"I don't think I've ever been here during the daytime," says Jack Fords singer Brent Kirby as he walks into Smedley's with bandmate Bobby Latina for an early-evening cocktail. The group regularly plays the club, and while it might seem odd that an Americana act inspired by alt-country pioneers like Gram Parsons and the Band would play the roughneck Kamm's Corners biker bar known for hosting Lynyrd Skynyrd cover bands, the Fords' music has a mean streak that appeals to both hipsters and bikers.
The Jack Fords came together five years ago when Kirby and guitarist Bobby Latina met at a Sunday-night jam session at the defunct Town Fryer restaurant. Hayshaker Jones' Clint Holley hosted the events that brought together local roots-rock musicians.
"I went up there and played 'Grievous Angel' by Gram Parsons," recalls Kirby. "There was applause afterward, and I was shocked that the people there knew who Gram Parsons was. Bobby and I started talking and became friends."
At that point, Latina, the guitarist with local cowpunk stalwarts the Cowslingers, had started a new band following the 'slingers' breakup. He was looking for a singer.
"I heard him sing and thought he would fit in with what I was trying to do," says Latina. "We connected the dots of our influences and realized we had a lot in common."
They started writing songs immediately, and within months released their 2006 debut, Bent Outta Shape, which they recorded live at the Town Fryer.
"Our idea was to get something out as quick as possible," says Kirby. "We wanted to capture that momentum and figured that was the best way to do it."
"Economically, it made sense too," adds Latina.
The band, which also includes bassist Ed Sotelo and drummer Jim Wall, went through numerous lineup changes that delayed the release of its sophomore album.
"It's like a relationship," says Kirby. "You try to work things out, and maybe it works and maybe it doesn't. Bands are relationships, really. It's like having four or five girlfriends. They all have moods. You want to have it so that there's no maintenance. That's what's nice about this lineup."
Once the group solidified, they recruited producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel (Del Lords, Steve Earle, Ryan Adams). Latina knew Ambel from his Cowslingers days, so he sent him a 14-song demo he thought Roscoe might like.
"I figured our music, which is roots rock, is very much in the vein of his," says Latina. "Roscoe said he could do something with it, but he wanted to hear all the songs on acoustic guitar. So Brent had to re-record all the songs."
Ambel drove in from New York one weekend, and they cut the new album, The Way Things Should Be, in three days at Painesville's Suma studios. It's a terrific mix of barroom rock that kicks off hard and heavy with the ZZ Top-like "Cutting Blow" and settles into a groove for "Old Habits Die Hard" and "Together We Rise," ballads that recall the poppier side of the Old 97's.
"He really kicked our ass on a lot of stuff," says Kirby. "I think he was once referred to as rock 'n' roll's greatest traffic cop. He keeps you completely focused, and there's no dicking around. It was a great experience."
You can distinctly hear Kirby and Latina's different influences. In "Done You Right" and "Smoke 'n' Spirits," Kirby has to really stretch his vocals to be heard above the din.
"When I write for the Fords, I write in a different vein [from his solo work]," says Kirby. "I try to write songs with great guitar-solo progressions. Bobby will come up with a kick-ass riff, and I'll have my lyrics, and then he'll add a kick-ass guitar solo."
While the band is a terrific live act, embarking on a lengthy tour to support the album isn't in the cards.
"The truth is that we have kids and full-time jobs," says Kirby. "It's too hard to get out for extended periods of time, so our mantra is to work smarter and do some regional touring a couple of weekends a month."
Not that the inability to tour behind the record diminishes it in any way.
"We just wanted to make a great record with a great producer," says Latina. "So it was worth the wait."
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