By Mike Steely
Aside from Dolly Parton, there may be no better known Tennessean than a Bristol native. Even people who are not country music fans know of “Tennessee Ernie Ford.”
If you’re up that way you should take a side trip into Bristol and visit one of our unique two-state cities. Both Virginia and Tennessee share Bristol.
At 1223 Anderson Street is the small frame house where Ernest Ford, child of Clarence Thomas Ford and Maud Long, was born February 13, 1919. Ford began his career as an announcer at WOPI in Bristol. He later was a bombardier aboard the B-29 bomber during World War II and flew missions over Japan. Ford went through a series of jobs following the war, mostly as a disc jockey and hosted a country music program in San Bernardino, California, where the “Tennessee Ernie Ford” character was born.
The character became popular there and he moved to do a similar show in Pasadena and began doing country music tours. Under the employ of Capitol Records, he also appeared on local television shows and created the Tennessee Ernie Show for national radio syndication.
Ford had tremendous success in the 50s with over 50 country music hits. He soon hosted national shows and appeared in several episodes of the “I Love Lucy” show. In 1955 he recorded “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” and also released “Sixteen Tons” that year which became a hit on both country and pop stations.
Ford was also a lover of Gospel and released several albums in the genre. From 1962 until 1965, he hosted a daytime national television show called “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show.” He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990.
That same year, 1990, the Bristol Historical Association was in need of a meeting place and storage space. They heard that the house was available and bought it from an absentee owner, unaware that Ford had been born there.
When they discovered the Ford connection, they contacted Ford and found him elated to hear of their intentions. He returned to Bristol for the grand opening of the Paramount Center for the Arts, and visited the house. He later called the association with several ideas about restoring the home and related displays.
The highly popular Bristol native wrestled with alcoholism for many, many years. Shortly after leaving a White House state dinner in 1991,he suffered severe liver failure and died. Ford is buried in Palo Alto, California.
Bristol promotes its self as the “Birthplace of Country Music” for the number of early recordings made there by country legends like the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers. Attractions include The Country Music Hall of Fame, Bristol Caverns, the Bristol Motor Speedway, and a revitalized downtown.
Of course, you should also visit the Ernie Ford House there. The Bristol Historical Association restored the home completely. You can visit the home by contacting the association at (423)844-0627. The Bristol Chamber of Commerce can be reached at (423)989-4850.
Next weekend would be a great time to go to Bristol as the annual Rhythm & Foorts Reunion will be happening on State Street in the historic downtown area. This Americana music festival is held September 19-20 this year. Visit bristolrhythm.com to view the lineup and additional information.
While in Bristol, stomp your feet on the sidewalk anywhere so you can say you did the “Bristol Stomp.” The popular 1950s song and dance wasn’t actually created there, although many of us from Tennessee thought it was; “Bristol Stomp” was originally recorded by a group from Bristol, Pennsylvania. Still, if you’re old enough, you’ remember it and have probably danced to it.