Jim Ford

Harlan County

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At his best, Jim Ford was a clever songwriter, capable of reworking rock & roll, R&B, and country clich├ęs into fresh, funny roots rock. At his worst, Ford was cutesy and unfocused, pulling good songs into awkward detours. Harlan County, the only album he ever completed, captures Ford at both extremes. The laid-back, rootsy sound of Harlan County -- equal parts country-rock, soul, and pop -- provided a touchstone for British pub rock, especially for Brinsley Schwarz, which covered Ford's "JuJu Man" and "Niki Hoeke Speedway" (Brinsley's chief songwriter, Nick Lowe, later recorded "36 Inches High"). Those songs aren't on 1969's Harlan County; they're from an aborted 1971 record that was to feature the Brinsleys as Ford's backing band. Instead, Harlan County is filled with unassuming, midtempo rockers and ballads, which are either songs about love or driving. Ford has a pleasant, unremarkable white soul voice that, when combined with the mannered production, tends to undersell the songs, which would have benefited from grittier, committed performances. Then again, these songs aren't as good as "JuJu Man" and "Niki Hoeke," which deservedly became pub rock staples. Many of these songs are well-written, particularly the off-kilter title track and "I'm Gonna Make Her Love Me," but they lack the sharp humor and hooks of the previously mentioned songs. They are of interest as a curiosity, especially for pub rock fanatics, but Harlan County illustrates why Jim Ford never became a cult artist in his own right.

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