If you are unaware who the late Jim Ford was and what he accomplished in the world of music, you are not alone. In fact, Ford’s career and legacy are so far under the music industry radar, the late singer/songwriter should have carried a deep sea diving tank with him wherever he went.
Ford first started to make his mark in the mid to late ’60’s with a series of country-soul singles on various small labels, including some of his own imprints. He eventually became known in singer/songwriter circles as having an original style and a modicum of talent and began to meet and cultivate the right kinds of friends. Never really interested in touring or the trappings of fame that were part-and-parcel of becoming a “star”, Ford preferred others record his songs, figuring he could sit home and collect the royalties for writing the hits and others could do the work of actually going on the road and performing them. His first main musical alliance was with country singer Bobbie Gentry, who became his lover. Though she is credited as the writer of her biggest hit Ode To Billie Joe, long-standing rumors persist Ford wrote the song and allowed Gentry to have it after their breakup due to guilt. It may be no coincidence that Gentry never could write anything quite like it again, maybe due to the fact she never wrote it to begin with.
Ford later met and began writing songs with Pat and Lolly Vegas who would later form the band Redbone, and also became fast friends and songwriting collaborators with soul stars Bobby Womack (who recorded lots of Ford’s songs, often (according to Ford) attaching his name as co-writer to Ford’s songs as a “kickback” for helping Ford) and Sly Stone (Ford guested on Sly’s album There’s A Riot Goin’ On and is featured in the photo montage on the cover) to name but two. He was also a fixture on the Hollywood party scene, and became involved as an actor in several small films, magazines pictorials etc. During all of this activity, Ford put out one solitary solo album, a hard-to-find gem entitled Harlan County. Though little-known today, it became a musical bible to the country mavericks such as Gram Parsons and even trickled over to Europe where pub rock bands like Brinsley Schwartz (featuring a young singer/songwriter by the name of Nick Lowe) became enthralled by the album’s mix of spaced-out country rock tinged with Memphis soul. Bear Family re-released the influential album last year, tacking on a slew of additional tracks which made fans wonder why such a soulful artist never recorded another whole album. Truth is, he did. But every project was aborted because of Ford’s addictions, strrange behavior or both.
This new set from Bear Family is a collection of singles Ford released on various small labels over his career with a few unreleased tracks tacked on to show what Bear Family has in its’ vault. Seems the normally skeptical Ford received enough money from Bear Family’s reissue of Harlan County to actually trust the label with all of his masters. And when I say all, I mean several hundred! Seems Ford never stopped writing and recording his songs and his legacy is about to get a big boost over the next several years. To that I can only say it’s about time, as this is some of the most enthralling country soul you are ever going to hear. Though I love and respect the legendary songwriter/producer Dan Penn of Dark Side of The Street fame (and many others – he’s a legend, did I not say that?) Penn would give his liver to have these songs. These songs will rip your heart out or save your soul, and Ford tossed ’em out into the world like snowflakes – each one a perfect piece of crystalline beauty of it’s own. The fact he could write tons of them boggles the mind but I think it’s fantastic Bear Family got hold of the masters before they were lost forever.
Ford was an eclectic talent and I am sure there are plenty of musical surprises and gems from him yet to discover, For now, check out this album and see for yourself why it’s the best country album released in many, many years.