T-Model Ford swears he’s gonna live to be 110. God told him so in a dream.
Of course, when he’ll hit that age no one knows for sure, because no one knows exactly how old the rakish bluesman is now, not even Ford himself. (He’s anywhere from 85 to 91, depending on who you ask and what documents you’re looking at.)
Say hello to the last of the real Delta bluesmen.
Ever since Fat Possum Records first stumbled across him in the mid-1990s, Ford has become a living legend among gritty blues fans. (A young Dan Auerbach, before The Black Keys days, once drove 24 hours from Ohio to Mississippi just to meet him.) His distinctive, self-taught playing style is both hypnotizing and, at times, totally bizarre. Like on his latest album, Taledragger, it’s a ramshackle mix of raw, fuzzed-out electric blues, rhythmic juke-joint stomp and swampy psychedelia.
“Well, I heard Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf when I was a little boy,” Ford says while sitting out in his yard in Greenville, Miss., “and I liked that sound and it growed up in me. Now the people, when I come in from work, take my bath and everything, they come over: ‘T-Model, you wanna come over to the house and play a little guitar?’ I say, ‘Well, I guess so.’ I get ready and go over there, there’d be a bunch there, waiting on me. And they love my sound.”
Like a lot of the old hard-living, whiskey-and-women bluesmen, Ford claims a pretty colorful bio, to say the least. Here’s a quick Cliff’s Notes version to get you caught up:
Born James Lewis Carter Ford in Forest, Miss., circa 1920, by age 6 he was plowing his family’s farm behind a mule. As a kid, his father once beat him so bad with a piece of firewood that he lost a testicle. He got a job at a local sawmill in his early teens, eventually working his way up to driving the log truck (his skills earned him the nickname “T-Model”).
At one point, as a young man, Ford was hanging out, drinking with some women, when a jealous guy came up and stabbed him in the back. Ford pulled out his switchblade and cut the guy’s throat. He was sentenced to 10 years for murder, which got reduced to two years on a chain gang.
His first wife, whom he married at 17, ran away with his father. Another died after she drank poison, trying to induce a miscarriage. Overall, he’s been married six times, and he’s told he has 26 children (not all from his marriages).
And somewhere along the line, Ford found the blues.
“I didn’t start tilI was 58 years old,” he says. “My third wife bought a guitar and an amplifier, at one of those things they have on the street, selling stuff. They had this guitar and amplifier. She had the money. She gave ‘em $50 for the whole thang.”
He didn’t know how to play it; the guitar ended up sitting in the corner, collecting dust. Until the day she left him. That’s the night Ford got drunk off a jug of corn whiskey, pulled out the guitar and taught himself how to play the blues.
These days, Ford’s cut down on the drinking. But, man, can he still write a tune.
“I sit out in my yard,” he says, describing his songwriting process. “I got a shade tree over here. Drink me some whiskey. I don’t drink like I used to. Doctor told me I could take a little sip, but don’t overdo it. So that’s what I’m doing.”
He also married again recently, this time to his longterm girlfriend, Stella. Ford fans know her name well. Ever since his first album, 1997’s Pee-Wee Get My Gun, Stella’s name has popped up in number of Ford’s tunes (probably most infamously in the song “I’m Insane”).
“She sitting here in the yard, listening to me talking,” Ford says with a roguish chuckle. “She won’t say nothing. I think she’s sort of mad with me. ‘Cause people talk about how nice I is, how I can play that guitar and sang the blues. White ladies come up and want to hug and kiss on me.” He laughs. “I turn my head when they go to kiss me on my mouth.”
Not that he’s complaining.
“Yeah, I’m happy in my life. I asked the Lord to let me live till 110 years old. So he keeping me in good health or something. It have to be the good Lord. It can’t be nobody else, ‘cause there ain’t but one good Lord, and he got me living.”
Amen to that.
— Miles Britton is an Asheville-based freelance writer.
who: T-Model Ford and Amy Lavere
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, July 24 (8 p.m., $12 advance/$15 doors. thegreyeagle.com)