Music history and style have largely left behind Tennessee Ernie Ford (1919-1991), so the German completists at Bear Family Records service a necessary reclamation with this thorough collection of the Tennessean's 1949-1960 oeuvre. Eschewing most of the gospel recordings with which the entertainer became associated, the 5-CD, 154-song Portrait of an American Singer focuses on his country and popular output, revealing the subtle complexity and genres melded in Ford's exceptionally smooth yet folksy croon. Ted Olson's Grammy-nominated liner notes provide intrinsic context, recasting the "sophisticated hillbilly" as caught between his Hollywood celebrity and Appalachian roots. That tension runs throughout the first disc, from 1949's debut recording ("I've Got the Milk 'Em in the Morning Blues") to yelping No. 1 hit "Mule Train." Disc two's duet run with Kay Starr and the Dinning Sisters captures the crooner in full effect, but the third CD exposes complications between 1954's defining "Ballad of Davy Crockett" and crossover hit "Sixteen Tons." The final two discs track Ford's move toward pop (the mesmerizing arrangement of "In the Pines"), while "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Half as Much" (1960) close with emphatic contrast to Hank Williams and suggest already-shifting tastes of "authenticity" that can't account for Ford's unique style.
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