James Lewis Carter Ford, also known by the moniker T-Model Ford, is the blues. That is to say, the blues isn’t just a way to describe his music but also his lifestyle – hard times and hard liquor, bad women and colorful friends, working class jobs and prison time, sweaty nights in the deep south and shakin’ smoky juke joint dives from ceiling to floor all night long with his extensive repertoire. What’s more, Ford lived the life for nearly sixty years before even taking up the guitar and considering a career as a musician. He was a bluesman in real life before he was a bluesman on people’s stereos, before he was gracing stages of venues around the world, before he was a face on the sleeves of so many compact discs and pieces of vinyl. And that is undoubtedly what he will be until his dying day.
At ninety years of age T-Model Ford is still going strong, and his latest release on Alive Naturalsound Records, “Taledragger,” proves just that. Together with backing band GravelRoad, T-Model Ford has laid down eight new tracks for “Taledragger,” his eighth album to date, and his second on Alive Naturalsound. It’s not a surprise that he no longer releases his albums on the Fat Possum label, where he spent much of his early music career, as they deal less and less with blues artists as the years go by. And so, for all intents and purposes, Ford has found a decidedly better home label with Alive Naturalsound. And while changing labels, he also switched gears a bit in the sound department for his new release.
Though T-Model Ford resides in the Delta, his style often leans more towards the hill country set, like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, along with traces of old Chicago blues, like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. But if one were to get right down to it, one would admit that T-Model Ford has long since developed his own unique sound; a sound which melds the traditional with the modern in a way that would have most singer/songwriters falling flat on their faces, but not T-Model Ford, who welcomes the challenge with a sly grin and a practiced hand. And it’s a sound that has remained encouragingly consistent throughout the years, from his wild 1997 debut “Pee-Wee Get My Gun” up to the present with “Taledragger.” And though there is a lot to appreciate on the new “Taledragger” album, it is undeniable that some of T-Model Ford’s most chaotic and stripped-down material was on his early Fat Possum releases. The change in sound, however, is no doubt due to Ford moving on from just he and his drummer Spam to the full band arrangement. In short, it gives his sound a less raw and primal edge, making it slightly cleaner and more refined, for lack of a better way to put it.
“Taledragger” is in and of itself a solid and praiseworthy collection of songs. Some of the standouts, however, are the opener "Same Old Train," the eight-minute romp "Big Legged Woman," the mellow and thoughtful "I Worn My Body for So Long," and the blues standard closer "Little Red Rooster." Much of what one hears on “Taledragger” are Ford’s interpretations of blues classics by other artists. But that’s one of the many great things about the blues: the songs have been swapped back and forth from artist to artist, so that there are several versions of them all.
When mentioning T-Model Ford’s age I should have said “around ninety,” since he is unable to remember his exact date of birth. Be that as it may, it seems as if Ford is in it for the long haul. After suffering a dislocated hip, a heart attack, and a stroke, the persistent bluesman keeps recording and touring. At that is no doubt what he will be doing at the end.