A cut of nature
On his new album, blues guitarist Robben Ford finds inspiration in jazz, gospel and Civil War-era ballads
When blues guitarist virtuoso Robben Ford rolls into town Saturday night, he’ll be sure to offer up some tunes from his just-released 10-song album, Bringing It Back Home.
This latest effort, he says, is different from what past albums, with songs that represent a fresh pastiche of sound rooted in favorite traditions—but orchestrated in his own vision.
“Typically, I write a bunch of songs and make a record,” Ford says. “When I pick up my guitar, I just play earthy blues that I’ve always loved, in combination with sophisticated harmony beyond standard 12 bars. Jazz creeps in.”
Of course the jazz creeps in. Ford’s musical track record boasts stints with Miles Davis and Tom Scott & the L.A. Express. And those are Ford’s guitar licks on Joni Mitchell’s 1974 Miles of Aisles live album. A five-time Grammy Award nominee, Ford’s expansive blues style has also paired him with the likes of George Harrison, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Gregg Allman and more.
For Back Home, Ford says he “looked at sources outside my library,” asking friends to send him music to help broaden his scope.
The results, he says, were inspiring.
“I listened to some blues compilations. That’s where I found ’Bird Nest [Bound],’ originally done by Charley Patton, but [I] changed the key to make it feel natural to me,” he explains.
Ford also gathered a “crazy good band” with organist Larry Goldings, trombonist Steve Baxter, drummer Harvey Mason and David Piltch on an upright, nonelectric bass.
“I wanted the album to have a rich sound and color, like you were in the same room with the musicians,” Ford says.
Ford’s take on Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” and “Trick Bag” by Earl King also add a New Orleans flavor to the album, while his rendition of Willie West’s “Fairchild” injects an R&B influence.
Listeners will hear a touch of gospel, too.
“I played the Stanford Jazz Festival, and this kid from Stanford picked me up from the airport,” Ford recalls. “He was playing gospel music in the car, very funky, done on inexpensive gear in churches and revivals. … I really liked it.”
The kid gave him the CD, and the result is Ford’s instrumental rendition of the gospel tune “On That Morning.”
For the album, Ford also wrote “Oh, Virginia,” a Civil War-era styled ballad and “Travelers Waltz,” a three-quarter time ballad—the latter is the result of a collaboration with Ford’s wife, Anne Kerry Ford.
“My wife wrote a poem about my life on the road,” Ford says. “I was working with Michael McDonald and asked him, ’What do you think of this?’ He started humming and playing, coming up with chords, then asked, ’Where’d you get this?’ She nailed it on the head.”
Ford was born into music. He grew up in Ukiah, Calif., listening to his dad, Charles, sing and play guitar. His mom, Kathryn, played piano and sang, too. At 10, he picked up the saxophone but switched to the guitar at 13 when he heard Michael Bloomfield play guitar in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
“Something just clicked and resonated with me,” Ford says. “I wanted to play like him—I wanted to be him. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d cling to my guitar when I was overwhelmed, for a sense of security, a way to express myself. It was my raft of life in the sea.”
When he’s not in the studio, the musician keeps busy with Robben Ford’s Guitar Dojo, a website on which he streams online micro lessons, each one tailored to a specific aspect of guitar playing. Ford’s also partnered with TrueFire to provide guitar lessons via online interactive videos.
For now, however, the 61-year-old artist is readying to hit the road. He’s looking forward, in particular, to playing songs from the new album.
“This record is more spiritual than any other I’ve done—a cut of nature, a life of twists and turns,” he says. “It turned out to be so full of joy to make—natural sounding, something that flows like water.”