing Ernie’s version of the “Ballad of DC”. I only heard the version on the Disney TV show and I don’t know who the singer was. When I hear the name Ernie Ford, “16 Tons” comes to mind immediately, just like “Big Bad John” does when someone mentions Jimmy Dean.

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