Jim Ford :: Harlan County (1969)

jim-ford-harlan-county.jpgRecently, sitting in a dark booth of a non-descript bar in a non-descript portion of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, I was listening to the unashamed (and awesome) time-traveling selection of Los Angeles DJ Dr. Who (spins on Thursday nights at The Bar in Hollywood and deejays the soul-funk night at downtown’s La Cita on Saturday nights, a long-haired, shaggy-bearded, flannel-wearing throwback spinner who leans toward hazy soul-funk from the ’60s and ’70s. Some of the songs I had heard, most, admittedly, I had not, but while all were highly appropriate given my general mood and musical inclinations, one stood out.

“Who is this?” I asked Dr. Who.

Jim Ford, Harlan County. The entire album is excellent,” he insisted, holding up the vinyl sleeve with one hand and touching his finger to his thumb on the other like a sommelier offering approval on a vintage wine. (Though, in this case, whiskey is more appropriate.)

And so it is: Every so often I “discover” an artist who I thought was fairly obscure, until I begin to dig into their work and realize I must’ve been living under a rock or deaf–or both–to not have heard them previously. Such was my reaction to Ford and his excellent-indeed lone release, Harlan County.

Ford’s story reads like an cinematic tragedy, full of fact and legend documenting his brief rise and long, steady decline, only then to die during resurrection.

Growing up in Kentucky, Ford ran away to New Orleans as a teenager, living on the street, absorbing and incorporating the music there. By the mid ’60s, he reemerged in California. This is significant because those three landscapes simultaneously spill out of the speakers when you spin Harlan County. (And if you were to construct a geographic foundation for the Drunkard’s own musical leanings, it would probably map out much the same.)

1969’s Harlan County nods to Ford’s hometown in the Bluegrass State, punctuating a life there like an aural biography, not just for Ford, but for anyone coming of age in post-war coal-mining country during the late ’40s and ’50s. With arrangements and rhythm from Redbone and accompanied at times by the likes of James Burton and Dr. John, Harlan County travels separately through bluegrass country, country western, soul and funk, often weaving them together, as he does on the standout “I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me.”

The record, a dynamic masterpiece in terms of capturing a time and place, would seem to be the starting point for a decades-long climb into music history. Nick Lowe cited Ford as his biggest influence, and Sly Stone once called him “the funkiest white man I know.” But despite the niche acclaim, he sold precious few records, avoided live performances, partied like 10 men and mostly disappeared. In fact, his most significant contributions were made elsewhere as a songwriter, and almost entirely anonymously. He penned the Temptations’ 1976 record Wings of Love in its entirety. Bobby Womack’s “Harry Hippie” was his. And “Niky Hoeky” –made famous by Aretha Franklin and refined by Bobbie Gentry–also owes its words to Ford.

His legend lies elsewhere, however. He lived with Marlon Brando’s ex, Movita Castenada, for a decade in the ’60s and ’70s and was unofficial stepfather to two of Brando’s children. He posed in a Sergio Leone-inspired spaghetti-western Playboy spread when times were financially strained. He’s credited as a torchbearer in the London pub-rock movement (Elvis Costello is only Nick Lowe-removed from Ford), but his arrangements were so otherworldly by the early ’70s that not even Lowe’s band Brinsely Schwartz could adequately provide them for a record, so it was never produced. And once, in 1971, he exited a plane in a London airport with what is now said, as legend has it, to be a million dollars of cocaine strapped around his waste. His affinity for the drug was no secret, neither in song–see “Dr. Handy’s Dandy Candy”–nor in his life. He battled substance abuse for years, not sobering up until 2004. The only reason anyone even knows that much of the man is because Swedish music pub Sonic Magazine nearly impossibly tracked him down in 2006. At the time, he was living in a trailer Mendocino County, California, dozens of master tapes littering his floor, a trash heap of three decades worth of unreleased material.

This would be his resurrection after years of obscurity. Prompted by Sonic and others, Ford agreed to let German imprint Bear Family release Sounds of Our Time, a compilation that stacked 15 unreleased tracks on top of a re-issue of Harlan County. And by the fall of 2007, plans were in the works for 2008’s rare demo collection Point of No Return and a May 2008 “reunion” gig in London with Nick Lowe. But like most tragedy’s, the hero doesn’t survive his own legend. Three years sober and a career revival waiting, Jim Ford was found dead in his mobile home in November 2007.

The Bear Family compilations serve as nice homage to the artist, and the Temptations, Aretha and Nick Lowe offer significant reference points for his influence, but there’s no stronger testimony to his career and his country-soul-funk fusion than the standalone, excellent Harlan County. – j. crosby

Jim Ford :: I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me
MP3: Jim Ford :: Dr. Handy’s Dandy Candy

13 thoughts on “Jim Ford :: Harlan County (1969)

  1. This album is ridiculously amazing. Although the extra tracks aren’t quite as good, are just still sweeter than yoo-hoo and worth whatever you’d have to pay to get it.

  2. bonus tracks may not be as good as a whole… but Gossip County USA is better than anything on the original album in my opinion. this is a rad album that i play over and over, but its definitely worth picking up the bonus stuff from the CD release.

    long time reader, first time commenter… love this lost nuggets, i’ve got loads of LPs like this and have been meaning to start a blogging these cosmic, post hippie, back-to-the-country, 70s stagflation, outlaw, folky-hippie-hillbilly gems… thanks for doin’ it here!

  3. Peaches in the summer – bananas in the fall
    Aw Let me hear ya gimme dat ca-a-a-andy call


  4. Yeah I’ve been waiting to see this posted over here. There are a couple of excellent CD reissues released in the last two years, seen it featured on the shelf at Other Music even.

  5. I know this record only as a part of the Sounds of Our Time compilation and its a regular on my iPod for last three months, I hardly listen to anything else. Its fusion of soul funk and country is really unresistable. And when you count in the playing on that record which is just amazing, oh man! The “Harlan County” part of that compilation is great but I spin far more those songs beginning with Big Mouth USA and ending up with Mixed Green, i.e. the other part of the compilation. Those are truly gems. Also check out the Point of No Return compilation for some outstanding songs more in a country vein, but nevertheless great, with probably his greatest song I’m Ahead If I Can Quit While I’m Behind. I mean, writting songs titled like this one, we can only regret that coke took him down…

    Great blog, great review! Thank you!


  6. Exellent review of an amazing artist. My major beef with this man was that he spent the last decade of his life claiming he wrote Bobbie Gentry’ Ode to Billie Joe without a single shred of proof.It never held water in my view because the song had many autobiographical elements from Gentry’s childhood(TheTallahatchie Bridge and Choctaw Ridge were her childhood surroundings) and Gentry had donated her rough drafts of the song to The Un. of Mississippi( The Faulkner room) forty years ago. Posted on their web site, they show the construction of the song and missing verses edited from the original recording all written in Gentry’s own hand. Nick Lowe has continued to spread this rumor after Ford death. According to Lowe, Ford claimed sole authorship, according to Jim Fords famiy, he claimed he co-wrote it with her. Regardless, he never came to close to a legal or ethical burden of proof that was on him and he challenged the reputation of a very gifted artist.

  7. Can anyone help me with which people played on Harlan County. I know only of James Burton and Dr John. This is just a masterpiece!

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