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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

25th Anniversary

25th Anniversary

Tennessee Ernie Ford

If you look through thrift store record bins with any regularity, it doesn’t take long before you become acquainted with the name of Tennessee Ernie Ford.  The man made a lot of records, sold a lot of records, and most of those records were, to put it bluntly, utter rubbish.  It was as if Tennessee Ernie Ford was a man who just had no notion of when to say no.  Every good and bad idea that he and his record label ever had ended up recorded and released to the public.  There’s no arguing whether the man can sing — he’s as strong a baritone as most any ever recorded.  The problem is what he sings.  During his brief flirtation with jazz and rockabilly, Ford recorded some truly dynamite numbers.  And despite its campiness, there’s really no denying the he earned his kudos for his take on “Sixteen Tons“.  But then there’s all the other stuff.  The volumes and volumes of other stuff.  The incredibly corny patriotic songs, the endless stream of commercial gospel recordings, and the outright bizarre “folk” songs performed with theatrical melodrama.

The 25th Anniversary album, for better or worse, captures the full range of Ford’s career.  It’s a totally fair representation of all the good and bad the man could do.  When it’s good, it’s very, very good.  When it’s bad, it’s astoundingly bad.  The middle ground is surprisingly narrow, and has everything to do with the backing musicians.  With Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West behind him, Ford could do no wrong.  Singing duets with Kay Starr, Ford could do no wrong.  Gospel singing with a brass band behind him — kind of problematic.

If ever there was an argument for the iTunes model of pay-by-the-song downloads, Tennessee Ernie Ford is it.  A two-record set like the 25th Anniversary is about a record and a half too many.  Of course, with all of those albums weighing down the record bins of America’s thrift stores, you can probably beat the iTunes price and get yourself a new vinyl placemat along with the deal.