Ernest Jennings Ford, better known as Tennessee Ernie Ford, was one of the most popular American entertainers in 20th century, remembered mostly for his super hit album “Sixteen Tons”. He shared his everything, his entire life with his better- half Betty Jean Heminger. The woman he loved shared his success, his self- destruction and with the destruction of the family, joy and happiness started to vanish from their children’s eyes.
Jeffrey Buckner Ford, Ernie Ford’s elder son recounts the life of his father and the woman he loved in this wonderful memoir of his own family and childhood. In this interview, Jeffrey talks about his diverse artistic passions, his life, the book River of No Return, his special childhood moments with his family and his much- awaited forthcoming second book.
You have been up to so many lines of work in one single lifetime- guitarist, actor, singer, songwriter, martial artist and a writer (to name a few). How do you manage all so many different kinds of arts all by yourself?
I have always had a creative warp of some kind running through my thread. However, for me, exploring and practicing the different forms of art, discipline or craft I have in my lifewas never a matter of management, but rather of expression. Can I convey this particular idea better in a two-minute song, or a novel? As a one-man show or a short film? Learning about the creative processes involved in expressing yourself in more than one art has been both empowering and enlightening. And educational – I keep reminding myself of how much I don’t know. ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,’ and all.
Say something about what is life all about to you? What do you think is the best way to live one’s own life?
When Cormac McCarthy was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey after The Road was released, she asked him whether he was, “passionate” about writing. He lived each day, he said, with the hope of doing something that day, “…better than I’ve ever done before…to do, or write just one perfect thing. You may not get there, but you hope.”
Tell us something about your journey of writing the biography of your father Tennessee Ernie Ford- the entertainer, the lover, the family man and above everything the human being?
Several months into writing, I realized I was not writing a biography of one man, but rather, a memoir of the lives of two people; my father, and the woman who shared his life – my mother, Betty Jean Ford. It was literally impossible to write about the life of Ernest Ford without writing about the life of Betty Ford. Forty-six years together bound them almost molecularly. They were like Yin and Y’all. Two completely ordinary people propelled into a wholly extraordinary life that changed them forever. The process –the journey- of setting that life down on paper; was cathartic, enlightening, and torturous.
I was and remain haunted by the memory of these two souls…literally gripped by the arc of their radiant lives, and wounded by the memories of their deaths. River of No Return was my hope of healing those wounds; a hope bound with a promise that one day I would tell their story.
River of No Return- How much significance lies in the title of your book in connection to the flow of Ernie Ford’s life and the life of your family?
Everything. It was, of course, a huge single for Dad — the theme song from the Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe film in 1954; a ballad of a man who is unable to save the woman he loves when she is swept away by a river. For Ernie Ford, fame was that river. Dad loved what he did, but hated what it had done to his family. By the time he was seriously considering leaving Hollywood, Mom was falling in love with everything that was Hollywood. It became the source of the bitterness that both divided them and bound them together. In the end, he couldn’t save her from herself, and after three failed attempts, she took her own life in 1989.
Will you like to share one of the most joyous memorable moments you spent with your family? Readers would love to hear any of them from you.
In a small wooden box under my desk, there is a photograph of two people. The composition is a tad flawed; there is too much empty frame above them, and the light is dull, but it was a newer Polaroid; color, and smaller, with a quarter-inch white margin at the bottom, and we could all see it right away. In the center of the photograph, Betty Ford, frail, gaunt, and commanding, a long Pall Mall pinned between two fingers on her right hand, sits deep in the recesses of a long sofa in the center of her suite at the Hyatt. Her head is turned to her left, where her eyes are locked –riveted- onto those of our three-year old daughter, Jesse Lee, standing on the sofa, her own eyes unflinching, facing her grandmother’s. It would be their firstand their last meeting.
Out of the Polaroid’s frame, in the room together, my wife, Murphy, and I sat with Dad and with Jesse’s older brother, Patrick. Not quite a year later, on his tenth birthday, the grandmother he sat across from would be gone.
While we were fortunate that Dad would hold our third child, Tucker, before he, too, was gone, that evening, that moment in time, suspended and reflected in that photograph, is an entire legacy in and of itself; recording that moment when the strength and bonds of two generations our family were strongest and brightest.
What made you reveal the darker side of your family to the entire world of Ernie Ford’s admirers?
I knew there would be a number of people who will take issue with, or question the wisdom of exposing certain aspects of the lives of Betty and Ernie Ford. I knew that some of that number would likelyconsider it a betrayal, and they would undoubtedly say so. I couldn’t and can’t help that. My intention wasn’t to shatter illusions, nor was it to preserve them.I had to tell the truth of who we were, so I might discover the truth of what we were, and face the truth of what we became.
Does this book in parts reflect your own tale of pain and survival that you faced through the bad phases of your family?
To some degree, but at its heart it is a love story about two people who lost control of their own lives.
What is your personal favorite music from Ernie Ford collection?
From June through August of 1953 –three years before Sixteen Tons- he was virtually living at Western Recorders on 6000 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Over those three months, he cut 260 live fifteen-minute radio shows backed by the Billy Liebert Band, a six piece rhythm section hand-picked by Cliffie Stone and on virtually every Capitol Records session for everyone from Spade Cooley to Nat King Cole. 260 shows, five songs per show, covering everything from Cole Porter to Hoagy Carmichael to Smiley Burnett. His voice…the energy, the band… it’s absolutely infectious, and probably the best material he ever recorded.
We would like to know something (that you would like to share) about your next book. When it is expected to hit our bookstores?
Thanks for asking… and I’m proud to say my next book was just picked up. It is a…different sort of memoir altogether. I can’t really say too much, under penalty of agent-banishment, or something.I can tell you that it’sbeen described as equal parts The Odd Couple, La Cage Aux Folles, andTuesdays with Morrie, butI like to think of it as a memoir of acceptance and surrender, life and death – and of two older men of the opposite sex living together. That’s all you get.
Finally, what message do you want to convey for your readers and also all admirers of your father, Ernie Ford?