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Terrific Tennessee Ernie Ford

Wikimedia Commons / ABC Television

Terrific Tennessee Ernie Ford

Tennessee Ernie Ford was a country and western star who enjoyed crossover success, thanks to a unique sound that set his songs apart from the rest of the music on the top of the 1950s charts. While most of the hottest artists of his day were singing strings-heavy pop or the earliest rock 'n' roll songs, Ford gave us a stripped-down arrangement of a coal mining song – and he dominated both the country and pop charts with it.

That song was “Sixteen Tons,” and Ford’s 1955 version of it held the No. 1 spot on both charts for several months. Much of the music it was up against was bouncy and carefree, but “Sixteen Tons” was no bubblegum pop song. It was heavy music about a somber subject, and it captured the hearts of radio listeners.

“Sixteen Tons” was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s greatest success, but it was far from his only popular song. He caught the attention of both country and pop audiences six years earlier with his first crossover single, “Mule Train.” Hitting the airwaves on the exact same day a version by Bing Crosby did, Ford’s “Mule Train” topped the country charts and made it to the top 10 for pop. (Crosby’s version outperformed Ford’s on the pop chart, but didn’t really reach country listeners.)

Also popular on both charts – and with kids across the country who’d caught Davy Crockett fever – was Ford’s recording of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”

Ford’s fans learned that he had a talent for comedy as well as music when he appeared on several episodes of I Love Lucy, playing country bumpkin Cousin Ernie.

Ford would have turned 94 years old today. We wish we could extend a happy birthday wish to him, but it’s been more than 20 years since he died at age 72. The 1950s loved Tennessee Ernie Ford, and we love him too.