Jim Ford: Happy Songs Sell Records, Sad Songs Sell Beer

Sly Stone called him the funkiest white man he knew. He had enough soul to pen hits for Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, and The Temptations. He romanced Bobby Gentry and eventually took up with Marlon Brando’s ex, raising 2 of Brando’s children for a decade. Legend even has it he once boarded an airplane with over a million dollars worth of cocaine strapped to his body. But for all the wild tales surrounding the man, there remains a mystery around Jim Ford.

We know that he was a Kentucky boy who ran away to the streets of New Orleans and eventually ventured west for a taste of something bigger. The layers of his tone point to each place on the map which shaped his unique sound. I can hear the blue twang of a heavy heart-string, the rough and deep soul of a bluesman, and the wild twinkle in the eye of a man hungry for a taste of rock and roll fame.

From his melodies to the stories in his songs, it’s clear that he was the ideal troubadour to lead the great sonic union between country and blue-eyed funk. He fell between Gram Parsons and Van Morrison and the world was his for the taking. He was in the right place at the right time, namely Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s, befriending all the right people. And yet, though he was larger than life, he never found the elusive level of stardom he was after.

In 1969, Ford recorded his only solo record, Harlan County, an album perfectly capturing the country funk scene and his youth in the Bluegrass State. That sound, a marriage between grassroots Americana and southern soul, rolled out perfectly from a man who truly knew both worlds. Harlan County wasn’t considered a “success” but it was still a masterpiece of earnest songwriting, a bold batch of swagger dotted with moments of reflection. Ford’s lyrical ease and talent for storytelling couldn’t be denied. But, as tracks like “Dr. Handy’s Dandy Candy” and “Spoonful” suggest, his penchant for drugs couldn’t be denied either.

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After Harlan County, he continued recording, entering deals with multiple labels only to sabotage them with his difficult demeanor and outrageous demands. He spent several years battling addictions, trying to get back on track, and losing. In the end, he was paid off, his contracts broken, and his success untapped. In 1980, he disappeared with his addiction and his unreleased songs. He holed up for a couple decades in Mendocino County, California, bags of masters littering the floor of the trailer he called home.

It’s a recycled story. A young man with talent and promise leaves home, tastes the dream, and loses a boxing match with his demons. His rise was bright and glimmering and his spiral was long and dark. But just before obscurity swallowed his story whole, someone came knocking on Jim Ford’s trailer door in 2006, someone to whom we owe a great deal. LP Anderson, a Swedish music publisher from Sonic Magazine, located the man and talked him out of hiding. Ford eventually revealed the goldmine of tracks he had just lying around and, after being approached by Bear Family Records to issue a compilation, agreed to release them. A buzz of excitement quickly grew around the rediscovery of the man, now 2 years sober and prepared to discuss additional releases. With a reunion gig in the works, one might even say there was a comeback on the table.

Unfortunately, (and once again) the rug was pulled out from under his efforts. Ford missed out on the second wave of success his music would find in a new audience. He was tragically found dead in his trailer in 2007, at the age of 66. But thanks to the unrelenting search of a few musical archivists, we have a collection of treasures from the Harlan County kid, who worked his way to LA. Like resilient creatures with a life of their own, the soulful and brilliant songs of Jim Ford finally emerged to see a day in the sun, even if the man himself never did.

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