Meditations on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s hat The secret to colorful writing, and other useful tips


By Joe Livernois

I learned a lot about the craft of writing during my years in newsrooms. My teachers were newspaper editors who yearned that someday I would deliver a story that was not all mumbo-jumbo, dead-end fragments and split infinitives. One of those editors taught me the key to colorful writing, and it is advice I often share with aspiring young writers.

This particular editor, one of several I worked with during a 30-year career at the Monterey County Herald, fashioned himself a “writing coach.” He was a sought-after writing instructor with a decent reputation, invited to lecture students at university journalism programs and to work with young reporters in newsrooms. The Herald was lucky to have him on staff.

The writing coach was a proponent of colorful prose for the benefit of newspaper readers weary of the same old who-what-when-where-why approach to news stories. He was a proponent for thoughtful metaphors and clever similes that breathe life into nonfiction narratives, like a master blacksmith would use a bellows. 

In me, the editor saw potential to infuse razzle-dazzle to my mumbo-jumbo. If only I would employ more of his colorful writing techniques. 

He elevated my writing game one February day in the early 1980s, when he counseled me to improve a particular feature story I had submitted for his consideration. 

“This story is fine, as far as it goes,” he told me, “but it lacks color. If you’re going to write features, you ought to infuse more color into your writing. Colorful writing helps build a scene in the mind’s eye for the average reader. Colorful writing makes average stories come alive.”

The story I had submitted that day described a gathering behind the 18th green at the Pebble Beach Golf Links during what was then called the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. Sadly, Bing Crosby had died a few years earlier and there was some question as to whether it would remain a Crosby family event. There had been speculation that a corporate sponsor would step in to elevate the tournament and that the new sponsor would naturally eliminate much of the amateur field of  “crowd pleasers” — movie stars, athletes, television personalities, A-List celebrities — and replace them with America’s favorite corporate CEOs, their cronies and other titans of industry. 

At any rate, a lot of Bing Crosby’s old pals still roamed Pebble Beach in the early 1980s. So did his widow, Kathryn. Everyone was expected to carry on the raucous traditions of the “Clambake” even after Bing was gone. It was all a bit awkward: The grieving widow trying to hold things together around a bunch of her husband’s old friends, who showed up with the expectation of another sprawling week of drunken excess. Bing would have wanted it that way.

I was assigned to write front-page features about the golf tournament for the Monterey daily newspaper at the time. They were obligatory stories, not the sort of journalism any normal reader would care to waste their time with, but editors assigned them anyway because they appeased local chambers of commerce. I was the writer assigned to write those golf tournament stories because I was the only reporter at The Herald — outside of the guys in the sports department — who could describe the proper function of putters. 

One day, notebook in hand, I found myself standing in a circle with a half-dozen entertainers my parents had grown up admiring back in the day. Bing’s old pals. The drunken excess bunch.

And it was my description of that moment in that circle that my writing coach thought needed improvement. More color. 

“It says right there in my story that I approached Tennessee Ernie Ford because he was wearing an old mesh ball cap that read ‘Party Til You Puke,’” I told my editor, pointing to my copy on his computer screen. “Isn’t that colorful enough?”

What color was the hat?

‘What color was the hat?” the editor asked.


The hat, he repeated. What color was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s hat?

Yellow, I answered. The color of baby puke.

“Well, there you go,” said the writing coach. “You should say the hat was yellow.”

I still didn’t get it.

“How about this part in the story where Phil Harris appeared out of nowhere and immediately interrupted my Tennessee Ernie Ford interview with a loud and extended slander of Kathryn Crosby, because apparently Phil Harris thought she was a nag and a wench? Except he used much stronger terminology, with language I skillfully wrote around but which still conveyed his vigorous feelings about the Widow Crosby. All the while, as I describe it here, Phil Harris drunkenly spilled the contents of his cocktail all over the grass. Isn’t that colorful enough?”

What color was the grass?

“What color was the grass?” my editor wanted to know.

“The grass was green, of course,” I answered. “It’s Pebble Beach after all.”

“Well, you should add that to the story. Right here where it says Phil Harris spilled his drink on the grass? You should say he spilled his drink on the green grass. You see the difference?”

“Okay, sure,” I said. “But how about this part of the story, after Pat Boone showed up, where I describe how embarrassed he was to be hearing such a string of profanity coming from Phil Harris? And how Pat Boone kicked at the grass awkwardly with the toe of his shoes? (Sorry, the green grass!) And how about this part in the story where suddenly out of nowhere the Gatlin Brothers joined the circle and they too were visibly embarrassed by Phil Harris? And about how five minutes into the Harris tirade, one of the Gatlin brothers noticed that Kathryn Crosby was approaching the group to deliver boxes of commemorative Waterford crystal vases to tournament participants? And how everyone started faux-coughing loudly and saying “here she comes” under their breath until finally Tennessee Ernie Ford jabbed Phil Harris in the ribs and told him to shut the **** up? And then how Phil Harris kissed Kathryn Crosby on the cheek and gushed about how wonderful it was to see her? Do you mean to tell me that’s not colorful enough?”

The editor/writing coach glared at me as if I hadn’t learned a thing. Like he had been talking to a red brick wall. Like I was as dense as a black bowling ball. Like I hadn’t been able to see the emerald forest for the green trees.

“What color were Pat Boone’s shoes?” he asked.

And that’s how I learned to write with more color.


A few notes about the characters mentioned in this essay:

  • If you dig around in your grandparents’ LP collection, you’ll likely find Christmas albums recorded by the each of the entertainers in the circle behind the 18th green. You should not listen to those albums, lest your love and admiration for your grandparents diminishes.
  • Bing Crosby was a popular crooner and actor who is one of the first-ever multimedia American icons. He put together a little golf tournament that matched show-biz amateurs with professional players in 1937, in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego, and the tournament was moved to Pebble Beach several years later.  After his death, an appropriate corporate sponsor was found, the Crosby name was removed from the tournament and most of the best celebrity amateurs were replaced by your favorite CEOs, their cronies and other titans of industry.
  • Tennessee Ernie Ford was a country singer who was known as the ‘master of good-natured corn!’
  • Phil Harris was a bandleader and comic, perhaps best known for his devotion to bourbon and for supplying the voices to several great Disney film characters. His live act also implied admiration of the Confederacy.
  • Pat Boone was a popular pop singer in the late 1950s and early 60s, known for recording saccharine covers of iconic rhythm & blues songs. 
  • The Gatlin Brothers are a country act that still tours.
  • Kathryn Crosby was an actress and singer who remarried in 2000. Her second husband, Maurice Sullivan, died in an automobile accident that seriously injured Kathryn. Despite what Mr. Harris had to say that day, my encounters with Kathryn Crosby were always genuine and pleasant. She is 88.

This story is reprinted from Where the Bodies Are Buried, an online publication that recalls the colorful history of the Central Coast.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

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