Robben Ford Has Found The Way

Robben Ford in session at Compass Record's studio, February 2020. Photo: Travis Commeau
Robben Ford in session at Compass Record's studio, February 2020. Photo: Travis Commeau

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Stop by Robben Ford’s East Nashville home for a visit and he may treat you to some strongly brewed coffee, point out the view from his living room window where songbirds frequent the feeders on his deck, or discuss the finer points of the 1964 Gibson SG guitar conveniently resting near the sofa.

You’ll get to business eventually, but there’s no hurry. A master guitarist, Ford has also mastered the unique style of Southern hospitality.

It wasn’t always this way for Ford. As an accomplished sideman and solo artist, he survived and thrived for decades in the fast-paced West Coast music scene. His resumé includes work with artists ranging from Miles Davis to George Harrison, Joni Mitchell to Mavis Staples. Although his solo work has primarily focused on the blues, it has also encompassed rock, jazz, funk, folk, and more.

In 2007, however, he was writing material for a new solo album, and he headed to Nashville with a specific goal.

“It was perhaps the second time I came to Nashville that I met Vince Gill,” Ford recalls. “He said, ‘If you’re ever in town again, call me.’ So the next time I was here I got in touch with him and we hung out. At that time, I still saw Nashville as an opportunity — a place to get together with somebody famous, write a hit song, and make lots of money.”

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Gill had different priorities, though. They did make an attempt at writing, and while no songs came out of it, Ford discovered something far more valuable than a hit.

“In Nashville, the last thing that people want to talk about is music or the music business, until they get to know you,” Ford says. “The first thing is to relax and find out if you enjoying hanging out with each other.

“I’m embarrassed for myself now. [I’d forgotten] how to relax! I didn’t mean to be an asshole, but I was really trying to conduct the moment, in a way, because I wanted something for me. I’ve never apologized to him directly, but we’ve hung out since then, so everything’s fine. That experience brought it home to me: ‘What are you doing? You’re just using people if you act like that.’ It will roll out if it’s meant to be.”

Ford’s Music City epiphany became a path back to the beginnings of his musical career and the experiences that first inspired him.

Born in Woodlake, Calif., Ford grew up in Ukiah, in the heart of Mendocino County. “Both of my parents were musical,” Ford says. “My father used to play guitar and harmonica and sing. He had a really good falsetto voice. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was interesting to discover later he was singing like Hank Williams. My mother played piano and also had a lovely voice. There was a lot of church, and a lot of Sundays singing in church.”

In addition to country and gospel, pop radio and rock ’n’ roll were enormous influences. His tastes were also sparked by a steady and diverse supply of records.

“One of my earliest memories of music was when my parents joined a record club,” he recalls. “It was a big thing in those days. You’d buy a record player and they’d send you six records, and then you’d have a subscription. Every month you’d get another three albums. In particular we had a record of [Maurice Ravel’s] Boléro, and I used to ‘conduct’ it. I also listened to a lot of jazz from the 1960s, which I still believe is jazz’s greatest period.”

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Ford began playing piano at age 8, but his lessons were short-lived once his mother realized he was “too lazy” to learn how to read music and was playing everything by ear.

He became fascinated with the saxophone at age 10 and played the instrument through high school, but his true love affair with music began at age 13 when he took up the guitar, the instrument that quickly led him to his first real musical hero.

“I was maybe 14 when I heard Mike Bloomfield with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band,” Ford says. “That was it. I wanted to be Mike Bloomfield.”

Living two hours north of San Francisco, Ford spent his high school years soaking up musical influences at such renowned Bay Area venues as the Fillmore West and Winterland Ballroom, where he saw legendary guitarists including Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Albert King, Jimmy Page, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

“I saw everybody, and everybody was a blues guitar player, because the blues is what they were all listening to. Rock guitar playing was just beginning to evolve in a whole new direction.”

Ford and his brothers, Pat and Mike, formed the “Ford Blues Band” in 1968, and were soon playing gigs in the Ukiah area. After high school, Robben and Pat moved to San Jose, Calif., where they formed the Charles Ford Band (named for their father), a group that would record one album in 1972 for Bay Area indie label Arhoolie Records before parting ways.

“I just knew I wanted to be a guitar player,” Ford says. “I never thought about it as a profession. It was just something that I loved and wanted to do. I never even thought about how I could make money as a guitar player — playing in a dance band or playing weddings. I saw myself as an artist, and if I didn’t have a gig, I just had no money.”

It was in San Jose that Ford’s playing caught the eye of celebrated blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, who hired Ford and his brother Pat for his band. Once Ford moved to Los Angeles, he quickly came to the attention of jazz fusion master Tom Scott. Scott invited Ford to join his band, The L.A. Express, just as they were preparing to back Joni Mitchell on a North American tour (two performances of which became Mitchell’s 1974 live album, Miles of Aisles). Ford credits that experience as the most formative of his musical career.

“I never wanted to be the leader of a band,” he says. “Being with a group of like-minded musicians was always the best thing. I experienced this when I joined Joni Mitchell and The L.A. Express. The band was just fantastic musicians. I learned about collaboration and how to play with others instead of trying to be a star. Everybody was contributing to the musical moment. Joni Mitchell, who was a goddess, was just one of the gang. It’s something that few people get to experience, and to experience it when I was still young was an amazing blessing. I was only 22, and that was my college education — a college of collaboration, melody, and composition.”

Over the next three decades, Ford’s career as a sideman in the studio and on the road continued to thrive, as he collaborated with a dizzying array of stars including George Harrison, Michael McDonald, Miles Davis, David Sanborn and many others, including nine days in the studio with KISS for their 1982 album Creatures of the Night, an experience Ford refers to as his “weirdest gig.”

Ford also gained acclaim as a solo artist, starting with his 1976 jazz album Schizophonic and continuing through a string of successful and critically acclaimed albums that navigated the multi-genre waters between jazz, blues, and rock. All along, Ford approached each project, including his solo albums, as a chance to collaborate. But by the early aughts, the cycle of studio work and touring was becoming a grind.

“I got tired of the road and didn’t want to do it anymore,” Ford says. The last thing I want to do is leave town, so I needed to be in an environment that supported me. I had lived in a small town north of L.A. for years. It was a great retreat from the road, but was devoid of any musical support. So I had to be somewhere else.”

Ford’s desire to get off the road kept growing. He knew he needed alternative sources of income, and his epiphany about Nashville back in 2007 drove the point home: The relentless pursuit of writing hits was a path for which he was no longer suited.

Serendipitously, as he continued visiting Nashville, meeting more musicians, and learning the ins and outs of Nashville’s music community, another path began to manifest itself.

Public evidence of his new Nashville affinity appeared in 2014 with the album A Day in Nashville, which was cut live in just one day at Sound Kitchen Studio with players including Audley Freed, Brian Allen, Wes Little, and Barry Green. Hot off the success of that album and after years of hesitation, Ford began searching for a home in Music City.

“I’d been looking for about three years, before I moved in 2018,” Ford says. I looked all over — all the way out to Leiper’s Fork and back — and East Nashville was exactly where I wanted to be.”

To make up the income he would have made on the road, Ford turned his attention to educating aspiring guitarists. “I’ve done a fair amount of instructional materials that have been good for me,” he says. “I recently launched a subscription-based channel, the ‘Robben Ford Guitar Dojo’ on Trufire.com. I’m offering beginning and intermediate lessons, a fresh lesson every week. We just rolled it out and it’s very cool.”

With his instructional work supplying a steady stream of income, Ford turned his attention to his true passion project, 13J Records.

“As a career move, starting a record label is probably the worst thing you can do now, but I don’t care,” Ford says. “I want to make the records. There is a dearth of truly great instrumental records.

“I’m a bit of a romantic. I want to make records where everybody is in the same room, all playing together, looking at each other, really glad they’re there, and they love the music as much as the artist and the producer.”

Ford has already produced releases by Icelandic jazz guitarist Bjorn Thoroddsen and blues-rock guitarist Jeff McErlain under the 13J imprint. Both of them are well-known, accomplished guitarists, but Ford also wants 13J to shine the spotlight on up-and-coming talents, such as local scene fav Daniel Denato, who was in the studio for five days in December with Ford as producer.

“I saw Daniel at the (biannual music trade show) NAMM, performing by himself in a room with guitar and amp,” Ford says. “I wrote my name on a piece of paper and asked someone to give it to him, but they never did. Once I was in Nashville I started asking about guitar players, and someone mentioned Daniel. I loved the vibe of his band and his songs, so I got in touch with him.

“The concept of the sessions was, ‘You and your band are great together. Just do that.’ We tracked a full set, song after song, took a lunch break and did it again. The second day it was the same approach. Third day was overdubs, and then the next two days we mixed it and it was all done except for some extra tweaking.”

The album was originally planned as the first official release on 13J, but it attracted a buzz, and Ford would up selling  the rights to Comcast Music instead, in a profitable deal for both Ford and Denato.

In addition to finding talent in Nashville, Ford found a distributor for his fledgling label in what he calls a “very Nashville way.”

“I ran into [singer-songwriter] A.J. Croce at the airport. I played on his first album back in 1993, and it turned out we live about five houses away from each other here in East Nashville. He was going to be recording at Compass Records’ studio, so I stopped by for a visit. Compass’ owners, Alison Brown and Garry West, were there. I had met them 20 years before at my niece’s wedding where she married Alison’s keyboard player. Garry asked me what I was doing, and I said, ‘I’ve started a small label.’ He said, ‘You got distribution?’ and I said, ‘Nope.’ He said. ‘Call me.’ ”

Upcoming projects for 13J include albums by gypsy jazz and country guitarist John Jorgenson and steel guitarist Paul Franklin. Ford also views 13J as an avenue to more collaboration opportunities.

“Primarily I want to produce records, but no one is calling me to produce their records,” Ford says. “No one thinks of me as a producer. I’ve produced several of my own records, but people consider that a different thing from producing for others. If I can create a sound that gets people’s attention, someone might hire me to produce records.”

Ford sees his work as a producer through the same lens of composition, comradeship, and collaboration that has guided him through his career as a sideman and as a solo artist. And while his musical pursuits have diversified, he still has time for the tried and true, such as the tracks he recently cut for a new album with Bill Evans and an upcoming live appearance at 3rd & Lindsley on March 21. As his new career has taken form over the last few years, Ford has realized that his transformation from West Coast musical troubadour to Music City Cat wasn’t really a dramatic reinvention, in his heart, he was always a Nashvillian.

“I just want to make great music, document it, and offer it [to others],” Ford says. “What would you rather do than show up at a cool studio, with a great engineer, and a great band who are all friends of yours and make some fresh new music for the sole purpose of making great music? That’s it. That’s what I want to do.”

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