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Jim Ford - Harlan County / The Unissued Capitol Album / Big Mouth USA: The Unissued Paramount Album

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Artist: Jim Ford

Album: Harlan County / The Unissued Capitol Album / Big Mouth USA: The Unissued Paramount Album

Label: Light in the Attic / Bear Family

Review date: Aug. 1, 2011

Word has it that if Jim Ford had waited a day or two before signing a record deal, he would have been on Atlantic instead of … White Whale, home to The Turtles, a few coveted psych records, and not much else. That wouldn’t have guaranteed his success, but it would have put him somewhere a little more secure, instead of the Viking funeral that awaited his 1969 debut album Harlan County. He’d have other opportunities to be a pop, soul, and country singer, and carved out a career as an oft-recorded songwriter, but no other efforts of his would result in a finished album released to the public.

What snippets of history I’ve read about the man would suggest that there was probably no other option. By all accounts Jim Ford walked it like he talked it, a singer-songwriter who found his inner talents through the hardships of abject poverty and conscripted labor, through the kind of life that quickly wears the afflicted down to the dust. He came out of the coal mining villages in the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky, and that shaped his worldview, insofar as his music could tell us. When you expect that life will hand you nothing, and your favor turns around, you grab at it like it’s never coming back, because it very well might not.

The title track to Ford’s album serves as his epitaph, a boisterous, three-minute blinder that blends country and R&B, occasionally swinging low into the bellows of a gospel choir, and coming out with the lurid taint of rock ‘n’ roll all over it. Ford has a way with this song, able to leave in the bitter truths about his upbringing and eventual escape (“I walked all the way down to Somewhere,” or more accurately, New Orleans, where the singer-songwriter learned his trade) with gusto, with pride in getting out, but not in its actualities. When your home foretells your demise as early as childhood, anything is better than there. Small wonder, then, that the song hits so hard, Ford and his horn section busting their lungs by the end for an undeniably Southern end product, one which raised more hell than nearly anything on the charts that year or in the decade to follow.

Harlan County was recorded at Wally Heider’s studio in Los Angeles, with arrangements by Ford with Gene Page and Redbone’s Lolly Vegas, the full backing of the Wrecking Crew and many of Ford’s fast friends in one of the greasiest bags you could fathom. It’s a brief album, but there is little denying its impact across an impressively wide swath of musical touchpoints. Ford and company hit them all dead on, with respect for the subtleties of the ballads (“Changin’ Colors,” working out of a rural psych backbone, and the tearjerker “To Make My Life Beautiful” being prime examples) and a complete disdain for tact in the harder numbers. The kick drum in “I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me” is so forceful it could crack a rib, and the juicy guitar skank of the central melody stokes a fire beneath this slinky, sweaty groover that is already well past containment, and he and the band double down on those sentiments in the electrified swamp boogie and wired countenance for their version of “Spoonful,” certainly one of the finest versions of that blues chestnut ever made, and one which would foretell Parliament’s nascent fascination with country blues guitar on their soon-to-be-released debut, Osmium. Ford’s voice is the real star here, a rambunctious, tuneful holler that’s the most appealing element of a record that already hits all of its marks. There’s a lot of soulful emotion within him, rising up about two octaves with little strain, and he never sounds maudlin or hokey in the slightest.

The more you dig for info on Ford’s sordid past, the more you learn, and there’s likely a point at which you’ll wish you could forget what the man was said to have done. He battled a lifelong cocaine addiction which stayed with him up until near the end, but at the time of Harlan County, metaphorical romps like the arch “Dr. Handy’s Dandy Candy,” played with the mindless gusto of an Up With People performance, shows a man who may well have liked himself better when he was high, the world around him be damned. From listening to both of the intended follow-ups to his first album, though, you wouldn’t know any better, as both records capitalize on the musical maturity of Harlan County in different but equally satisfying directions.

Ford escaped his contract and moved over to Capitol, where he recorded a second, presumably self-titled effort, for release in 1970. This album is a much darker affair than Harlan County, the melodies still present but tamped down in the blues even further. Here is where the tenderness of Ford’s musical capacities came into being, from a sensitive and stirring read of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” his voice taking on the raspy, dusty mountain country foil to Van Morrison, to the rumble-seat bump and Beale Street saunter through “Harry Hippy.” The comfort from earlier ballads shines more clearly here, Ford’s hangdog vocals clinging to the full string section of “Go Through Sunday” and “Big Mouth USA” with an atmosphere of loss, as if he sensed that his days were already numbered as a performer. Yet the album’s final two cuts take the subdued feel of the proceedings and drag them straight into the mouth of evil. A six-minute take on “You Just-A (Sweet Baby Mine)” slinks in on nothing but guitar and organ, Ford singing his heart out on top as the song becomes enshrouded in a dark, sinister feel unlike anything else in his discography, and a coda of stinging blues guitar and studio effects underscores a chilling, percussion-free version of “Rising Sign,” reminiscent of then-labelmate Fred Neil at his most barren. Bear Family’s scant liner notes state that Ford’s record was shelved by Capitol “for reasons best not mentioned in polite company,” and while it might be best not to elaborate any further, whatever he had done earned him the enmity of the recording industry.

Ford’s last opportunity for a follow-up to Harlan Country came a few years later, in 1973. Radically different versions of “Big Mouth USA” and “Rising Sign” were issued as a promo single by Paramount Records, the ailing label arm of Gulf + Western’s media empire. Searches through Ford’s possessions yielded the master reels to this session, as well as a 10-song acetate LP that was the only physical remnant of this project ever becoming a reality. The instability at Paramount probably would have sunk Big Mouth USA regardless, but not for the sake of the product itself, which is of remarkably high quality. Ford takes stabs at his trademark countrified rumble, saving the most blatant funk in the session for a track called “If I Go Country,” before doing just that on the purist folksy swing of “Big Bouquet of Roses.” Outside of these moments, this is a strictly funky R&B affair, peppered with surefire hits and AM radio moxie. If the arrangements of these songs sounds more polished, it’s not at the expense of Ford, who comes off as wild as these stunners could warrant. He heads into Dr. John territory for the one-two punch of “Mixed Green” (the sexiest song ever written using salad as a metaphor) and “Rising Sign,” redone as a scalding funk strut, studded with tense wah-wah palm mute guitar, eerie lap steel, discordant melodica, and a rhythm section tough enough to eat bricks and shit concrete. On the flip, he keeps it up, culminating in a plangent Philly-inspired take on “Whicha Way.” Like the two albums before it, there are no weak spots, and while the change in styles on Big Mouth USA is a bit abrupt, it bears little effect on the end result. This, along with Capitol and an OG Harlan County are three of the finest records I own, with enough truthful moments along genre lines to supplant hundreds of other albums in my collection.

In the most rotten stroke of luck in an already plagued lifetime, Jim Ford passed away in late 2007, mere months after the Bear Family label released The Sounds of Our Time, collecting all of Harlan County and assorted singles and heretofore unreleased tracks. The liner notes to this collection are some of the juiciest you’ll ever read, profiling a life lived out of control, but lived all the same. Much of Harlan County was covered by a British tribute band of the same name, released in the early ‘70s. Lowe courted Ford not long thereafter, with some disastrous results in the studio and an unfinished record as a result; nonetheless, he still admired and respected Ford, covered his songs both as a solo artist and member of Brinsley Schwarz, and even attempted to get Ford back in the spotlight with a tribute performance that never came to pass. Aretha Franklin and Ron Wood also retooled some of Ford’s songs in the paths of their own careers.

Ford had close personal connections with Bobby Womack, authoring “Harry Hippie” for the soul singer amidst a slew of others, and with Sly Stone (who called Ford “the baddest white man on the planet”) during his darkest hours, lodged in his mansion on a massive bender, armed guards stationed outside. He posed in Playgirl pictorials and was the godfather to one of Marlon Brando’s children. Look closely at the back cover of There’s a Riot Goin’ On and you’ll see a picture of Ford in the collage, beaming, beardless in a shirt and tie. This may all start sounding like Bill Brasky-styled tall tales, but there’s no real reason to discount Ford’s legacy. Due in part to his rotten luck, the man really had no equal in his day, and sits on his own cloud in the great beyond, cross-legged, wild-eyed and wiry, a figure too dangerous to approach but too alluring to ignore.

By Doug Mosurock

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