Call it the Stomp Factor: the music’s ability to pound you into a pulp, and to make you like the beating.
Mississippi bluesman T-Model Ford has enough raw Stomp in him to leave you jaw-broke and bloody, flashing your ruined-teeth grin up from the ground where you lay.
It’s not merely Ford’s hot ‘n’ humid guitarmanship, which blends untainted power with melodic intuition.
It isn’t just the rhythm, which struts like a fighting cock, oozing in and out of time like roux gravy dumped on the hands of a clock.
And it’s more than that certain something in Ford’s voice: a deep, dark, manly wheeziness, like the nagging taste of cheap corn liquor stale in your mouth the ugly morning after — stray hairs of the dog that chewed up one side of your life and back down the other.
No, a big part of it has to be the violence.
The cover of Ford’s sloppy, amazing Pee Wee Get My Gun (Fat Possum, 1997) shows a child — the son of a friend of Ford’s current girlfriend, Stella — aiming a real pistol at the camera. The boy doesn’t look like he’s playing.
And then there are the boasts: “I’ll put my foot in your ass,” Ford threatens on one song. “I’m gonna kick your ass.”
It’s hard to know if he still could — at 76, his dislocated hip often necessitates a wooden cane. But Fat Possum, his brassy little record label in Oxford, Miss. (home also to novelist John Grisham), paints a picture of a young T-Model as the kind of trouble you just don’t live to tell about.
“I’ve been shot, and I’ve been cut,” declares another song, adding fuel to the fire. “I’ve been hit upside the head.”
But underneath all the mythmaking stands a man — and he’s still bigger than life.
He was born James Lewis Carter Ford to a sharecropping family in the town of Forest, Miss., where he never attended a day of school.
“Cain’t read, cain’t spell, cain’t write,” Ford explained by phone recently. “I got a good head on me, but I just cain’t do that.”
Recalling childhood elicits a litany of back-breaking work: “Plowin’ mule, pullin’ crosscut saw, diggin’ ditches and cuttin’ wood, hoein’ off ditch banks, pickin’ cotton.”
As for idle time: “Huntin’ rabbit with nigger shooters, sticks, dogs, all like that.
“When I left the farm and got grown,” Ford adds, “I went to workin’ at a sawmill. I worked out from under that, and then I went to drivin’ a log truck. I got a couple legs broke, and like that.”
By that time, he’d moved west along Mississippi’s Interstate 20, to Greenville — and delta country.
And somewhere in there, there were five marriages. And some kids.
“Yeah,” brags Ford. “Got a bunch of children. They say I’m the daddy of 26 of ’em.”
“I believe what they say.”
But it wasn’t until the tender age of 58 (that’s right) that Ford consummated a very different romance — with the guitar.
“My last wife bought me [my first] guit-tar when I was drivin’ a log truck,” he explains. “I said, ‘Baby, what you spendin’ my money buyin’ somethin’ like that? I cain’t play no guit-tar.’ She said, ‘Well, you can learn.‘ I said, ‘As old as I is?’ So when she left me that night, I picked it up, and I startin’ tunin’ and hittin’ some good numbers on it — Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
“They made fun of me right here in Greenville — till I got [good],” he adds.
T-Model did much of his woodshedding on the river town’s rough Nelson Street. (“There’s many drugs there,” he notes. “I don’t fool with it. I drink a little whiskey, now.”) Before long, there were new nicknames, like “Boss of the Blues Guitar.”
Nelson Street is also where Ford met his current drummer, Spam.
“I tried him, and he’s done all right,” Ford concedes. “And I just kept foolin’ with him to where I got him up to where he at now.