The Monday after Marc Ford was asked to join The Black Crowes in late 1991, he was surprised to hear from Slash. The two guitarists had never spoken, but Ford’s pre-Crowes band, Burning Tree, had recently practiced at a Mates Rehearsal Studios space next to Guns N’ Roses, who had the big room at Mates’ original location on Cleon Avenue in North Hollywood.
“Like 10:30 in the morning I get this call: ‘Hey man, this is Slash,’” Ford recalls now. “'We listened to you next door, always loved your guitar. Izzy’s gone, would you play with us?’”
Ford explained he’d just joined the Crowes and politely declined Slash’s invitation, extended after GNR guitarist-songwriter Izzy Stradlin had quit the band. “Of course, I was very flattered,” Ford says, “and my life would be a whole lot different now. I’d probably be dead, to be honest with you. I think it was probably the best decision and Slash agreed. He said, ‘Man, that’s really cool. That’s probably a better fit for you anyway and good luck.’”
Such is Ford’s musical talent, that he would receive overtures from two of the biggest rock bands of the time in a matter of days. But unless you’re a Black Crowes super-fan, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Marc Ford. If you love blazing, bluesy solos, though, this is a guitarist you need to know. Ford’s playing with the Crowes on a triptych of now-vintage albums — 1992 powerhouse Southern Harmony and Musical Companion; 1994 drug prism Amorica and 1996 hippie hangover soundtrack Three Snakes and One Charm —
was every bit as brilliant and exciting as Mick Taylor’s classic leads with The Rolling Stones. Yes, that good.
Now, fans can again hear Ford do what he does best. He's reunited with talented Crowes guitarist and co-founder Rich Robinson in new band The Magpie Salute. The 10-piece group’s revolving set list is built around Crowes gems like “Remedy,” “Hotel Illness,” “Girl From a Pawnshop,” “Gone” and “Sting Me.” The band get into tunes from Ford and Robinson’s solo careers and covers such classics as Led Zeppelin’s “Sick Again," too. And the sets also feature Magpie Salute’s strong debut single, “Omission,” with its razor-guitar tangle and singer John Hogg’s lemon-squeezing yowl.
Ford and Robinson met in 1990, when Ford's band Burning Tree opened for the Crowes as they toured behind their hit debut album, Shake Your Money Maker. Each night during their set, the Crowes had Ford sit in for a cover of the Allman Brothers epic “Dreams.” “He would get up there and just kill it, and we would be like, ‘Shit, man,’” Robinson says now, via phone from a Magpie Salute tour stop in Atlanta, the Crowes’ hometown. “And everyone felt it.”
Slash’s call to Ford isn’t the only interesting GNR/Crowes connection. “Right around that same time I got a call from Lars Ulrich from Metallica asking us to open for Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, that big stadium tour they did,” Robinson says, referring to the infamously troubled 1992 trek. “And I was like, ‘No man, I think we’ll stick with our own stuff.’ And he was like, ‘You’re making a mistake, this could be huge.’ I’m like, ‘I think we’re all right,’” he remembers, laughing.
Around that time, Ford also played on the solo debut of Izzy Stradlin, the very man Slash asked him to replace in GNR. He added some hot slide guitar to “Somebody Knockin’,” the opening track on 1992's Stones-y Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds. "I walked in right after [Rolling Stones guitarist] Ron Wood had finished doing his guitar part," Ford remembers. "Izzy’s kind of a regular, down-to-earth guy and he just let me do what I wanted to do. It was probably all of about 30 minutes.” The Crowes didn’t want their new guitarist to appear like a hired gun, though, so Ford says, “I just told them to keep my name off it.” He was uncredited in the Ju Ju Hounds liner notes.
Ford’s Hendrix-meets–Stevie Ray playing on Burning Tree’s self-titled 1990 Epic Records debut is worth revisiting, too. The trio were regulars at the Coconut Teaszer in Hollywood. “Len Fagan was key I think in the L.A. scene,” Ford says of the Teaszer’s then-talent buyer. “We had nowhere to go, those of us who wanted to play anything but heavy metal, and he gave us a home, which created a scene and got the attention of the record labels.”
Ford was in his early 20s when Burning Tree got signed. Although the band was Los Angeles–based and he often crashed on couches there, he resided in Fullerton, far from the hair-metal scene that then dominated the L.A. rock landscape. “I never lived in Hollywood,” Ford says. “I stayed away and I’m kind of glad I did. I maybe missed a lot of work opportunities, but I kept something that was important, I think, that set me apart from all the other guys in L.A.”
That’s not to say his musical past is totally devoid of metal. Growing up in Cerritos, “which was about as suburban as you could get at the time,” Ford, now a San Clemente resident, listened to a lot of Judas Priest. His first guitar was an acoustic, purchased for $7 at a swap meet, “that you couldn’t play past the third fret. But I loved that thing, man. And I played it all day.”
Ford’s explosive, instinctual guitar playing draws inspiration from 1970 Jimi Hendrix live album Band of Gypsys, which he heard for the first time around the age of 15. “It exploded my head and it was over,” Ford says. “So I lost interest in school altogether and dove into music so hard. ... It takes everything, and I gave it everything.”
The Black Crowes weren’t alternative or– metal, the two commercially prevailing rock genres of the early ’90s. However, Southern Harmony has aged as well as or better than many more iconic albums from that era. It's a bona fide guitar classic, which is surprising considering it was recorded so quickly. “We did it in eight days, so we just kind of went in and everything was one or two takes, tops,” Robinson says. “Some of the songs were literally one take. Done.”
While original Crowes lead guitarist Jeff Cease, now in country star Eric Church’s band, was OK, when Ford replaced him, the group finally had a soloist whose playing matched the ferocity and soulfulness of Rich’s riffs and brother Chris Robinson’s vocals. Ford’s savage wah-wah break on Southern Harmony track “No Speak No Slave” is a great example of this. The impact he had on the band was even more pronounced onstage. Before Ford joined, the Crowes were a good live band, but with him they became legitimately great, with just the right mix of Southern boogie and California swagger.
Ford's greatest guitar moment is probably the 30-second freak-fuzz solo on the lurching junkie anthem “Sometimes Salvation,” perhaps the strongest track in the entire Crowes catalog. But it was one of the few Southern Harmony solos that didn’t flow easily for him. “I could not find an entrance place,” Ford says. “It was late at night and I was extremely frustrated and probably had a few too many cocktails, and out of sheer I-don’t-know-what-else-to-do, just threw a fit and turned everything up as loud as it would go and took one last pass at it. It really is just like an emotional throwing up.” His then-new bandmates were impressed, though, Robinson says: “I remember everyone thinking when Marc played the solo on ‘Sometimes Salvation,' just like, ‘Fuck. That’s devastating.’"
Ford's guitar tone — sometimes natural, sometimes pedal-augmented, always potent — is as important as the licks he plays. "I don’t think in musical terms because I was never taught properly, so I see in colors and visuals and that’s how I hear music," Ford says. He never plans out a solo in advance, instead preferring to listen to the tune and asking himself, "What is the song doing? What is it missing? Does there need to be another point of view? Does the guitar just need to come up alongside the guy singing and go, ‘Hell yeah, what he said!’"
Unfortunately, substance abuse issues led to Ford being dismissed from the Crowes in 1997. "We had a bunch of guitar players in the band and it wasn’t by choice, really," says Robinson, who now resides in Nashville. "I would’ve preferred to keep Marc, but life got in the way and it didn’t happen and it was a bummer. But Marc and I had that connection that’s hard to quantify and explain."
Ford rejoined The Crowes for a 2005 tour but quit via fax just a year or so later. He also joined Ben Harper’s band and won a Grammy for his work on Harper’s 2004 LP with The Blind Boys of Alabama, There Will Be a Light. Unfortunately, Ford says his Grammy is long gone. “Someone stole it for drugs. That’s just what I get for the company I hung out with. But I did get my NAACP Award back, which I am far more proud of, because the music that I love, black people and black culture have such a big part to do with it."
He's had to come to terms with some darkness from his past. "Things that weren’t the smartest or that I’m proudest of. I do believe I’m playing better than I ever have — and I’m a better person. A true musician plays who he is.” Post-Crowes, Ford also produced Americana singer Ryan Bingham’s 2007 Mescalito LP and made some solid solo albums, including 2007 guitar-fest Weary and Wired.
It had been about 10 years since Ford and Robinson had spoken. But after gauging interest via Ford’s agent, Robinson called his old bandmate to invite him to guest at some 2016 Rich Robinson solo shows in Woodstock, New York.
“When you’re young, there’s always drama,” Robinson says, “and obviously when you’re older, your perspective shifts for the better and you realize the gift it is to play with one another." The Woodstock shows led to the formation of The Magpie Salute. “It was very organic, and also very heartfelt and for the right reasons — just for the sake of playing with one another,” Robinson notes. “Because we didn’t know if anyone was going to be interested in this. We just really loved playing these songs together again.”
Besides “Omission,” Magpie’s self-titled debut LP is comprised of live covers, Crowes and otherwise. However, that song is promising for fans who loved the harder-edged sound of early Crowes records, before the band’s sound veered into patchouli territory. (Also, promising: When asked for his favorite all-time guitar duos, the first Robinson mentions is AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus Young.)
Following Magpie’s current tour, the band plan to record a studio double album. “We’ll never turn our backs on our past,” Robinson says. “That’s a huge swath of my life’s work and I have absolute respect for that music, but also I’m really excited about the possibilities of what we’d do in the studio as a band.”
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Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, with whom Ford became very close during his years in the group, has been adamant recently about never performing with the Crowes again, opting instead to focus on his rising jam-band, Chris Robinson Brotherhood. So is it sad for Ford to be playing Crowes material without his old friend? After all, it was Chris who gave Ford the sanded-down, mid-’70s Les Paul he played on much of Southern Harmony. “No, I wouldn’t say that,” Ford says. “We talk about him often. I miss him as a friend and Rich misses him as a brother, but musically we got it going on right now and I don’t think we’re missing anything. I don’t know if we could make music together even if we did hang out.”
Calling in for this interview from the Magpie Salute tour bus, parked outside a venue in Raleigh, North Carolina, Ford is thrilled to get a third shot making music with Rich. “When we started playing again together, it was so neat to hear what an amazing guitar player he had turned into … and how much of my guitar playing that he was doing." He laughs. "And I realized I did the same thing. I took open tunings and stuff I learned from the South and from hanging out with those guys. Our identities mixed.
"Twenty-five years," he muses. "That’s a generation of people that this was their music that they came of age to, and that will always be their music. That stuff is so intertwined with your life. It never goes away.”
Marc Ford and Rich Robinson perform with The Magpie Salute on Wednesday, Sept. 13, at the Fonda Theatre. Tickets and more info.