February 13, 2019


BRISTOL, Tenn. — The Tennessee Ernie Ford birthday celebration reached a crescendo Wednesday with the screening of black-and- white TV shows from the Bristol native’s career, followed by enough cake to feed the legion of fans in attendance.

The Paramount Center for the Arts, where Ford performed in 1991, hosted two hours of historic shows, including the 1956 episode of “This Is Your Life” featuring Ford’s family from Bristol. More than 200 attended the celebration.

After the house lights came up, eldest son Buck Ford took the stage and told stories before cutting the cake and then spending time hugging and shaking hands. Wednesday would have been the elder Ford’s 100th birthday, and his son choked back tears more than once during his remarks.

“I am overwhelmed with emotion. I feel like I’m underwater. I’m awash with memory of not only Dad but seeing the whole family,” Buck Ford said. “Seeing the entire family up on the screen has brought back an unbelievable flood of memories.”

Ford, who spoke before about 100 on Tuesday night at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, said he appreciated everyone’s interest and support, noting the wide age range of attendees.

“Some are in their 40s and 50s, some who are in their 20s, some in their 60s and 70s,” Ford said of the crowd. “That caliber of entertainment from television still makes a difference. It still has some degree of relevance. And I was so happy today because I didn’t see anybody leave.”

During his remarks on stage, Ford talked about TV shows in the 1950s, when his father was among the biggest stars.

“Television from that era is like opening up a door into our past. Not just the past of what television was but the past of what we were — as a nation, as a people,” he said. “Television in those days was in its infancy, and Dad was fortunate to be on the razor’s edge with people like Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear.”

Lear was the first writer on “The Ford Show” and Yorkin its producer-director. They went on to form Tandem Productions, which developed landmark hit TV shows, including “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son” and “Maude.”

Ford fielded an array of questions, ranging from his father’s landmark 1974 country music tour of the Soviet Union and the popularity of signature hit song “Sixteen Tons,” to his father’s musical aptitude. Ernie, he said, played the piano, guitar, violin and trombone — which he learned to play in the Tennessee High band.

Among the dozens in line to spend a moment with Buck Ford in the Paramount lobby was third cousin Peggy Ford Salley, of Blountville.

“Tennessee Ernie and my dad were second cousins,” she said. “This has been great. My dad and Tennessee Ernie looked a lot alike. They worked together when they were young boys on the farm.”

Salley said she kept up with Ernie Ford’s career when he was on TV with “The Ford Show.”

Besides the party at the Paramount, the Bristol Post Office on Wednesday had a special Tennessee Ernie Ford cancellation.

“Myself and the Postal Service have enjoyed recognizing Mr. Ford,” Postmaster Tommy Barker said. “We’ve had many phone calls asking about the date, and I’ve been receiving letters from across the country requesting the cancellation stamp. I think this is a great thing for Bristol.”

Barker said the special Ernie Ford cancellation will be available for the next 30 days if fans were unable to get to the Post Office on Wednesday. Letters and post cards can still be imprinted with the cancellation until March 13.

The week’s celebration has been rewarding, according to Rene Rodgers, head curator of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

“To think we’ve gone from talking about it and what would be a great way to honor Tennessee Ernie Ford to this last week, it’s been really meaningful,” Rodgers said.

Response to the events, from the church service to tours of the home to Tuesday’s night’s program at the BCMM to Wednesday, was overwhelmingly positive.

“Today, I think people just really enjoyed seeing the things up on screen, the remembrances, the memories,” Rodgers said. “Buck had an emotional reaction to them, and I think people in Bristol are having an emotional reaction to it. For us, it’s been really special knowing Tennessee Ernie Ford is someone we honor in the museum, but the town is excited. And it’s not just the generation that saw him and heard him. There’s quite a few young people in the audience, which is wonderful.”

Paramount Bristol