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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The Herald Sun Tour

This article was written by Tim Dalton for the cycling magazine Conquista (http://conquista.cc)

Think of early season professional cycling and most people think of Tour Down Under, which is held each year in mid January in and around the city of Adelaide. But there is another race which passes through some equally stunning countryside and has a much more rightful claim to be Australia’s longest running professional bike race, the Herald Sun Tour. Melbourne was recently voted the world’s most polite city and is regularly voted the world’s number one city in which to live. That’s not to say that Melbourne doesn’t have rivals, namely Sydney and Adelaide. Back in 1996 Melbourne secured, some would say stole, the Australian Formula One Grand Prix from Adelaide. One gets the feeling that Adelaide didn’t take this too well and was out for retribution. In some people’s eyes at least, mainly lazy journalists, is the view that Adelaide is simply Melbourne’s smaller cousin. The state of South Australia is a major investor in the Tour Down Under, the only UCI World Tour race in Australia. Granted the Tour Down Under is the better-known event, but the Herald Sun Tour is a gem of a race, the shrinking violet, the bridesmaid and not the bride. Rated by the UCI as a 2.1 stage race, the Herald Sun Tour is a third tier competitive event, open to UCI Continental and national teams.

The race started back in 1952 and was won in true Aussie style by Keith Rowley, a sheep farmer from the rural town of Maffra. Keith beat his brother Max by 49 seconds to win with a time of 42hr 57min 55sec. At the back of the peloton, 19-year-old Roy Underwood, the youngest rider in the field, spent five of the six days arriving at the finishing towns in the dark. His father made a £50 bet with him that he would not finish. The Saturday stage saw a search party sent out to find him. After finishing the last day’s stage, his father handed him ten crisp £5 notes. The race’s total prize money was only £1,500 sponsored by the local newspaper.

It is not unusual for newspapers to support cycling events with many European bike races connected to news media. A bike race is a great way to stimulate newspaper sales, think Tour de France, Giro de Italia, Het Volk, etc. The original Sun Tour was no different. Originally named the Sun Tour after the Sun News Pictorial, it changed its name to The Herald Sun Tour in 1990 when Melbourne’s local daily news paper, The Morning Herald, merged with the Sun News Pictorial. The race is owned and backed by the Herald Sun newspaper, Australia’s largest daily newspaper and part of the global News Limited Group. Rupert Murdoch’s interest in cycling keeps cropping up.

The first Sun Tour in 1952 was the first professional stage race held in Victoria since the 1934 Centenary Thousand Classic. An estimated 500,000 people throughout Victoria saw the ‘Sun Tour’, as it was known then, pass along local roads. Of the 56 starters, only 18 finished the six-day event throughout Victoria. Sixty editions on and the Herald Sun Tour is now cemented as a significant event within the state of Victoria and its cycling heritage. With significant support from key sponsors, including caravan manufacture Jayco and the Victorian State Government, this iconic event now demands daily electronic and print news coverage as the stars of today and tomorrow go head to head in the battle for supremacy in Australia’s oldest stage race.

The Herald Sun Tour became a part of the State Government hallmark events calendar in 2005, with an injection of State funding to support its growth and development.  A major revamp including a new business plan, management team and enhanced world ranking has laid the foundation for strong growth with a dramatic increase in the number of riders and entourage, global media coverage (200 countries in 2007) and local coverage via TV and radio. The 2012 Tour de France champion, six-time world and Olympic champion Sir Bradley Wiggins won the tour in 2009, further highlighting the quality of riders required to win this prestigious event.  After this win he stated “If I was going to pick a tour to win other than the Tour de France, the Jayco Herald Sun Tour is the one“. The race took a year off in 2010, during which Melbourne and Geelong hosted the UCI World Road Cycling Championships.

Australia in January and February is becoming a mecca for professional continental cyclists. The attractions include a huge country with fabulous vistas, empty well surfaced roads and superb weather conditions making it a warm place to skip the northern hemisphere winter. Spectacular sunny beaches also help with the tan when not out on bike. The three major Australian summer cycling events are a good measure of warm weather training. Starting with the Tour Down Under (late January), it is followed closely by the newly established Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Classic and the Herald Sun Tour as the finale in early February. These three events make for a great racing itinerary before returning to Europe for the Classics.

Continental Pro and former Irish National Champion, Matthew Brammier after the prologue TT.
Continental Pro and former Irish National Road Champion, Matthew Brammier from team MTN Qhubeka after the prologue TT.

To avoid the northern hemisphere winter, a large peloton of professional cyclists descend upon the old gold rush city of Bendigo, 150km north of Melbourne at the geographical center of the state of Victoria. Every morning large bunches of professional cyclists head into the hills around Bendigo with almost everyone ending up at The Old Green Bean Café for post ride coffee and analysis. John Herety’s JTL Condor team has made this town their center of operations for the last few years. Julien ‘Ju-Ju’ Bérard of Ag2r La Mondiale arrived in early December 2014, quietly stacking in the miles while taking in a kangaroo or two along the way (according to Twitter and Instagram). Think of Bendigo as an Aussie Girona if you will.

Tim Dalton and John Herety of JTL Condor at the Tour's prologue in Melbourne City Centre.
Tim Dalton and John Herety of JLT Condor at the Tour’s prologue in Melbourne City Centre.

In the 2015 edition of the Herald Sun Tour, Bendigo confirms its status as cycling central Australia by hosting a finish (Stage 2) and start (Stage 3). Victoria might not have the mega climbs of the Alps or Pyrenees but the rolling terrain; grippy roads and warm 30 plus Celsius degree summer heat can take its toll. The 2015 edition started on Melbourne’s Southbank Promenade with a lung-bursting 2.1km prologue, an event that attracted over 25,000 spectators in 2014 and an even larger crowd in 2015.

The evening prologue along the south bank of the Yarra River in central Melbourne from Federation Square to Queens Bridge Square is a photographer’s delight. The world’s most livable city is bathed in fading summer light with the CBD and river making a stunning backdrop. The 2.1km parcour is tough, with some early technical turns to negotiate followed by just over 1km of ‘full gas’ along the south bank. This is a prologue that’s built for spectators with the course meters from the front door step of Melbourne’s most trendy bars. The Tour then moves to regional Victoria for the longest stage, a 152km hike from Mount Macedon, past Hanging Rock, before finishing in Bendigo.

Stage two was a shorter 120km route from Bendigo Velodrome, through the beautiful Heathcote-Graytown National Park and across the Goulburn River into Nagambie. The 148km stage three route showcases the Nagambie Lakes as riders loop around the Mitchelton Winery, where the stage began, before heading back to Nagambie. The final 122km stage of Arthur’s Seat is where the race is traditionally won and lost. The climb of Arthur’s Seat may only be 304 meters in height but it’s climbed from sea level, three times. The crowds rival anything seen in Europe with every meter packed with screaming Aussie tifosi. This climb is the highest point on the Mornington Peninsula and provides spectacular views from the top. On a clear day the view from the summit of this extinct prehistoric volcano extends as far as the Melbourne city skyline, the You Yangs and Mount Macedon. Melbourne’s hard-core club cyclists ride from the city, watch the race and then ride home in a gigantic, seething chain gang, a round trip of some 180kms, down the Nepean Highway.

This race is a good barometer of early season form judging it by past winners. From the Herald Sun Tour’s start in 1952 up until Malcolm Elliot’s 1985 win, all winners were home grown Aussies. It took a Yorkshire man to break the Aussies’ 33-year stranglehold on the race. Past winners include hard case British Cycling Technical Director Shane Sutton OBE (1983), ably assisted by Tour de France stage winner Neil Stevens. Flying Dutch man Adri van der Poel won in 1988 with a massive attack on Mount Hotham and German breakaway specialist Udo Bolts took out the winnings in 1990. As mentioned earlier, Sir Bradley Wiggins won this event in 2009. The son of Australian track cyclist Gary Wiggins, the locals claimed this as a home win. Even my next-door neighbor, Saturday morning riding partner and local bike shop owner, Terry Hammond, has won this race twice (1978 & 1982) and finished second and third a few times.

Former Herald Sun Tour winner Terry Hammond at his shop Terry Hammond Cycles with a very cool Colnago C59 frame.
Former Herald Sun Tour winner Terry Hammond at his shop Terry Hammond Cycles with a very cool Colnago C59 frame.

Terry takes great delight in reminding me that he was the 1983 National Australian Road Race Champion and that as a European professional cyclist, won many races. According to Terry the winner of the Herald Sun Tour is “a sprinter that can also climb”. Evidence of this manifests itself in the form of Barry Waddell who won a record 5 straight Herald Sun Tours from 1964 to 1968. Though best known as a road cyclist, Waddell also won 17 National track titles and the Australian National Road Race Championships in 1964 and 1968.

The 2015 version of the race has attracted a fantastic field. Newly registered continental Team MTN Qhubeka are here with Aussie star Matt ‘The Boss’ Goss. Desperate to validate their wildcard entry to the 2015 Tour de France they are hungry for early season results. Team sprinter of MTN Qhubeka, Tyler Farrar, confirms that the Herald Sun Tour is far from being an exotic training race. With vital UCI points on offer for this 2.1 event everyone is racing hard for the win. With only small teams of five riders controlling the race over this deceptively lumpy course, it is extremely difficult. Farrar was keen to point out that himself and many others are here direct from a cold Northern hemisphere winter with little more than ‘base’ miles in their legs.

The local Australian contingent is coming to the end of their racing season and are race fit. They also have the added incentive of prime time TV coverage, are eager to impresses potential continental teams of their ability and revel in getting one over the hot-shot European pros. DraPac Professional cycling are here with newly appointed sports director, ex-UK professional cyclist Tom Southam in the team car. After this race many of the riders will depart for Europe for the shock of spring weather and the Classics. Orica Green Edge always takes this race very seriously having won last year with Simon Clarke. The stages may be short, but with lumpy roads and hot weather, it is a hard race to win.

Anyone wanting to escape the harsh northern winters could do a lot worse than de-camp to Australia for a month or so. Ride your bike; take in the Tour Down Under, Cadel Evans’ Great Ocean Road Classic and the Herald Sun Tour. The countryside is classic storybook pretty; it is dappled in light, dotted with quaint villages and bustling towns. The stunning views from the Victorian hills and big blue skies take your breath away. There is no shortage fine gastronomy here, with acre after acre of vineyards and orchards over gentle rolling hills and fields full of the prettiest cattle and sheep. Stood at the side of the road waiting for the race to pass, I have been serenaded by Galahs, Cockatoos, Rainbow Lorakeets and Rosellas. One day I even met a field full of fluffy headed alpacas.

JLT Condor rider Felix English ready to give it Bigpowa on the course.
JLT Condor rider Felix English ready to give it Bigpowa on the course.

A month long of Australian cycling events attracts all types of international visitors, making the 27 hour long-haul international flight bearable. This year my good friend and ex-international rider Terri Riley and her husband Brian did just that to take in all these races and more. Arriving in Australia in early November 2014 they spent the first few weeks riding the 3,064km from Adelaide to Sydney via Melbourne camping every night. I bumped into them on the climb of Mount Buninyong at the Australian National Road Race championship, then at the Tour Down Under, the Great Ocean Road Classic and finally at the Sun Herald Tour before they headed back to the UK.

This reminds me of my adventure a number of years ago with my son where we loaded a beaten up old car with bikes and drove from Liverpool to Province in the south of France for the Dauphine Libré race. Our expectations where pretty low having attended the Tour de France a number of times. In actual fact the Dauphine proved to be a superb race with stunning countryside and easy access to the star riders. The lack of security staff, fencing, barriers and throngs of spectators actually provided a much better experience than the Tour de France. In a similar way the Herald Sun Tour provides a much better experience of Australian stage racing than the Tour Down Under. The Herald Sun Tour offers fantastic countryside, a low-key atmosphere but with easy access to the riders and some great racing. As they say biggest isn’t always best.

So how did the Aussie cyclists stake up to the Continental Pros for the 2015 Herald Sun Tour I hear you ask? Well the results run like this:

Prologue – Melbourne 2.1km

1st Cameron Meyer (DPC) 2:35.53

2nd Caleb Ewan (OGE) 2:36.42

3rd Breton Jones (DPC) 2:36.85

Stage 1 – Mt Macedon to Bendigo 146.2km

1st Cameron Myer (OGE) 3:29:47

2nd Joseph Cooper (ART) +0

3rd Patrick Bevin (ART) +10

Stage 2 – Bendigo to Nagambie 117.9km

1st Caleb Ewan (OGE) 2:38:51

2nd Steele Von Hoff (AUS) +0

3rd Samuel Witmitz (BFL) +0

Stage 3 – Mitchelton Wines to Nagambie 146.7km

1st Caleb Ewan (OGE) 3:25:17

2nd Tyler Farrar (MTN) +0

3rd Steele Von Hoff (AUS) +0

Stage 4 – Arthur’s Seat 122km

1st Patrick Bevin (ART) 2:54:38

2nd Cameron Myer (OGE) +0

3rd Simon Clarke (OGE) +0

Overall

1st Cameron Myer (OGE) 12:30:55

2nd Patrick Bevin (ART) +11

3rd Joseph Cooper (ART) +19

So why not pack your bike bag and make your way down here to crack open a bottle of local wine, throw a shrimp on the barbie and enjoy the racing?