Point of No Return

Jim Ford

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Point of No Return Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Jim Ford only released one album, 1969's Harlan County, during his life but he had plenty of stray singles that accumulate over the years. Most of these found their way onto Bear Family's 2007 release The Sounds of Our Time, which reissued the full Harlan County album, along with these 45-rpm rarities and unheard demo tapes. As Bear Family was compiling that superb disc, Ford revealed to journalist L-P Anderson that there was a whole bunch of unheard tapes, not sitting in the vault but rather in a canvas bag in his trailer. The notoriously ornery, uncooperative Ford eventually agreed to release these tapes but he didn't live to see the release of Point of No Return, a 2008 compilation of unheard songs. Unheard doesn't necessarily mean unknown, as this contains Ford's own versions of "I'm Ahead If I Can Quit While I'm Behind" and "Harry Hippie," songs popularized by his disciples Brinsley Schwarz and his friend Bobby Womack, who also cut the title track, "Point of No Return." As to why these recordings -- all full-blown studio recordings apart from the fragile, lovely acoustic "I'm Ahead If I Can Quit While I'm Behind," one of Ford's finest songs -- weren't released at the time, there are no specific reasons revealed in the liner notes, yet the succession of stories of how Ford sold the same songs to five or six different publishers, how he demanded exorbitant fees to cut a country album, how he brawled his way through L.A. in the '60s, and how he was incessantly asking for cash after the release of The Sounds of Our Time leave no doubt that he was one difficult SOB.

Ford paid the price for his behavior, dropping out of sight and alienating friends (the testimonials by Bobby Womack and P.J. Proby here are heartbreaking, although they leave little question that they had to avoid Ford in order to preserve their own sanity). His demons drove him underground, but like many tortured artists, the art that Jim Ford produced was the opposite of his chaotic life: his songs flowed easily and naturally, simple in their structure yet clever in their words and melodies. That is as true to this collection of 16 songs -- all but the 1968 single "Look Again" previously unreleased, but that's so rare it virtually counts as unreleased -- as it was to the music on The Sounds of Our Time. The songs here ever so slightly emphasize his country side, surfacing primarily as the thick country-funk that distinguished Harlan County but also the slick '70s shine of "If You Can Get Away (She Don't Need Me Like I Need You)," where Ford falls for a Rodeo Drive cowgirl and cuts a single that could have been a soft rock hit if he had only gotten his act together. Songs like this bolster his boast that he could have delivered a hit record if the price were right, but that price was never met, so he left behind gem after gem -- at least it seems that way based on the unreleased tapes Bear Family has dug up, as Point of No Return is every bit as excellent as Sounds. The music here is a continuation of the unreleased cuts there, right down to how this offers a slow version of "Go Through Sunday," a rewrite of "She Turns My Radio On" (here spun to be a gospel tune), and a different version of "I Wonder What They'll Do with Today" called "Whicha Way," but also in how Ford's country blends with his soul obsessions, most wickedly so in "If I Go Country," a plea to get back to the land that's dressed up in blaxploitation funk.

That's the only big, brassy funk tune on the disc; when Ford gets soulful here, it's a bit quieter, as on the soulful "Harry Hippie" and slow-burning "Sweet Baby Mine (You Just A...)," which has a counterpoint in the dirtier, fuzz-toned funk of "Don't Hold Back What You Feel." There are also a couple of polished roots-pop tracks here that very much sound like the end of the '60s -- "Point of No Return," "Look Again" -- but the heart of the new stuff is in the country, in the rocking ramble "Mill Valley," the slow-rolling tear-in-my-beer "Just Cause I Can," a cover of Eddy Arnold's "Bouquet of Roses," and, best of all, "Stoppin' to Start," a clever ode to the bottle. Of course, that addiction is what sank Ford personally and professionally, but somehow through that haze he left behind a wealth of remarkable music, music that only gets better the longer that you live with it, music that makes a significant argument that he's one of the great unsung country-rock songwriters of the '60s and '70s. Those talents are as easy to appreciate here, on a full-blown collection of rarities, as they were on Harlan County and The Sounds of Our Time -- and with any luck, the promise of yet another volume of Jim Ford tapes in the liner notes to Point of No Return will indeed come true somewhere down the road.

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