If the name Tennessee Ernie Ford brings anything to mind, it is probably his hit recording of Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons. Great tune, of course. If it brings to mind anything else, it is probably the dour gospel albums that you find in the dollar bins of thrift shops and Salvation Army stores across the land. Their numbers are up there with copies of Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream and other Delights, or those Christmas LPs people got when they bought tires from Firestone. Apparently, a lot of people were once whiling away the hours listening to Tennessee Ernie sing The Old, Rugged Cross. This was before the internet, you understand – entertainment options were limited. But, whatever comes to mind when you think of Tennessee Ernie Ford, it is unlikely to include the adjective “rockin’.”
So, if you happened to stumble across an LP with a cover photo featuring a grinning, pipe-smoking Tennessee Ernie, sporting his John Waters mustache, and titled Ol Rockin’ Ern, you could be forgiven for maybe having a light chuckle and moving on. If morbid curiosity impelled you to pick it up and check out the song titles, you’d see songs like Country Junction, which were singles from the late 1940s and early 50s. If you’ve already heard those, you’d know that they feature some great players, like Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, and Moon Mullican, are are decent uptempo honky tonk country tunes. You might assume that this LP was just a collection of these early singles, and dismiss it. But you’d be missing out.
Apparently, most everybody else has been missing out, too. If you Google this album, you can find out that it exists, but that’s about it. Nobody is online singing the praises of Ol’ Rockin’ Ern. You can buy a copy on eBay right now for for a few bucks.
By the late 1950s, Ernie had already released four LPs and over forty singles, (including Sixteen Tons, which spent ten weeks at number one on the country charts, and eight weeks at number one on the pop charts). Some of those tunes are to be found here. But the versions of the previously-released numbers on Ol’ Rockin’ Ern are not the same as on those earlier singles, they were newly-recorded for this 1957 LP. New recordings with new arrangements, understand? New, rockin’ (*raises eyebrows* *nudges you with elbow* *nods*) arrangements. It kinda reminds me of Louis Jordan’s late-career stabs at rock n’ roll like the Somebody Up There Digs Me album. Well, maybe not that good, but still good, and rockin’. Like Jordan, Ern doesn’t sound out of his element at all, and it kinda makes you wish there had been more rockin’ Ern captured on record.
No, really! I shit you not. This album is much more rockin’ than Ern’s prior attempts to appear rockin’. In my continuing quest to highlight forgotten records that are worth hearing, I give you Ol’ Rockin’ Ern. I don’t want to make this a “thing,” but this is kinda like last time when I gave props to Mickey Baker’s Mississippi Delta Dues album. Ol’ Rockin’ Ern is another one that some might consider to be cheesily overproduced. Me, I think the arrangements and production are what make it worth checking out.
I don’t think any of the tunes on Ol Rockin’ Ern ever made it to CD, and since they didn’t make it during the golden era of CD reissues, they probably never will. Even Bear Family hasn’t graced us with a remastered version of this album. If you see a Tennessee Ernie Ford CD with a title that’s on this album, you are most likely getting the version from 1949 or 1951 or whenever it was originally released, and not the 1957 Ol’ Rockin’ Ern version.
This seems to be a problem, as somebody put Blackberry Boogie on Youtube with the cover from the Ol’ Rockin’ Ern LP, but the track is actually the version from the 1952 single. Get it right, people! Trust me, you want to hear the rockin’ version.
The album kicks off with Milk ‘Em in the Morning Blues, a mid-tempo comedic tune about dairy farming. This song is dear to my heart because, as far as I know, it is the only melodic ode to one of America’s worst jobs ever put on vinyl. Given your level of tolerance for country corniness, your own enjoyment may vary. “It takes a lot of pull to do this job,” Ernie cracks wise at the end. Nyuck nyuck nyuck. As my favorite film reviewer said in her recent review of The Avengers:
Sounds kind of corny, you say? Oh, that’s nothing. Massive corn-shucking in this film, corn piled everywhere, cornpone, corn fritters, corn syrup, corn as high as an elephant’s eye, the Feast of Our Great God Corn!
So, yeah, to enjoy Ol’ Rockin’ Ern, you better be of a mind to deal with that.
This first cut isn’t exactly rockin’, but it is more rockin’ than the version released as a single, and probably more rockin’ than you would have come to expect from Tennessee Ernie Ford. You’ll also notice two things – 1.) the great big band arrangement, and 2.) great recording sound. My copy of this LP is in glorious mono, and sounds killer. A big band with top session players and vocalists, playing deceptively complex arrangements, live in a great-sounding room.
The arrangements are courtesy of Jack Fascinato, the dude behind the genius, fatalistic, clarinet-featuring (wha??) arrangement on Sixteen Tons. Fascinato also recorded a few albums of his own weirdo 50s jazz-pop.
From Hannibal, Missouri (!), Fascinato was Ernie’s go-to arranger and collaborator. The arrangements on Ol’ Rockin’ Ern are a lush mix of swinging jazz, early rock, pop vocal choruses, and western swing, that only existed in that particular era, now gone forever. It’s like Bill Haley and the Comets, Sam Butera and the Witnesses, and a vocal group (something like the Jordanaires, Andrews Sisters, Sons of the Pioneers, or their ilk) recording in Frank Sinatra’s studio. All that, with Ernie’s bass-baritone on top of it all, and rattling the floorboards underneath. The fact that it is cheesy and ridiculous doesn’t change the fact that is also powerful and entertaining. Due to the lack of liner notes, and dearth of info available online, I don’t know who the session cats are. Might be Billy Strange on guitar, maybe Speedy West on steel, who knows? A fun listening experience, regardless.
Apparently, Ern relied pretty heavily on Fascinato during the recording process, and even for sequencing of the records, when they were collaborating. This is an important point, because the sequencing of Ol’ Rockin’ Ern is important. In this age of iTunes shuffle and Spotify, album sequencing is a lost and unappreciated art. Maybe it’s a good thing that this record never made it to CD, because the sequencing really works, and I don’t think the album would stand out as much if you just heard the tunes coming up randomly between Skrillex and Lady GaGa, or whatever the hell you have on your iPod.
After the opening tune, the rockin’ gets cranked up with Catfish Boogie, and you start to appreciate even more that this isn’t another hymns and spirituals album. Then, to build the anticipation,things back off a notch with another mid-tempo comedy tune, this time about an expectant father, Anticipation Blues. Then Country Junction comes along and totally blows the version from the 1949 single out of the water. By the time you get to Shot-Gun Boogie, you might think that you are mentally and spiritually prepared for the idea of Tennessee Ernie Ford actually rockin’, but you ain’t.
The intro to Shot-Gun Boogie has a nice buildup, and the arrangement continues to build and build until, hell, you start to wish there were more rockin’ Tennessee Ernie Ford records. This is the closest Ern gets to sounding like AC/DC in his long recording career. Once you get to this cut, you are pretty much set up to enjoy the rest of the album. There’s more country boogie, a duet with Dorothy Gill that sounds like a cornpone version of a Louis Prima/Keely Smith tune, and it ends with a gospel number, The Lord’s Lariat, that would have woken up grandma if she had fallen asleep while listening to the Hymns LP.
Dare I mention the sexual innuendo of Blackberry Boogie? Meet him in the middle of the patch, indeed.
None of the songs from this LP are online that I can find, and I’m too lazy to put up my copy on Youtube. As it never made it to CD, the album isn’t on Spotify, either. You’re just going to have to spring for the few bucks to hear the 1957 version of Shot-Gun Boogie for yourself.