March 19, 2007
Bear Family Records
Pop/Rock, Country-Rock

Album Review

Jim Ford is a legend, at least among certain roots rockers. Even among this batch, his name is not especially well known, but he never was a guy who was pushed himself to the forefront, he was somebody that lurked in the background, popping up in places unexpectedly. He wrote songs that were turned into hits by Bobby Womack and Aretha Franklin -- "Harry Hippie" and "Niky Hoeky," respectively -- he was tight with Sly Stone, a regular in the debauched house where There's a Riot Goin' On was recorded (allegedly showing up on some of the sessions), dated Bobbie Gentry (later claiming that he penned her biggest hit, "Ode to Bobby Joe"), and posed in a Playboy photo comic with Tony Randall, among other adventures. Musically, he provided a pivotal influence on British pub rock in the '70s, most notably on Nick Lowe, who claimed Jim Ford as his greatest influence, cutting "36 Inches High" on Jesus of Cool and "JuJu Man" while he was in Brinsley Schwarz. Respected he may have been but popular he was not, and his 1969 debut, Harlan County, is the very definition of a cult album, something not heard by many but savored by those who did. And not just in retrospect, either: upon its release, it so inspired the British rock band the Koobas that they renamed themselves "Harlan County" and proceeded to re-record the entirety of Ford's album, which is an even greater gesture of devotion than Eric Clapton quitting Cream after hearing Music from Big Pink.
Harlan County saw some reissues over the years, including a release from Edsel in the mid-'90s, but it also slipped quickly out of print, following Ford into the realm of semi-obscurity. Like many cult artists, nobody really knows much about Ford. He hadn't been heard from since the '70s and managed to fall off the grid (not unlike his old friend Sly), but LP Anderson took the effort to seek him out in Northern California, coaxing him into an interview where Ford divulged his secrets, including the revelation of a stockpile of unheard tapes. Anderson's tale -- which was originally published in Sonic Magazine in 2006 -- provides the foundation for Bear Family's exceptional 2007 release The Sounds of Our Time, as his story is not only the bulk of the liner notes, but the discovery of rare tapes resulted in a whopping 15 bonus tracks to this definitive reissue of Harlan County. These bonus tracks aren't restricted to these newly found tapes, either -- several early singles are excavated, including the A-sides of the singles "Linda Comes Running," "Ramona," and "Hangin' from Your Lovin' Tree" (the first two from 1967, the latter from 1968, all lighter and poppier than what came a year later even if they mine a similar country-soul vein) and both sides of his 1973 single "Big Mouth USA" and "Rising Sun," which was his last release. That 1973 single came from the sessions for a full-length that was slated to be released on Paramount but was scrapped. Some of the sessions surface here -- including the delightful, R&B workout "Mixed Green" which works a food metaphor in a way not dissimilar to his disciple Nick Lowe -- along with a couple of straighter country songs cut a few years later: the terrific "Happy Songs Sell Records, Sad Songs Sell Beer," which is honky tonk via the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the lively "It Takes Two (To Make One)." But the bulk of the unreleased material dates from 1970, the year after the release of Harlan County, when Ford was cutting an album for Capitol that never was released. If two tracks cut roughly around the same time in Hollywood are counted, this amounts to a short, seven-track sequel to Harlan County which is a bit softer and a bit more laid-back than its predecessor, but it's plenty soulful and filled with great songs, chief among them his spare, original version of "36 Inches High," the clever, funny "She Turns My Radio On," "Go Through Sunday," and the slow, impassioned protest "The Sounds of Our Time," which echoes Sam Cooke and then a version of Cooke's "Chain Gang" which turns the song inside out.
These unheard songs are the big news to the roots rockers who have cherished a copy of Harlan County for years, and they live up to both the album and Ford's reputation. They're as good as anything on his lone released album, and they have a looser, funkier quality that makes them more endearing in some ways; it's easy to hear why he was an icon for many country rockers, whether they played in a pub in Britain or in studios in Hollywood. These 15 songs alone make The Sounds of Our Time necessary for those fans that already know Harlan County but anybody who loves soul, country, rock & roll, and great songwriting, this whole package is worthwhile as it showcases the rare cult figure whose cult does not overrate him -- if anything, he hasn't been rated enough, and hopefully this exceptional reissue will finally give him the credit he deserves.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Track Listing

  1. Harlan County
  2. I'm Gonna Make Her Love Me
  3. Changing Colors
  4. Dr. Handy's Dandy Candy
  5. Love on My Brain
  6. Long Road Ahead
  7. Under Construction
  8. Working My Way to L.A.
  9. Spoonful
  10. To Make My Life Beautiful
  11. Big Mouth U.S.A.
  12. 36 Inches High
  13. Sounds of Our Time
  14. Chain Gang
  15. I Wonder What They'll Do With Today
  16. Go Through Sunday
  17. She Turns My Radio on
  18. Mixed Green
  19. Happy Songs Sell Records, Sad Songs Sell Beer
  20. It Takes Two (To Make One)
  21. Big Mouth U.S.A. [Uptempo Version]
  22. Rising Sign
  23. Linda Comes Running
  24. Ramona
  25. Hanging from Your Lovin' Tree