Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Meeting T-Model Ford

Gritty distortion lingers in the speakers as James Louis Carter Ford politely nods at his cheering fans and briefly puts his guitar in his lap. He produces a flask from his jacket pocket and unscrews the lid.

"What time is it, T?" Asks someone in the audience.

The 89-year-old takes a swig and bares his teeth.

"It's Jack Daniels time!"

The audience laughs and cheers even louder.

T-Model Ford was one of the reasons I was so excited to move to Jackson, Mississippi. I was first introduced to his music while playing in a Blues band in Kentucky when I was in college. The first song of his I heard was called "I'm Insane," where he crows over a guttural guitar riff about how he's been to jail and how his wife, Stella, better not let him catch her messing around. The lyrics are hilarious, but also raw and gritty. We played the song over and over and laughed until we had tears in our eyes. Since then, I've been a huge T-Model fan and he's earned his place on my list of all-time favorite Blues musicians.

After I moved to Jackson, I fantasized about getting to meet T-Model one day. He's from Forest, and I'm a sucker for Delta Blues, so I had it in my mind that I'd track him down at a local Blues festival one day a few months down the road, or whenever he came around to the area.

That was until I casually opened an issue of the Jackson Free Press, and saw his name in bold letters. He was playing on Saturday the 17th at the Ridgeland festival, just a few days away! I wrote it down in my planner and made sure not to miss it.

Saturday was a cold day in Ridgeland; folks were clad in barn coats and hats, and hot chocolate was selling by the ladleful at a local storefront. I rushed around, asking passers by if they knew when T-Model was playing. Most of them shrugged and said they didn't know, but one pointed me in the direction of a festival organizer named Ron Blaylock, who owned a recording studio in town.

"Hey, T-Model hasn't played yet, has he?" I asked frantically.

"No, he doesn't play until 6:45. I don't imagine he'll be here until 5:30 or so. But he'll be by the stage, so just go on and grab him if you see him," Blaylock told me.

After polishing off a heaping pile of ribs from the Parker House people and an Oktoberfest-style beer tasting, I wandered back over to the stage and started up a conversation with the singer of the Common Ground Blues Band, who had just performed. After some conversation about the Jackson Blues scene, I asked him about T-Model.

"T-Model? He's over in that white car over there."

I looked over and saw an old, beat-up Buick idled by the stage. Curiously, I walked around to the passenger's side to get a look at who was in the car. An wizened old black man rolled down his window and flashed a hospitable smile.

"Hey boy, how do?" T-Model Ford extended his hand, and I shook it, unable to suppress a Cheshire Cat grin from spreading across my face.

I told T-Model who I was, that I was a big fan, and that he was the main reason I drove to Ridgeland that day. I asked his driver and bass player, Eric Deaton, if I could interview him after his set.

"Well, we're actually looking to get out of here real soon after the show. But we can do it now, if you like."

"Great! Is there a place we could go that's a little quieter?" I inquired. We were right next to the stage, and Gary Pfaff & the Heartwells were in the middle of their set.

"Actually, since its really cold out here, could we just do the thing in the car here so T can keep his hands warm?" I readily agreed, and helped Eric unload an amp and a mic stand from the back seat. I climbed inside and turned on my recorder to capture living Blues history.

Describing the octogenarian bluesman as a colorful character would be equivalent to describing the Gulf of Mexico as damp. He's living proof that anyone can learn a musical instrument, no matter their age or condition.

"I can't read, I can't write, I can't spell my real name." Ford said. "I didn't put my hand on a guitar until I was 58 years old."

Since that age, Ford said his biggest influences have always been Delta Blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, whom he had been listening to since his teenage years. T-Model still remembers the first song he ever played.

"It was 'How many more years baby you gonna dog me around.' (Howlin' Wolf) And that's what I come out playin' when I picked up a guitar and caught myself tryin' to play," Ford said.

Bassist Eric Deaton has known T-Model for several years. While they don't turn on the radio much on long road trips, he said Ford will always listen to old Delta Blues recordings.

"Anytime we get on the road, T always asks me to put in a Muddy Waters CD," Deaton said.

Before his days as a Blues guitarist, the Forest native lived a life that would make Ernest Hemingway blush. He was once sentenced to ten years on a chain gang for murder, although he only ended up serving two.

"I was the devil when I was a younger man," T-Model said. "I was the type of man who'd walk up to you, laugh at you, and knock the hell outta you."

Ford said his roughest days were more than 30 years ago, when he first started playing out. He recalled a story from playing a club in Greenville, Mississippi.

"I slapped a man, he was six foot tall, workin' for the city. He snatched a cigarette outta my mouth," Ford said. "I took my strap off, set my guitar down...he pulled a pistol out. When he pulled that pistol, I slapped him...Blood went everywhere. He bawled, I looked down, kicked him all upside the head. He didn't get up...I heard he had a stroke after that. I don't think he ever came back to Greenville...I didn't feel sorry for him."

T-Model Ford described his reputation as a "sure enough dangerous man."

"I didn't let nobody whoop me. I didn't argue with you. Like I tell you, me and you get in an argument...I'll done hit you before you know it. I didn't care how big you were...ain't nobody ever whooped me before. Even in the shape I'm in, I don't think anybody could whoop me now."

Nowadays, T-Model is a devout Christian. He said he turned his life around after he was nearly crushed inside of his car.

"A tree fell on me, and the good lord is takin' care of me, cause that tree laid on me thirty minutes before they got it off of me," Ford said. "It broke my arm, broke my hands. I believe it broke my legs, but the doctor said it didn't."

"The good lord kept me livin. So now, I ain't got no dirt in me. I like the white peoples now."

Ford says even in his late eighties, he feels just as spry as he did when he was twenty. He attributes that to his life as a traveling Bluesman.

"I feel just as good as I ever felt in my life right now," he said. "I don't be sick, neither. Anytime anybody calls me to go, I'm ready. I don't turn down nothin'."

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