The Worst of Tennessee Ernie Ford

Mr. Ford, Pre-22 Favorite Hymns Debacle

Album: Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings 22 Favorite Hymns

Ranwood RCD 7026

Approximate Playing Time: 60 minutes

Approximate Time Spent Listening for This Review: Under 3 minutes

Recommendation: Do Not Buy unless you are a repressed, pious person who thinks syncopation and zeal have no place in religious music.

The other day I found myself in the Salvation Army store browsing through the CD’s for sale. I jumped on one by the Brazilian singer-songwriter Adrianna Calcanhotto, whose talent and sophistication comes across even though I only know a handful of Portuguese words. I was also very pleased to acquire one called Margarita Mix, a smartly-curated collection of dance music from several Caribbean and South American countries, put out by Pottery Barn which entity must imagine itself in competition with Starbucks when it comes to the record label arm of their operation.

I was most intrigued, however, by this Tennessee Ernie Ford offering. (I think his real name is Ernie Ford and Tennessee is where he’s from, not like Dakota Fanning, Indiana Jones, Georgia O’Keefe, or Minnesota Fats.)

For you youngsters, Mr. Ford, who passed away in 1991, was a hugely popular singer and TV personality whose heyday was the 50’s and 60’s. His cover of Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons was the fastest-selling single in history at the time, amassing 2 million in sales in under two months. This is particularly notable as when Travis recorded the original, the FBI advised WJJD, one of the top country music stations in the country (out of Chicago) not to play the song owing to its supposedly subversive lyrical content (it is a lament and boast of a coal miner. For more on this, visit http://www.ernieford.com/SIXTEENTONS.html.)

Ford was one of the most prolific recording artists of his time, blessed with a smooth, soulful baritone, a handsome face, and a manner at once genial, humorous, and humble. He was comfortable singing standards, country, western swing numbers, and gospel hymns.

I will admit I’m not all that familiar with TEF’s oeuvre, but what I had heard gave me no reason to believe that he could knock out something so dull, tepid, and reeking of the kind of drab piety that would turn any self-respecting child into a drug-taking, chain-smoking, hard-drinking devotee of Satan.

There are 22 songs in this collection. And there are certain kinds of people who could sit through all 22. I will tell you who they are.

  • Pop songwriters who listen to the bilge on the radio so that they can craft something that conforms to current trends in soul-sucking dreck
  • People who have never heard a black person sing, unless that black person is Johnny Mathis or the Hootie & The Blowfish guy
  • People who would flagellate themselves, except they don’t have the energy
  • Old, repressed white ladies and wholly emasculated men from the South whose political views you don’t want to know
  • People struck down by a stroke or something similarly incapacitating mid-play, rendering them incapable of shutting off the playback source
  • Recording engineers, who have no choice

I fall into none of the above categories.

They say hearing is the last thing to go, so I think I better amend my living will to demand that this recording not be allowed within 500 feet of my deathbed.

My research reveals that Mr. Ford embarked on this project with his trusted longtime producer, Jack Fascinato. Mr. Fascinato’s arrangement of Sixteen Tons alone, an achievement of understated mastery, stands as sufficient testimony to his musical bona fides and industry savvy.

Given their undisputed prowess, one can only assume that this experiment in sound is the ultimate example of phoning it in. Was this a private joke? Performance art? Other artistic departures from form come to mind, like The Beatles’ Revolution #9, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Joaquin Phoenix’s put-on hip-hop persona, and Jennifer Lopez’ Andy Kaufmanesque foray into pop music. Examples abound, I’m sure, and if you have some of your own, please share them with me. On that note, If you can get a hold of it, treat yourself to Van Morrison’s “contractual obligation LP,” in which he tosses off one marvel of minimal effort after another, just him and an acoustic guitar, until he has amassed enough material to fulfill his debt to Bang Records. It was on Bang Van recorded the smash “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Apparently he was upset with them for the album cover art and the dumb hippy title of the LP, “Blowin’ Your Mind!” You don’t want to cross the notoriously moody Mr. Morrison, who was also known to write and record songs about venal and churlish record company executives.

But from what we know of T. Ernie Ford, he was not a man of rancor, nor even irony. So as tempting as it is to picture the Ol’ Pea-Picker and his producer in the studio stifling giggles between take after lugubrious take of these turgid performances, we are rather induced to ponder the likelier, and much less gratifying, reality: they meant to do it. So, equipped with what we have to imagine is state-of-the-art recording equipment (remember, this man was a music biz A-Lister for decades), Big Ern’s golden pipes, a union organist, and occasional back-up singers, they managed to distill these elements into an (as fate would have it) unholy alchemy of the most dreadful sort of dreariness cooked up for human ears.

I don’t think it’s possible to listen to these songs without inhaling the fragrance of a musty parlor with a faint scent of lavender. Actually, I don’t think it’s possible to listen to these songs, period. But I mean for those odd birds who fall into the categories listed above. I swear to the relentlessly-invoked God referred to in the lyrics that someone is playing a pump organ on at least a tune or two. Can you get any more target-market oriented than that? In order to get into the mood between the grooves, it is recommended that you wear stiff, uncomfortable clothing, preferably scratchy, and sit in a backache-inducing pew or facsimile thereof, much as you would don denim and leather to rock out to Elvis, who, ironically, also repeatedly indulged his Gospel jones — but never on this order of magnitude of sheer deadliness.

One example in particular comes to mind — remember that I could only take about as much of these tracks as a robot’s half-life in the Fukushima reactor — Mr. Ford’s take on “Old Time Religion.” You know this song, probably, as a rousing paean to fundamentalism, a stock number in country church scenes in movies from 50–80 years ago. Good clean fun, the grown-ups casting sidewise glances at the young’uns lest they get too rowdy and embrace the notion that the Good Lord might want them to enjoy themselves, if only for a fleeting moment.

The Ford-Fascinato take on “Old Time Religion” is — okay — did you ever play a game as a kid where you tried to be as utterly unimpressed as possible about something universally acknowledged as wondrous beyond measure? Like, “Picasso? He had some talent, but he’s nothing special.” Or “Mt. Everest? You know there are taller peaks under the ocean, right?” Or “Yo-Yo Ma? WAY overrated.” Or “Tatiana Maslany? Anybody could play a bunch of clones. She just lucked into that show.” In their way, that’s how our boys treat Music itself on this track. “Music? What’s so great about music? Just a bunch of sounds on a scale played one after another. — Chords? — *yawn*. Counterpoint? BORRRRRRRRRIIIIIINNNNNNNNG. Rhythm? WhatEVER.” Their approach to the song makes Ed Sheeran sound like the Sex Pistols, Alison Kraus like Public Enemy. They manage to drain every ounce of brio out of a song whose entire raison d’etre is the prospect of converting doubting Thomases to Holy Rollers. The backup singers sound like they were corralled into being fill-ins for the high school choir so as to avoid a turn in detention hall. They could barely be bothered to push sonic resonance into the breath required to form the notes. It’s like when you have to offer commentary on the tome you were coerced to read for a book report. “Oh, I liked this book because it was interesting.” (It wasn’t.) A study in listlessness. A musical deflated balloon, only not that stimulating.

Multiply this treatment by 22 and you have yourself a sonic artifact so dull and dispiriting that each song manages to sound at once no different from the one before, and yet, somehow worse. I would guess you can chalk that up to the cumulative effect of being thus assaulted.

Speaking of which, You know how when you have no use for a musical genre, you’ll disparage it by saying “they all sound the same?” When any two aficionados of speed metal can parse and debate the relative merits of numerous Megadeth and Motörhead tracks for days? Well, I defy anyone on earth to distinguish among the tracks on this album (remember, you would have to listen to them first, a challenge reserved for a precious few) — because they really do all sound the same. And here’s the genius behind this project — they were meant to all sound the same! Because that’s all the people who like this sort of thing can handle. Just as “Sixteen Tons” was crafted to sound gritty, sinewy, and dark, like the first-person protagonist of the lyrics, this collection is calibrated to be a cure for sleep apnea. This stuff is so tepid, so wearying, it makes lemonade go down like applejack, and causes Barney to sound like John Zorn’s doctoral dissertation in comparison. There is a clue: this CD came out on Ranwood Records, a subsidiary of Lawrence Welk Enterprises. Though compared to these guys, Lawrence Welk sounds like the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Summing up, then; This is music for timid, God-fearing souls, afraid of their own bodies, let alone of committing a sin. Just the sounds to accompany your post-stroke existence. Your home health aide will be cueing it up presently. What’s that? It’s hard to understand what you’re saying. But the terror in your eyes is trying to tell me something.