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Songwriter Jim Ford

“He wrote straight-up country songs. He wrote straight-up soul songs that other people could cover. But his own stuff was really a combination of all those things.”

That’s how writer Travis Kitchens describes Jim Ford, a native of Johnson County, Kentucky, who was a uniquely talented songwriter of the 1960s and 70s.

“He was sort of an outsider artist,” says Kitchens. “He had an idea of what his music should sound like, and he never moved from that.”

Ford only released one full-length album in his lifetime: Harlan County, which was released in 1969.

“He was able to use whatever players he wanted and it was perfect for him because he was a visionary artist,” says Kitchens. “He got to do whatever he wanted. All of the stars aligned and he was able to make that one album. But it never happened again.”

“’The Sounds of Our Time,’ that’s a soul anthem,” says musician Brett Ratliff, referring to a track that was released in an expanded version of Harlan County in 2007. “I mean, that’s just such a powerful piece of music of describing a landscape of everything that was happening in the late 60s and capturing kind of the energy of all these various movements that were happening at that time.”

As a songwriter, Ford penned songs for artists including Aretha Franklin and The Temptations. As a singer, he put his own interpretation on soul songs like Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.”

Although his name isn’t well-known outside of certain musical circles, Jim Ford’s influence still shows up in his native Kentucky.

“There’s a whole new generation of artists out of Kentucky who are rediscovering the music of Jim Ford,” says Kitchens.

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2415, which originally aired on May 4, 2019. Watch the full episode.