Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"River Of No Return" by Jeffrey Buckner Ford (2008)

When I was 1 year old Tennessee Ernie Ford hit it really big with his recording “Sixteen Ton”. Consequently I don’t remember a time when that song wasn’t around, either on TV, or radio. And you still hear the song today, being played on “oldies” stations, as well as classic country ones. And it’s a great song. But, aside from that song, just who was Tennessee Ernie Ford? (As a child of 4, I thought it odd that he was named after a state and a car.)

In “River of No Return”, Jeffrey Buckner Ford, son of the iconic entertainer, not only answers the question of who his father was, but also explores just how he came to be who he was. A man who seemingly had it all; from his good looks, wartime service, and his eventual marriage to Betty Jean Heminger, whom he met while in training to fly B-29’s; he was blessed at every turn with sucess.  As luck would have it, the war ended just as he was about to head for the Pacific.

The book is also a history of the music industry in the days after World War Two and the impact which television had on the industry. So much of what went on the air was live, and improvised. "16 Tons" was originally recorded in 1949 by Merle Travis for a folk music anthology. The song was risky to record, as it was pro-union in the early days of McCarthyism. The finger snapping, which Mr. Ford did before all his recordings, was left on by accident. As a matter of fact, the song was supposed to be the "B" side of "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry." It sold 400,000 copies in 11 days!

Although mainly known as a gospel singer, Tennessee Ernie Ford was much more. His sessions with Kay Starr in 1950 and 1951 produced several gems. He also recorded with Betty Hutton, resulting in  the iconic "River of No Return", which became the title song for the Robert Mitchum/Marilyn Monroe film of the same name.
In addition to the musical history behind his Dad's career, Mr. Ford also tells the story behind the veneer of his parent’s marriage, which looked picture perfect to the 30 million people who tuned into his TV show weekly between 1956 and 1961.  I say “veneer” rather than “façade” to note the fact that these two people loved one other very much. But the rising star of Tennessee Ford’s career eclipsed the talent which his wife possessed as a painter, bringing a strain to that love.

With unflinching honesty, Jeffrey Ford writes of the struggle his father endured with alcohol, and how that struggle affected those whom the elder Mr. Ford loved the most. And when he is finished telling the history of that portion of his life, the younger Mr. Ford talks of his own journey to discover what is important in life beyond the fame and fortune which beckon us daily.
Written with great warmth for his parents; and a proper amount of disdain for his father’s second wife; Jeffrey Ford had done the seemingly impossible. He has written an account of his father’s career, his parent’s family history and marriage, and the demons that constantly lurked on the perimeter. That he has done so without rancor, and without disrespect to the memories which his father left us, is a credit to his spirit, and a testimony to his ability as a writer.

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