The album was recorded over a three to four week period for approximately $18,000, with most funding coming from the PolyGram Group in Baarn, the Netherlands on the basis of hearing an 8-song demo tape assembled by production team Cashman & West. The deal with PolyGram was made after team attorney Phil Kurnit approached a contact within the record company who then had PolyGram executives to listen to the demo tape.
After having the finished album rejected by up to 40 record labels, Croce was signed to ABC Records after Cashman & West had a chance meeting with ABC promotion man Marty Kupps. Kupps urged label head Jay Lasker to sign Croce after hearing cuts from a cassette tape of the finished album.
The record spent 93 weeks on the charts, longer than any other Jim Croce album. Due to the strong performance of the posthumous single release "Time in a Bottle" (#1 pop, #1 AC), You Don't Mess Around with Jim was the best selling album in the U.S. for five weeks in early 1974. It was listed at #6 on the 1974 Cash Box yearend album charts. Two singles were originally released from the album in 1972: the title track (#8 pop) and "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)" (#17 pop).
The album was issued on CD by the Rhino Flashbacks record label on September 30, 2008.
The lyrics of the title track concern the fate of a 'pool-shooting son-of-a-gun' by the name of 'Big' Jim Walker when his 'mark,' Slim, from a south Alabama Honkytonk shows up to get a refund from being hustled or get revenge. The song is notable for the line "You don't tug on Superman's cape/You don't spit into the wind/You don't pull the mask off that ol' Lone Ranger/And you don't mess around with Jim." However, after the song ends with Jim being thoroughly thrashed by his victim ("he'd been cut 'n 'bout a hundred places/ and he'd been shot in a couple more"), the chorus now sings about how "You don't mess around with Slim."
Kid Rock covered "Box #10" in 1995 as part of The Bootleg Series. Jesse Malin covered "Operator" on his 2008 album On Your Sleeve. On an episode of the ABC drama Eli Stone, Victor Garber performed this song in one of Eli's visions.
Tori Amos covered "Operator" live in 2005 while on her Original Sinsuality Tour. An official live recording can be found in The Original Bootlegs box set.