Album Rescue Series: Jim Ford ‘Harlan County’

Discovering new music is always great fun and one of life’s greatest pleasures. It gets even better when you are pointed towards or discover an album totally unexpectedly. This is how I found out about Jim Ford’s wonderful, but largely ignored album, Harlan County. I received an out of the blue email from my good friend and professional cycling team manager John Herety who directed me towards this record with the explicit instructions that “you must listen to this album, it will kick your ass and blow your mind”. Thanks John for pointing me towards this superb, but largely forgotten, gem of Southern funky rumpus. Music is similar to a giant wilderness, it’s there for us to explore. Intentionally limiting yourself to one, two, or three genres is akin to self-enforced segregation at its very worst. This expansive musical wilderness is a gigantic history lesson. If you are a true music fan or a musician, you should explore as much of it as humanly possible. In these times, it’s never been so easy to source and purchase seriously cool music cheaply. This is a phenomenon that should be extensively exploited and I do.

Almost twenty years ago I worked for a small Nashville record company and on our payroll we had a couple of part time workers listed as “rack monkeys”. It turned out this role was filled by two young women who went out to the local record stores to make sure our CDs and vinyl records where in the right genre racks e.g. ‘Rock’, ‘Country’ or ‘Soul’. But more importantly they made sure that our releases sat right at the front of these racks. People will only buy what they can see and we made sure, via our rack monkeys, that our artists where the first ones a potential buyer would spot in the store. Occasionally we had a new release that didn’t neatly fit into a single genre, this would result in one of the rack monkeys calling the office and asking which genre rack to place it in. Normally this would be resolved fairly quickly but occasionally it would require extensive dialogue to define and classify the exact genre of the release. To quote Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard from the book Sygdommen til Døden (The Sickness Unto Death) (1849), “what labels me, negates me”. Kierkegaard’s position was that once you label someone or something, it cancels out its individuality and places it within the confines of the applied label. This is definitely one of the biggest problems with Jim Ford’s 1969 release Harlan County; it does not fit neatly into one, two or even three specific genres; in fact it never adopts a label, and that’s a big problem for some people. The other major issue facing this album was the year it was released.

1969 was an exceptional year, if not the best ever, for album releases; The Beatles Revolver, Led Zeppelin II, King Crimson In The Court of King Crimson, The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Who Who’s Next, Captain Beefheart Trout Mask Replica, The Band, Nick Drake Pink Moon, Sly and the Family Stone Stand and The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, the list goes on. Harlan County was arguably the strangest but most compelling album of 1969 and was Jim Ford’s first and only album. How on earth could Jim Ford, an un-heard of artist from the back hills of Kentucky, with this unique blend of country, funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll ever get noticed in the company of these esteemed artists? At his best, Jim Ford was a clever songwriter, capable of reworking rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, soul and country clichés into fresh, funny, funky southern swamp rock. At his worst Ford was cutesy and unfocused, pulling great songs into awkward, contorted inaccessible genre defying shapes. In part this was due to his overuse of mind-altering drugs and excessive alcohol abuse; well it was 1969. Harlan County captures Ford at both of these extremes.

The laid-back, rootsy, gleeful sound of Harlan County comprising equal parts country-rock, soul, funk and rock ‘n’ roll, is an unlikely catalyst for igniting the 1970’s British pub rock scene. Early pioneers Brinsley Schwarz recorded excellent cover versions of Ford’s JuJu Man and Niki Hoeke Speedway. Brinsley Schwarz’s chief songwriter, vocalist and bass player, Nick Lowe, later recorded Ford’s 36 Inches High. These three songs don’t appear on the Harlan County album; they’re from an aborted 1971 UK recording session that featured Brinsley Schwarz as Ford’s backing band. These three songs would deservedly become classic pub rock staples, which can be still heard belting out of UK pubs to this day.

Harlan County sounds fantastically dynamic with its crazy energetic full-on performances by Ford and his associated ‘A list’ session musicians (including James Burton on guitar, Dr John on keys, Gerry McGee on bass and drum ace Jim Kiltner). Ford produced the record himself; his production techniques are crude but effective and wholly appropriate. The ten songs captured on this album are superbly written paeans to the Deep South of America. These are songs of dirt roads, love, corn bread, truck driving, extended family, honest hard manual work and leaving the Deep South for a better life out west. If this album were a classic American novel, it would be John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath (1939). This album’s music occupies a landscape where R&B meets country, Kentucky meets Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta meets Appalachia. It’s a geographical album of songs as much rooted in its landscape, as it is in the author’s journey through life.

Zeitgeist, a frequently employed word in Album Rescue Series, can also be applied here as this album unequivocally catches the spirit of the times. Forty years later all of the above themes would be adopted by the genre that we now call Americana. The lyrical keynote of this album, hitting the road and leaving home behind for a brighter better place, is well traversed territory by artists such Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark. Ford’s versions of these narratives are grim but they do give a unique, if somewhat raw, account of his experience. Maybe Ford was a southern soothsayer whose cathartic music was simply forty years ahead of its time?

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The masterpiece of this album is the opening title track and album theme setter, Harlan Country. This track in particular is a semi-autobiographical story of leaving Kentucky and seeking out a better life out west in California. This song could easily be considered the signature tune of Ford’s entire career, if you could classify it as a ‘career’? The moment this track kicks in with its stunning but unconventional arrangement of rib breaking fat beats, snaky guitar riffs, swampy piano lines, honking funky horns and all topped off with Ford’s Hillbilly soul vocals you know what’s in store from the rest of the album. The wonderful off-kilter second track I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me (Till The Cows Come Home) is a song of sharp humor and hooks pointy enough to catch a Southern catfish. Ford bears his soul for all to see against a greasy rock ‘n’ roll beat that’s high as a kite and as tasty as fried chicken.

Up next is Changing Colors, which is a soulful ballad where we can clearly hear Ford’s voice nearly quivering with naked sincerity and self-awareness against a gentle rhythm and slow building beautiful orchestral arrangement. In hindsight the lyrics are hauntingly prophetic “What makes you think that I won’t ever make it, when the chips are down?” It’s well over 3,000 arduous miles from Kentucky to California but track six; Long Road Ahead makes it sound like the archetypal great American road trip and something to embrace. As Jack Kerouac quite rightly noted in On The Road (1957:p.183) “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road”. If you didn’t know better then this track could easily be mistaken for a Rolling Stones track from their 1971 Sticky Fingers album, with its parping Bobby Keys Texan styled horns, southern funky guitar riff, gospel driven piano and loud three part soul backing vocals.

The central theme of travelling and finding oneself is heavily reinforced on track eight’s Working My Way To LA. This is a song full of optimism, heading for California, and in equal part regret in leaving the beloved family home in Harlan County, Kentucky. One can only guess at the mixed emotions Ford was feeling during the writing and recording of this song. One of only two songs not authored by Ford on this album is track nine’s blues standard Spoonful. This is stark and haunting tune penned by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin Wolf in 1960. Unlike the 1966 insipid and uninspired dirge recorded by overrated UK ‘blues’ merchants Cream, Ford’s version is a proud and blatant reaffirmation of his Southern roots. Ford takes complete ownership of this song and confidently de-constructs it before he re-constructs it in a new(ish) form. It breathes, it sweats, its bumps drunkenly into honkytonk walls and yet like every other song on this album it’s wonderfully chaotic and loose, yet it never unravels. This version of the song knows where it’s going, it’s aspirational, and the place it’s heading is out west to the drug friendly, free loving haze and sunshine of 1969 southern Californian Nirvana. The closing tearjerker ballad is a cover of Thomas ‘Alex’ Harvey’s 1959 song, To Make My Life Beautiful. Ford, and studio band, treat this song with the respect it deserves and deliver a subtle, a word not normally associated with this album, and respectful rendition. It’s an appropriate choice and serves as a calming influence, like a cold beer, to herald the end of the journey. The words of John Steinbeck’s travelogue Travels With Charley (1962:p.4) ring very true here, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us”.

There are a couple of possible factors that contributed to this album almost disappearing into complete obscurity. One of those was Ford’s difficult artistic personality and lifestyle choices; the other was because he signed to the wrong record company. Sundown Records was a small-underfunded southern Californian outfit, which was formed in partnership with White Whale Records specifically to release this album. White Whale Records was home to The Turtles, a few coveted psych rock records, but not much else, and it wasn’t really fit for purpose to market Harlan County. Legend has it that if Jim Ford had waited a day or two before signing this record deal, he would have been on Ahmet Ertegün’s Atlantic Records and produced by Jerry Wexler. That might not have guaranteed him success, but it would have put him somewhere a little more secure and loaded the cards heavily in his favor. Atlantic Records would have definitely provided the financial and marketing clout to ensure this album had the best possible chance of mass sales instead of the Viking funeral that it actually awaited. With Atlantic, there was also the possible opportunity of Ford becoming a pop, soul, or country singer or carving out a career as an often-recorded songwriter. Ford had a good track record as a writer having contributed songs to Motown Records for The Temptations and solo artists such as PJ Proby, Bobbie Gentry and most famously the 1973 hit Harry The Hippie for Bobby Womack. In the 2011 re-issue liner notes there’s an enlightening quote from Bobby Womack “Jimmy was a beautiful cat, one of the most creative people that I’ve ever met”. Those royalties would have certainly made Ford’s life a lot more comfortable in later life. By the early 1980s, Ford had completely disappeared into a haze of drug abuse and erratic behavior.

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Jim Ford definitely walked it like he talked it, a singer-songwriter who found his inner talents through the hardships of abject poverty and economically conscripted labor. If he hadn’t escaped this kind of life his future would have being one of hard toil and possible pneumoconiosis like his former coal miner colleagues. His early life bears a striking resemblance to Loretta Lynn’s, as portrayed in the 2003 film Coal Miner’s Daughter. Ford’s roots are in the coal mining villages in the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky, and those early years of poverty and hardship definitely shaped his worldview as expressed through his music. When you expect that life will hand you absolutely nothing and your favor turns around, even if it is only temporary, then intuitively you grab the opportunity like it’s never coming back.

Jim Ford didn’t lead a very glamorous life, he saw out his days until his lonely death on 18th November 2007 in a Californian trailer park in Mendocino County. At least he did fulfil his ultimate dream and make it out of Harlan County. As an album, Harlan Country is evidence that Jim Ford had no equal in his day, he sat on his own cloud in the great American wilderness, cross-legged, wild-eyed and wiry, a figure too dangerous to approach but much too alluring to be ignored. Jack Kerouac captured his type of spirit in On The Road (1957:p.5) when he wrote “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”.

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