While the Black Crowes might’ve been a touch shy on originality, they were outliers of an era that was watching hair metal flame out as grunge was meteorically rising. One listen to 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker will tell you all you need to know: the young and rowdy Georgia band were dutifully beholden to the icons they grew up watching and hearing – Keith Richards, Mick Taylor and their comrades.
Shake Your Money Maker was an unexpected smash success, injecting boogie-woogie into a scene yearning for something more. And the Crowes were more than happy to serve up heaping doses of said boogie-woogie, but of course, not without equal doses of the turbulence that would come to define them later in the decade.
The first sign of said turbulence – aside from the Robinson brothers’ perpetual sparring – was the firing of Jeff Cease in 1991, who, up to that point, had proved to be a perfect foil to Rich Robinson’s guitar heroics. And with Cease out of the picture, the Crowes found themselves needing someone who was like-minded enough to tackle blues rock in the thick of the grunge era but also calm enough to handle the rigors of life in a band that wasn’t exactly harmonious.
The answers to the Crowes’ prayers came swiftly in the form of Marc Ford, a slick six-stringer out of Southern California, who recalls his entry point into the fray as surprisingly nondescript. “Honestly, I don’t know that there really were any conversations about me joining,” Ford tells Guitar World. “The way I remember it is they needed a guitar player, they knew what I did, and we played well together.”
But before he could even think about making an imprint on the Crowes, Ford got what many would consider the call of a lifetime when Slash asked him to join Guns N’ Roses as a replacement for the departed Izzy Stradlin. But shockingly, Ford declined the invitation to join the established powerhouse, instead staying a member of the on-the-rise Crowes.
“The music of the Crowes spoke to me a bit more,” Ford says. “But also – and even Slash agreed with me on this – the Crowes were a better fit for me over Guns N’ Roses because, with the Crowes, I could have more of a voice. If I had joined Guns N’ Roses, that would have basically been me filling the role of someone having to back up Slash. I don’t think it would have been all that fulfilling or satisfying to do that. I would have gotten bored, and that would have been dangerous…”
Thinking back on what brought the SoCal native together with a raucous band of kids out of Atlanta, Ford continues, “I don’t know… me joining them just seemed to make sense. There wasn’t much talk or thought put into it; we just got in a room together, started playing, and it felt right for everyone in our camp.”
Of course, the shadow of the Black Crowes’ successful debut lingered, as did the throwback-laden work of Jeff Cease. And so, while Ford had been around the block a bit with the likes of Michael Monroe and Burning Tree, it wouldn’t necessarily be a stretch to think he’d move to duplicate the template set forth by Cease on Shake Your Money Maker.
But while that might have been a factor for some, Ford, ever the laid-back technician, paid no mind, instead choosing to do what got him there in the first place: “I didn’t think much about what they’d done before I got there. I didn’t have much of a plan, you know? The thing with me is that when it comes to guitar, I only respond to what I’m hearing. So, whatever [Jeff] was hearing, that didn’t mean much.
“When I joined the Crowes, I knew they were a rock ’n’ roll band that played rock ’n’ roll music. And I was already playing rock ’n’ roll myself, so I didn’t need to learn how to fit in. The important thing for me was listening to what was going on around me and generating a response to that.”
Overthinking (or lack thereof) aside, whatever unseen force was between Ford and his bandmates in the Crowes, it was undeniably electric. In short order, Ford hit the ground running, playing hundreds of shows with his new band, developing smooth and shockingly easy chemistry with Rich Robinson in particular.
“The chemistry came to us pretty quick,” Ford says. “But obviously, we learned as we went along, which came about through everyone listening to each other. From that, we were able to make the adjustments that needed to be made. But again, all of that was pretty immediate. Rich and I came from a similar enough background to where we could easily make it work.”
And make it work they did; 1992’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion was a smash success – even more successful than Shake Your Money Maker. Moreover, the ensuing tour was a boon, finding the Crowes dominating stages worldwide.
But sadly, the ride didn’t last long, and by 1994, despite the albeit lesser success of the turbulent Amorica, relations within the Black Crowes were at an all-time low. Drugs, infighting and general toxicity had polluted the waters, leading to a nadir that not even a band as musically cohesive as the Crowes could avoid.
Looking back on what is now remembered as the beginning of the end, Ford sighs, “The band was all over the place by that point and very scattered regarding our relationships. People were trippin’ on whatever they were trippin’ on, which also muddied the waters.
“But, man, the band was as tight as ever by that point because we had been on the road constantly for years. So we weren’t always getting along, but musically, we were a unit that functioned incredibly well. It felt good to be able to step outside the whirlwind of the other stuff and do that for sure.”
Ford hung around for one more album, 1996’s Three Snakes and One Charm, before jettisoning himself from the band in 1997, although he did return for a brief, not-so-friendly reunion in 2005 before parting ways for what appears to be the final time.
These days, the Black Crowes continue with only Chris and Rich Robinson remaining as original members, not that Ford cares. He’s got his solo work and various production projects that he devotes his time to. But the sweet sounds of Ford’s distinctively rich tone still live on in the hearts of Black Crowes fans worldwide who wish he would take the stage with the band once more.
And while Ford has made it clear that a reunion is not to be, he’s set aside the ugly parts of his past exploits with the Crowes, focusing on the memorable music they created instead.
“I like to focus on the fact that it feels great to know you’re functioning at your best,” Ford says. “And you’re making great music, and people are connecting with it. We did a lot of that, and I’m proud of it.”
What intangibles did you bring to the Crowes entering the sessions for The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion?
“That’s a tricky question… maybe I was slightly more advanced on my instrument than the other guys. The other guys in the band hadn’t played all that long before they got a record deal; Rich was only 19 then, you know? So I think I had more experience under my belt than they did then, which helped.
“Those guys all learned how to play together as teens and had a certain chemistry, so all I had to do was fit in. But yeah, I had been playing longer and had been in more diverse situations, leading to me having a bit of a larger musical vocabulary and maybe more melodic sense than them.”
How did you deploy that vocabulary on a song like Remedy?
“It was all pretty much instinct. A lot of things that you heard on that record – like Remedy – were things I came up with off the top of my head. There wasn’t a lot of planning when I was working on stuff. The way I saw it was it was either working or it wasn’t. If it works, and the motion is there, we left it on the record.”
I’ve read somewhere that you see music as visuals and colors due to your lack of formal training. Can you expand on how you applied that approach?
“Yeah, that’s true. Whenever I was putting together a solo – and I still do this – I first listened to the song and tried to identify where the holes were. It’s basically me assessing the track and saying, ‘Okay… what’s missing here?’
“And once I had that dialed in, I’d think, ‘What does this song need me to add?’ From there it was a matter of, ‘Does this need more? Is there even a place for another part?’ Often it was a matter of finding what it needed and then figuring out if I should leave it or reinforce it. And that would have been based on the emotional context – if the track was laid back, or if it needed to be exciting.”
One of the hallmarks of the Crowes’ sound in the ’90s was the call and response between you and Rich. How did you delineate who would handle what parts in the studio?
“I was the ‘lead’ and Rich was the ‘rhythm,’ but like you said, there was some gray area. But there wasn’t much discussion. Rich wrote the songs, so his parts were pretty much there and in place. And as far as the call-and-response stuff – that really developed when we were out on the road. So by the time we got into the studio, there were a lot of things we’d already been doing live that we wanted to adapt. From there, we felt it out, and again, the biggest part of that was listening to each other very carefully.”
Which guitars and amps played the most significant role while recording The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion?
“My main amp was a red-knob Fender Twin Reverb through a Marshall half-stack. And then I had my 50-watt Mar-shall that I used on a couple of things, most notably the Sometimes Salvation solo.
“As far as guitars are concerned, the whole thing was done with my Strat, a Les Paul and maybe a guitar or two that I think I borrowed from Rich, which was probably a Tele. But the Fender Twin Reverb did a lot of heavy lifting, and I seem to remember using a [Dunlop] Fuzz Face and an Ibanez Tube Screamer.”
What were your thoughts when you first listened back to The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion?
“I mean… we thought it was good. We knew what we had done was valid. Of course, you can’t really say how popular anything is gonna be, but we thought we had done good work. We were proud of it, and at the time, it made us happy.”
Was it difficult becoming so successful so quickly?
“It was. There was so much happening, and it was happening so fast. A lot of adjusting goes on as you try and get used to that sort of thing. And with us being so young and having people give us whatever we wanted, it became a dangerous headspace. It caused some of us to skid out a little bit – I guess everybody skidded out in their own way – and nobody was equipped to handle that kind of admiration.”
How did the aftermath of that period affect the band going into the Amorica era?
“The bigger problems were between the brothers [Rich and Chris Robinson] in that they couldn’t figure it out between them. They left the rest of us waiting for their cue. They wrote the songs, and they dictated things, you know? So if they weren’t getting along, no one could move forward or do anything until they figured it out.”
Do you feel the – at times – less-than-harmonious nature of the band fueled the creativity of the Crowes; as in, would you guys have been as strong of a band musically had things been friendlier?
“There was frustration that came with waiting for other people to decide on what they wanted to do. But the playing part was easy once the decision was made to move forward. I focused on that when my time came. But if I couldn’t play, I had to wade through all the other bullshit to get to that point.
“But having said that, yeah, friction causes certain things to happen, some good and some bad. I wouldn’t want to do it again, but there’s no denying it raises the energy level of some people. But even when we weren’t getting along, by the time we did Amorica, we were exactly where we wanted to be musically. That’s all that mattered.”
So the waning commercial success didn’t bother you?
“I don’t really remember. I mean, yeah, I’m sure it did with other guys in the band. And it’s not like I didn’t care, but I’ve never been one to pay attention to stuff like that. I’m not the type of person to try and adjust to the point that I’m pleasing other people. So if a record isn’t selling, there are probably underlying reasons as to why.”
Do you feel grunge greatly affected the Black Crowes’ fortunes?
“Probably. But I felt like we were doing great work, which was more important. Like I said, if it’s not selling, some things happen that are underlying, a lot of which can’t be controlled. But our records never had an issue because our work wasn’t good. And, as you mentioned, it was the height of the grunge scene, and people’s heads were in other places.
“But I’m sure there could have been some decisions that would have helped us out rather than some of the ones that were made, but at the time, I didn’t think much about it. The only thing I could control was what I was doing, and I thought I was giving my best.”
Three Snakes and One Charm was your last studio record with the Black Crowes, and it features some distinctive moments from you and Rich. What lent itself to that?
“With that record, like the others, everything was dictated by what Rich brought to the table. And as I recall, Rich was getting into some things that were not really straight-up rock ’n’ roll songs. He was getting into other types of music, so things were more eclectic.
“I think I used more open tunings on Three Snakes and One Charm to try and make things more interesting and allow myself to stand out a bit from what was going on musically.”
What made the chemistry of your era so special?
“It was just a matter of the right guys ending up together at the right time. And the fact that we were all will-ing to do what we needed to do and shared a similar mindset early on. The music was always important to us, allowing us to do some things we were really proud of.”
What’s your proudest moment as a member of the Black Crowes?
“I guess the tour for The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion would have to be what stands out most. That tour was pretty phenomenal. And, of course, playing with some of our heroes at the festivals was unforgettable. But the big thing was feeling like we had arrived and could do what we had always wanted.”
When you look back, do you have any regrets?
“Not musically. But I think that’s kind of a pointless question, isn’t it? Other than being more mature and grown-up – which is not what we were – there are none. I guess I regret what went along with the thinking and feeling that it was never going to end. That was probably something that was foolish, but you know, it is what it is.”