Jim Ford :: Harlan County (Reissue)

(Our friends at Light In The Attic Records have gone ahead and done justice to one of our favorite records, Jim Ford’s Harlan County. We are giving away a copy of the deluxe vinyl reissue. To enter, leave a comment with your favorite LITA reissue, below. The following is an old AD post on Ford from a few years back.)

Recently, 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. words/ j. crosby

Jim Ford :: I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me

53 thoughts on “Jim Ford :: Harlan County (Reissue)

  1. My favorite Light In The Attic reissue has got to be Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg. Definitely the smoothest sounding record I own, the basslines just flow out of the speakers. Plus it was my entry point into Serge’s catalog. Can’t beat it.

  2. I would love to win this, my kind of country soul music ! My favorite LITA reissue is Art Blakey’s Holiday for Skins LP. I love finding hidden treasures that went unreleased for years and this Blakey LP is a great example of the wonderful work LITA does.

  3. Man, it’s so hard to pick a favorite. I love Monks record, the “Jamaica to Toronto” release, Black Angels “Passover,” the beautiful packaging of the “Histoire de Melody Nelson” re-issue, but I will have to go Karen Dalton’s “In My Own Time.”

  4. Right on! I’m tempted to go with Jim Sullivan’s U.F.O, but then again, how can I pass by their Karen Dalton or Kris Kristofferson (does that count as a reissue?) records? Truth be told, the strength of all these Light In the Attic releases is pretty staggering, each new album has become a new favorite. Would love to check this guy out now, seeing as I’ve heard so much about him.

  5. My absolute favorite LITA has to be the Jim Sullivan UFO re-issue from last year. Love the video they made. Would really like to get my paws on that Jim Ford… Al James the Unfazed

  6. My favorite is definitely Serge Gainsbourg – Histoire de Melody Nelson.

    And I love me some Jim Ford, too!

  7. The Monks hit like a ton of a bricks, but Histoire de Melody Nelson is so sublime and beautiful. My favorite would be a toss up between these two–shows how weird and awesome Light In The Attic truly is!

  8. Kris Kristofferson’s Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends – this is American music, and these demos for all their immediacy sound better than the later-recorded versions in my opinion. There is space in the songs that lets them breathe. Border Lord, Come Sundown, Gettin By, High and Strange, and of course e and Bobby McGee – without peer. Michael Chapman’s Fully Qualified Survivor and Rodriguez’s Cold Fact are close behind.

  9. tough call between the jim sullivan reissue earlier this year and the monks demo tapes!!! all LITA releases are the best – can’t wait to hear mo-west!

  10. Very hard to choose between Karen Dalton – In My Own Time and Monks – Black Monk Time! Both dealing with time in their titles!

  11. Karen Dalton’s “In My Own Time” edges out Rodriguez’ “Coming from Reality”. And vice versa.

  12. My favourite LITA reissue has to be Karen Dalton’s ‘in my own time’. No matter how many times i play it i enjoy it as much as i did the very first time i played it and it’s very rare that happens. If anything, I enjoy it more and more with each listen. Also, every single person who I have recommended Karen Dalton to have come back and thanked me for doing so. It’s in my top 5 records of all time and only just recently i recommended Jim Ford to someone and the same thing is happening again, they can’t get enough of it! I’d love to own the vinyl, vinyl’s where it’s at.

  13. Jim Sullivan or Rodriguez, pretty hard to choose between the two. Both are in pretty heavy rotation here.

  14. My fav would be the Vagrants “I Can’t Make a Friend”.

    The Jim Ford reissue is gonna be an unbelievable treat! Can’t wait!

  15. In My Own Time by Karen Dalton gets another vote… Thanks! This one just might edge it out… What I’ve heard is awesome.

  16. It’s hard to pick of favorite but I think Kristofferson’s demos are easily the most culturally important thing they’ve released. To hear a song like “Me and Bobby McGee” in it’s naked state forty-something years after it was recorded–knowing the impact it would have and millions of listeners it would touch in the process–is a true gift for any fan of music history. Plus, I actually prefer the demo to any version that came after.
    That being said, I could easily go with Michael Hurley and the Unholy Modal Rounders’ Have Moicy!, too, because “Slurf Song” is one of my favorite jams of all-time–“We fill up our guts and we turn it into shit/we turn it into shit, and we get rid of it.”

    Where I’m from we call that poetry.

  17. such a great/cool label. my favorite reissue, especially at this time of year, is the Betty Davis S/T. I challenge anyone to name a cooler, sexier summertime album

  18. Lou Bond, y’all.
    And I want to win this for my friend Will, who turned me on to Jim Ford in the first place.

  19. Go to go with the Monks “Black Monk Time”! Rodriquez’s “Cold Fact” is a very close second. Can’t wait for the Jim Ford reissue – it looks like LITA hits another home run!

  20. Easy. Kristofferson — Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends. No question in my mind.

    And yes, it was here where I first found out about Jim Ford, and haven’t been excited about an obscure artist like Ford since. Great shit.

  21. Jim Sullivan- an amazing story and record.

    Really looking forward to Harlan County!

  22. I’d go with Melody Nelson, but it was already a favorite before their reissue, so maybe Michael Chapman:Fully Qualified Survivor.

  23. Michael Chapman’s Fully Qualified Survivor was just a myth I’d heard of in psych folk articles in British music magazines until the Light In The Attic reissue. Now it and Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues are on constant rotation inside my old car’s cd player (burned directly from the vinyl copies, I might add!).

  24. My fav LITA release is Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest in Funk & Soul, 1965-1975. The cuts are tasty for sure, but it has a special signifcance for me because I’m a Seattle boy. But since I was born in 1970 I wasn’t out catching these bands live so the album served as a local history lesson as well. LITA turns out consistently good work but this one really hits me where I live.

  25. Jim Sullivan – UFO has got to be one of the best albums that was never heard by the masses. Great reissue!

  26. There are far too many great LITA releases, so I’ll just say that my choice is strictly summer seasonal…

    Jackie Mittoo – Wishbone.

  27. what’s crazy is all my contenders for best have so little in common: Kristofferson, Gainsbourg (or Birkin/Gainsbourg even), or the Last Poets could easily have it in the bag except that Betty Davis’ first record is so freaking fabulous, especially in these drive-with-the-windows-down months.

  28. The new Mowtown’s Mowest Story! I haven’t stopped listening to it since I got it 2 weeks ago.

    I have the Sullivan, Rodriguez and Jamica to Tornoto reissues and they are all real good but this Mowest comp is top notch and introduced me to a bunch of artists I had no knowledege of. Who new that Franki Valli and the Four Seasons made music like this, not me. Also the group Odyssey, with three tracks included, probably deserve further investigation.

    I found The Sounds Of Our Time compilation when Virgin Megastore on 14th St. in NYC was having there close out sale in a few years back. Great CD with good notes and a vinyl reissue of Harlan County will be sweet.

  29. I had joined their record club series in 2009, I guess it was, and I was all set to receive not only Black Monk Time but also the Early Monks disc (both of which I was perhaps most excited by), History of Melody Nelson, and the second Rodriguez record, Coming from Reality. My anticipation of this set was fever pitch because they are all great records, and getting the LITA treatment was going to be amazing. Included in this series, though, was a disc called It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best, by someone who I had actually never heard of (or much of), Karen Dalton. This disc, especially side A, became probably the most rotated in that whole series, once I finally got around to it, and was immediately stunned and amazed by both her voice and playing. It is still a revelation, and I still play that one the most.

  30. Jim Sullivan – U.F.O.

    Even with all their gems, this was an easy answer for me. This album floored me the first time I heard it (via Waxidermy) and continues to do the same every time I drop the needle.

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