In Dope Country with Marc Ford

In Dope Country with Marc Ford
By James Calemine

The last time I spoke with Marc Ford was in the fall of 2019 when he was out on the road with the Magpie Salute. And then Covid-19 hit…

Marc Ford ranks as a world class musician. Many know Ford’s work from his days playing with Burning Tree, The Black Crowes and Ben Harper. Ford exists as one of the few Caucasians bestowed with an NAACP award that he earned from his work on the Ben Harper & Blind Boys of Alabama record There Will Be A LightOf course, among Black Crowes fans many argue “the Marc Ford era” of the group reigns supreme.

Former Allman Brothers keyboardist Johnny Neel once told me: “Marc Ford is an actual genius. He has the best guitar sound I’ve ever heard.” Ford’s six-string mastery has garnered praise from Dickey Betts (Allman Brothers Band), Ronnie Wood (The Rolling Stones) and Mike Campbell (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers). 

Ford contends as a formidable songwriter, plays numerous instruments and operates as a soulful producer. Ford discovered Ryan Bingham and produced the Texas singer/songwriter’s albums Mescalito and Roadhouse Sun. You can search Ryan Bingham to see what he’s gone on to accomplish. Ford also produced records by the Steepwater Band, Chris Lizotte, Phantom Limb, Republique du Salem and Dan Moore.

Ford knows the music business. He’s a survivor. His studio albums include It’s About Time (2002), Weary and Wired (2007), Marc Ford & The Neptune Blues Club (2008), The Fuzz Machine (2010), Holy Ghost (2014) and The Vulture (2016). Each release reveals another impressive chapter in his career.

Through the years Ford has recorded, collaborated and performed with Izzy Stradlin & The JuJu Hounds, Thee Hypnotics, Gov’t Mule, The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, Blue Floyd, The Jayhawks, Booker T. Jones, Widespread Panic, Mike Campbell, Blackberry Smoke and the Allman Family Revival.

The Arts force us to dig deeper–to expand consciousness-as well as discover inspiration. Ford’s playing conjures inspiration. So, here we are in March 2022. I’ve been listening to Marc Ford’s music for 32 years, and I’ve known him personally for over 20. I’ve written about him in various configurations over the years. We always seem to reconnect during a transition time for us both. Now, it’s transition time again…

Last week I reached out to Marc (you can read my 2016 Ford essay in Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2) regarding an interview and he agreed. The week before he recorded the guts of his new album in Austin, Texas. We covered various topics–some off the record, but here we examine his signature deal with Asher guitars, his current perspective and his long-awaited new album. Ford will be playing with Red Shahan on April 7, 8 and 9 in Alabama and Tennessee. Here I have the honor of breaking the news of Marc Ford’s latest recordings that he declares is his best yet, Dope Country.

JC: So, let’s talk about your signature guitar with Asher Guitars. How did that come about?

MF: Well, that came from me playing with Ben Harper. Asher and Ben had a relationship. Then I had him repair and work on some guitars. Then he approached me when we did the Crowes reunion, and asked about designing a guitar–what would it be? I said, ‘I’d probably take that guitar and that guitar and marry them together.’

JC: Like a Les Paul with a Telecaster…

MF: It was like a Stratocaster and a Les Paul Jr. or a Special. I said if we could marry those somehow it would be pretty bitchin’. He showed up with the prototype and I still have it and I still play it. We adjusted it a bit with parts that were available and came up with what is now the signature model. In the meantime, he was designing this other Electro Sonic model that I was in love with. I was already talking to him about my model. I’ve told the story about going up to Woodstock to do the deal with Rich Robinson and Magpie and I snagged this guitar and said to Bill Asher, ‘dude, this is mine. It’s too cool. I don’t want any of my friends to own it.’ I fell in love with that guitar. It’s a bit confusing because some people think that’s my signature model–the Electro Sonic is Bill’s design and it’s amazing. We have this other model that is also amazing. The Electro Sonic is the gold one I’ve been playing with the Humbuckers, and that’s been my go to. I go everywhere with that guitar. It gets everything done. Mine is more Fender-esque in its scale and everything else. When I want the best of both worlds the gold one really bridges everything for me.

JC: So, if someone wants to buy one is it already built?

MF: He has a few made. He only makes 80-90 guitars a year because it’s just him, his brother and one other guy in his basement.

JC: That’s a lot of guitars to build in one year…

MF: For three dudes, yeah. He’s got a CNC machine that helps. He does a certain amount of a model each year depending on the orders. There are obviously people who have the money–and they can get what they want. It’s kind of bougie. I was talking with a friend of mine and I said I play guitars made by a surfer. He goes that’s bougie. And I said, ‘Fuck yeah it is.’

JC: So, let’s talk about these new songs you recorded last week in Austin at 5th Street Studios. Your son Elijah plays a big role in these recordings. I haven’t seen him in years. He’s out killing it right now…

MF: Yeah, Elijah can play just about whatever he wants. He’s out kicking ass playing bass with Gary Clark Jr. right now.  He’s also releasing his own singles. Back in September when I went out with the Allman Revival band–part of that was make up dates we talked about doing a long time ago. So, I had these gigs to do with nothing to promote. So, I called Phil Jones (the drummer) and said, ‘Dude, look–we can get a drum kit and a guitar and essentially our bass player (Berry Oakley Jr.) transported.’ So, me and Phil just jumped in my Dodge Magnum and drove 10,000 miles. We caught up with them every day–crossing the country. It was amazing–it had a Thelma & Louise thing to it, and it was great to do. In the meantime, each night John Ginty is coming up and sitting in with us and some others too, but we developed a relationship. Devon Allman has a label and he asked if I had any songs. Living in San Clemente like any good neighbor you start playing with your neighbors. I’ve made great relationships with musicians here. Namely, Dan Moore, this songwriter I co-wrote “Devil’s in the Details” with. He’s a goldmine of songs and I just marvel at him. 

He and I have 12 songs either I wrote, he wrote or we co-wrote. I called up the guys I play with and it worked great and of course I wanted my son Elijah involved. I didn’t need Elijah (Ford) as a musician. I figured he could play if need be–but I really needed him to help me produce this thing. Elijah has been living in Austin for years and he does a lot of work at this studio. It’s amazing. We went to the place he likes to work with the engineer and basically he produced the record. So, Phil, me, Ginty and Berry knocked out 12 songs by lunch on the third day. I’m so proud of it. It just fell out.

The songs are so well written and they are simple songs and I knew it was going to be easy. We didn’t nit-pick it. The songs just appeared. I’ve got a room full of incredible choices and I’m not the one with all of them. I did my work with the songs. I told the musicians here’s how they go–one by one–and we did that until we got 12 of them. It’s one of my favorite records I’ve done.

JC: Is it a balance between acoustic and electric material?

MF: Oh, no. It’s electric. It’s way more leaning towards the Fuzz Machine stuff if anything. It’s full on electric. I mean there’s acoustic guitars here and there but this one is a rocker.

JC: Did you mix it in Austin?

MF: No, no. I was there for five days and I did a couple solo overdubs and I resang some of the vocals. Ginty did some organ work at his house when we ran out of time. He went straight home and we sent him some tracks and he laid down some stuff. So, now we’re just waiting for a couple people to get over Covid so we can get to singing. It’s really going fast. But literally all this went down last week. We’ve been thinking of people to mix it.

JC: Will it be out this year?

MF: Oh, yeah. But there’s no projection right now. It all just happened by accident. I didn’t really have any plans to make a record. I went out on tour. Devon asked if I had any songs. I said yes and started looking around at pieces of songs and songs and thinking about some of Dan’s songs I really like. And all of a sudden between Dan and I we’ve got some songs–we’ve got a record. Then I said let’s get this record done and then I’ll see if I need a label. And which one I need. Devon was the impetus for this and as it turns out I’ve got something really good here. I’ve got no plan. No manager. No booking agent. I’m an absolute free agent. And no one has my phone number. And I’m sitting here with one of my best records on the top of my game. Frankly, I’m the best version of myself ever right now. The possibilities are endless–so it’s all gonna fall together. I’ll keep people informed as it happens. The good thing about the time we live in is everything is in real time. It suits me. I’m trying to be as transparent as possible about everything. You get to see this thing go down with me. There’s no move to make until I’ve got the record finished. Once I have that I don’t have to say shit. I’ve got a story. I’ve got in my hand probably the strongest work I’ve done.

JC: I’m looking forward to it.

MF: Everybody is hoping and thinking they are doing their best work. I’m not bullshitting. I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. I’m making music that I really dig with my favorite people. It’s really tough to bum me out right now.

JC: I suspect you play guitar about every day…

MF: Uh, maybe. I try to leave a guitar laying around so I’ll pick it up when I’m not looking. Sometimes I’ll put the guitar away for a while and not touch it so I can figure out what’s going on with me. The older I get the more intense my relationship with music gets. It’s too powerful to take lightly. I don’t take it lightly. I want to be there when I’m there–fully engaged. I guess I’m ready to get back to work.

JC: Hopefully things will remain open. It’s nice to go out and see shows again.

MF: Yeah, it was nice to see the joy on people’s faces. And what a good feeling that was in the room with everyone together. There’s no replacing the live music experience.

JC: Do you have a name for the new record yet? Or are you just letting it simmer?

MF: James you’re getting the news first…

JC: …Outstanding…

MF: …I think the obvious name for the record is Dope Country.

JC: You heard it here first, folks. The new Marc Ford record is called Dope Country. I like it.

MF: It’s at least a triple entendre. It’s the title track and sums up a lot these days.

JC: Any artwork ideas?

MF: It’s pretty early, but I have a hunch I have the cover.

JC: Will you go back to Austin to record anything else for this collection?

MF: No, I’ve got a few things to do. I’ll probably go up to Phil’s house and do some overdubs there as well as some percussion. Some guitar still needs to be done. Then Elijah has some ideas he wants to put on. Then I’ll have a record and a reason to be out on the road. I don’t think there’s any shortage of opportunities for me to capitalize on. It’s all for naught without a record. That’s my main thing and I really think it’s so good that it’s going to change my game as far as who is going to want to work with me as far as booking and whatnot. I know it sounds like I’m bragging, but I’m really proud of this record.

JC: We will have to do a series of updates.

MF: We can do a string of interviews if you want.

JC: You bet, Marc. So, we’ll let it cook for a while and catch up later. 

MF: You got it, James. 

Photo Credits: #1 & 5 Chris Brush #2, 3 & 4 Austin, Texas, March 2022/Courtesy of Marc Ford

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A Day In The Life of A Great American Guitarist