The Baddest Hillbilly in Hollywood

By  |  November 15, 2017

In addition to more than twenty profiles, essays, interviews, and tributes, the 2017 Kentucky Music Issue comes packaged with a 27-track CD, with accompanying liner notes to the songs in the magazine. And since we couldn’t include every great artist and song from the Commonwealth, in anticipation of the issue’s November 21 newsstand launch we’re pleased to present a series of web-exclusive liner notes to recognize even more of Kentucky’s rich music legacy.


An Appreciation of Jim Ford

 

A little over a minute into Jim Ford’s 1969 album, Harlan County, the jangly guitars and bouncy horns of the title track give way to a trio of backup singers murmuring the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Ford adopts the timbre of a down-home preacher and addresses his congregation: “We are gathered here today to ask the Lord,” he begins, pausing for dramatic effect before screaming as the music returns, “to take us out of Harlan County!”

Jim Ford’s lone album is a twenty-eight minute, mystical celebration of the kid that got away—a hazy, bourbon-and-cocaine-fueled-funk-&-soul-honky-tonk cousin to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

The opening track’s ecstatic instrumentation contrasts with its lyrics, which depict the poverty and violence often associated with Kentucky’s most infamous county. Ford sings about “digging hard coal at twelve years old” and a poker-playing father who was shot “over fifteen cents to buy a loaf of bread with.” Though these stories aren’t strictly true—Ford’s father was a naval officer who lived in Michigan and Ford himself was born not in Harlan County but neighboring Johnson County (a stone’s throw from Loretta Lynn’s home in Butcher Hollow)—they aren’t complete falsehoods either.

In many ways Harlan County is an act of myth-building, an embellished autobiography of the sort you might hear unfold sitting on the porch of a general store. Ford was one of nine children, and like a lot of kids born in Eastern Kentucky, he saw but two options: dig coal and die or get the hell out. The choice was easy. Near the end of that opening track, he sings: “I hit the road, Jack, forgot to look back. I walked all the way down to somewhere.” And this much is certainly true. Jim Ford left Kentucky—guitar in hand—and set out on his own. He was only eleven years old.

Eventually, “somewhere” became New Orleans. After a brief stint with his father in Michigan (where it was too damned cold to live), Ford took a bus south. Living on the street and hitchhiking around the bayou’s blueways, Ford discovered the funk scene heralded by musicians like Professor Longhair, and melded the brassy horns and sexy rhythms of the swamps to the mountain music of his youth.

After building relationships with a number of New Orleans session musicians, Ford went looking for his next “somewhere” and set his sights west. On “Working my way to L.A.” he recounts his journey to the Pacific. Punctuated by a dirty electric guitar and Dr. John’s buoyant piano, Ford says goodbye to “ole mama creole” with only a cardboard box to his name. As Ford tells the tale, a pair of backup singers rains down a chorus of, “Oooh La. Moolah. Oooh La. La. La.” Like glittering sirens, they beckon him toward Los Angeles. La La Land. Shangri-La.

During the sixties, a lot of Kentuckians were out in the wider world getting experienced. The Stegner Fellowship brought writers Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, James Baker Hall, and Wendell Berry to the Bay area, where they befriended Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. McClanahan came to be known by his hippie moniker Captain Kentucky and Norman wrote Divine Right’s Trip. Berry even tried his hand at New York City after San Francisco, joining Bobbie Ann Mason in the city for a year.

Like Ford, these storytellers left Kentucky for the fairy-tale magic of somewhere else, but eventually they returned home. Most took writer-in-residence gigs, embraced the quieter life of the bluegrass, and fostered the next generation of Kentucky-born artists.

Jim Ford, on the other hand, never left California.

In Los Angeles, he lived a life of excess. He snorted cocaine in the Hollywood Hills with Sly Stone, dated Marlon Brando’s second wife, became stepfather to her kids, recorded Harlan County, appeared in advertisements for milk and cigarettes, posed with playmates for an issue of Playboy, wrote hit songs for Aretha Franklin and Bobby Womack, inspired Nick Lowe and the pub rock scene, wrote an entire album for The Temptations, generally partied himself into oblivion, and, eventually, became a footnote in the 60s and 70s music scene.

In 2006, thanks to some sleuthing by a Swedish music journalist, Jim Ford was rediscovered. He was living in a trailer park in Northern California at the time, and his career experienced a brief resurgence before he passed away. Harlan County was reissued, along with previously unreleased material that more than quadrupled Ford’s catalog. Interview outtakes on these releases reveal a Jim Ford who is by turns a charming storyteller, a bitter artist, and a musical savant. Though he’d long ago left the hills of Kentucky, it’s clear the hills of Kentucky never left him. At one point, while talking about being forgotten by the music industry, he says, “I’m just gonna pick up and go on and they can kiss the biggest part of my ass.”


Order the Kentucky Music Issue & CD.

Jesse Donaldson was born in Kentucky, educated in Texas, and lives in Oregon. He is the author of The More They Disappear and On Homesickness. He is currently on an ill-advised 120-county tour of Kentucky promoting the latter.