MARC FORD is one of the most gifted, celebrated and in-demand rock guitarists of his generation has switched gears to deliver what will undoubtedly stand as one of the finest Americana albums of 2014.
‘Holy Ghost’ has plenty of space for Ford to demonstrate that his guitar sorcery is as powerful as ever. But it’s textured in a different setting that will also delight a legion of admirers who never knew he could embrace the wide open spaces of American roots music so brilliantly.
“Reinvention” is an overused word in the creative arts, but ‘Holy Ghost’ overflows with subtle and surprising pleasures, liberal use of pedal steel, Fender Rhodes, mellotron and banjo, and the best songwriting of Ford’s career. It shows off an artist refreshed and refuelled, taking life at a slower pace at home in California these days – and it’s the next chapter in a unique Anglo-American collaboration.
If you know Ford’s back story in full, you know it’s about a multi-faceted reputation forged on the frontline as the fabled lead guitarist with the Black Crowes; at the helm of his own bands such as the Neptune Blues Club and the Sinners; as a vital component of key records and/or tours by acts from Govt. Mule to Izzy Stradlin, from Booker T to Ben Harper; and as the producer of choice for artists such as the great roots-rocker Ryan Bingham and English country-soul talents Phantom Limb.
Therein lies the transatlantic connection. Ford produced the Bristol-based Phantom Limb’s second album ‘The Pines,’ released in 2012, and when it was time to give life to the songs he’d collected for ‘Holy Ghost,’ the inspirational thought occurred to him to offer the return job to the band’s Stew Jackson, aka Robot Club, in sessions at Rockfield in Wales and the Shed in Bath. Jackson plays on the album along with his fellow Limbs, so to speak, while Marc’s son Elijah adds guitars, and his wife Kirsten contributes vocals. Elijah, himself a fine new talent, has also been working with Jackson on his own album project.
“I waited for a while until the timing was right for this,” says Ford. “I knew I wasn’t supposed to act on these songs for a while, so I kind of sat on them as a batch together. Most of them are brand new, but a couple are 15 years old. I just needed to drop out for a little bit and get home back together. I had a daughter, so this is the first time I got to be at home for the first five years.”
Suddenly, Ford knew what he had to do. “I was sitting here one day and, like I said, I’d been waiting on these songs for a while. Then it just dawned on me, wait a minute, Phantom Limb is the perfect band for this. I’ve used a couple of bands here, and although I could have made the record with them, it didn’t seem right, there wasn’t the perfect fit. I would have had to tailor some people or some songs, and it didn’t seem to make sense.
“So I just said ‘Stew, you allowed me to pull your baby apart and put it back together. I’ve never had a producer produce my own stuff. How about payback? You can do me now. I think I have some of the best songs I’ve ever written, and you’ve got a bitchin’ band.’ He just said ‘Get here.’”
The results are inspiring, often upbeat, always reflective. As Ford himself says, “it’s hopeful, in a dark way sometimes.” But it’s the work of an artist who’s found the inner strength to recharge, personally and professionally. “It’s a reflection of my life,” he says. “I pulled out of gigging and travelling and literally kind of stopped.
“It was like, ‘I’ve got to regroup here, be at home and keep relationships good.’ Otherwise, if you keep running and running, even though it’s work, something has to suffer. So the holy grail now is to find how you keep a family and a musical career together. We moved to San Clemente, which is a little surf town, and the pace here is slower. It really is a small town feeling, a lot of acoustic guitar playing. I think all that reflects in the record.”
In the process of rethinking himself, Ford has learned all kinds of new music, but his earliest memories in the household of his west coast upbringing were of Beatles, Creedence and Simon & Garfunkel albums, and Miracles and Chuck Berry singles. Later inspiration came from Led Zeppelin and Elton John. “As I got older, I found the first two Jeff Beck records, ‘Truth’ and ‘Beck-Ola,’ and wore those out. Then a friend of mine took me to his house, his stepfather had this 400,000 watt stereo and he sat me down and put on Band of Gypsys. It scared me to death, it changed everything for me. I was like, ‘I didn’t know you could do this.’”
After playing in a high school band, he left to form his own outfit, in a rock education that would lead ultimately to Burning Tree, the acclaimed LA trio whose powerful local reputation led to a deal with Epic and a 1990 album. Noticed by a bunch of Atlanta scenemakers of the day called the Black Crowes, Ford would join them in 1993 for ‘The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,’ which hit No. 1 and sold two million copies in the US alone as they climbed to the top of the world. His guitars were also front and centre of 1994′s ‘Amorica’ and ‘Three Snakes and One Charm.’
His time with the Black Crowes, including a second stint in the mid-2000s, are so well documented as to need little repetition here. Except for Ford to say that he can look back on his musical passage with them, and on all of his other stops along the way, with real satisfaction. “I’m proud of all the music that’s been made,” he says. “I think that stands, and the Crowes was a fantastic band. Ben Harper’s music was great, ‘There Will Be A Light’ [on which he plays, as he does the later ‘Both Sides Of The Gun’] is a fantastic record. Ryan Bingham, I heard at a club at one in the morning and it was like ‘Please let me record you.’” He did so, for Bingham’s lauded Lost Highway albums ‘Mescalito’ and ‘Roadhouse Sun.’
“There are a lot of factors involved when you’re in your early 20s and everything you’ve ever dreamed of happens. I got swept up in it, like many people do. There was just a point where I went ‘Wait a minute, you’ve reached the top of the mountain and the answers aren’t here, this isn’t really any kind of enlightenment I was looking for.’ Drugs and alcohol were a giant cover-up for a lack of self, and worth. So the only regrets I would have would be personal, wishing that I could have handled certain things better. But then again, I had to learn it.”
‘Holy Ghost’ is absolutely ingrained with all the things Marc Ford has learned. “Maybe people still want me to be a guitar hero and that’s it,” he says firmly. “I’m determined to change that mindset.” -Paul Sexton
If you like: The Black Crowes, Gov’t Mule, North Mississippi Allstars, Warren Haynes