CONCERT REVIEW: T Model Ford (May 26, 2011 @ Off Broadway in St. Louis)
Last night I learned the secret of healthy living and longevity.
I always wondered how so many of the hard-living, hard-luck folks you see in the beyond-dirt-poor areas of the almost-Third World southern states live so stinkin’ long and through so much.
I mean, haven’t you ever seen that: photos of really old folks with weathered faces who’ve persevered in life and lived beyond the normal life expectancy despite considerable odds that would’ve done in folks like you and me in White Bread Land before we got out of junior high?
That secret is THA BLUUUUUUUUES.
I went to see blues great, T-Model Ford, for the third time last night; and, as always, had a life-affirming, spirit-renewing good time.
Never before had I needed a concert so badly. Money blues – job blues – life blues. Everything was adding up and taking its toll. The T-Model Ford blues cured it all. Helped me shake off whatever was weighing on me and keep persevering another day.
And I realized: all of those stories of blues dudes like T-Model Ford playing in little roadside juke joints and house parties — the stories of folks dancing the night away, drinking homemade white whiskey and eating fried catfish — those aren’t just cool stories that seem foreign to folks like you and me. Those are stories of real life. Perseverance. THA BLUUUUUUUUES.
It’s a story as old as time: Folks work hard all week. Work for the man. Take more crap than they ought to have to. Fret about money. Struggle. Strife. Get by.
And then: Friday comes. You hear about some live music happening, and you think that’s gotta be better than sitting around the house looking at each other and thinking about everything bad that happened in the last week. So you go check it out. And you have a drink. And you enjoy the music. Maybe the drink limbers you up a little and you go from tappin’ your foot to swingin’ that booty.
Before you even realize it, you’re singing along and full-on cuttin’ a rug and don’t give a damn who sees you or what they think about your dancing skillz.
You’re sweaty. Soaked clear through. Smelly. More worn out than you even thought was possible.
But you haven’t given a thought to the troubles of the week in several hours. And now that you try to think about them, you don’t so much see what the big deal was.
And you sleep like a baby that night.
You get up the next morning (or afternoon), clean and refreshed, and able to face the world again for a few more days.
My buddy, Bill, coined a phrase at last night’s concert: “North Mississippi Hill Country Therapy.” That’s what it was; a therapy session with no words (other than what T-Model Ford was singing). An intense work-out. An exorcising of demons. A letting go. A moving on. An inspiration.
T-Model Ford and his peers live in what’s commonly called the North Mississippi Hill Country, an area of the Mississippi Delta. Like much of the Deep South, it’s a poverty stricken area full of hard-working people, working harder than many other folks just to get by.
T-Model Ford thinks he’s 90, but no one can tell for sure. He has 26 children and more grandchildren than he can count. He’s been on the chain gang, in the penitentiary, and in jail “every weekend there for a while.” His dad beat him so badly as a little boy that he ripped one of his testicles off. He’s been married six times. He killed a man in a bar fight. A tree once fell right on top of him. He’s been shot, stabbed, and poisoned. He had serious heart issues in his mid-80s. He had a stroke at the age of 88 or so. And not only is he still alive; but he still tours the country, singing THA BLUUUUUUUUES for people like me and you who can scarcely believe that someone like T-Model Ford actually exists.
I’ve been blessed to interview T-Model Ford prior to each of his three concerts at Off-Broadway in St. Louis. I’m beyond blessed that I’ve been able to get to know T-Model and Marty Reinsel (the drummer of the band GravelRoad who takes T out on the road and serves as his touring drummer) and can call them friends.
I entered Off Broadway last night and met up with Marty. We hung out on the sidewalk in front of the club for an hour or so, just visiting. A few older guys walked by, each wearing a T-shirt from a blues festival in a different city, and they joined our conversation. Die-hard North Mississippi Hill Country blues fans are a pretty dedicated – and, unfortunately, very small – bunch, and it’s neat to see the community that naturally takes place between us.
There was an early concert at Off Broadway that night – some independent folky singer-songwriter-type dude – and T-Model Ford sat in the audience and took it in. When he was done, our sidewalk delegation entered the club. I strolled up to T, re-introduced myself and asked if he remembered me. He said he did; but, honestly, with T, you never can tell (about anythang).
We did the interview as the Off Broadway crew took down the chairs that had been set up for the early show, leaving only the ones that T and I were sitting in, along with a small table for T’s ever-present glass of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.
Once the interview was done, there was quite a bit of time before the opening band for T-Model’s show took the stage. We visited some more and he asked if I was drinkin’. I said I would be and he reached into his pocket to get some money to buy me a whiskey. I refused and said I could take care of it. But I was more than flattered at the gesture. Before I headed to the bar, I told T to save my seat.
I’ve told tales many times before of T-Model’s love of the ladies. Every time one walked in, not only did he check her out (which has been his M.O. the past few times I’ve met him); this time he invited them right over and immediately asked each of them if they were married. What a fun exchange to watch.
Even when the ladies sat with him to visit, once they moved on, he kept his arm wrapped around my seat, saving it for me, as he promised. Each time I left and returned, he made sure I knew he’d saved it for me.
Two or three times, I told T that I’d move along so he could enjoy some other people’s company. Every time I said so, he said, “YOU OKAY! I saved your seat.” So I stayed. I felt kinda odd – especially after the opening band started – and T and I were the only ones seated (right in the middle of the dance floor), but when a dude like T-Model Ford wants to hang with you….YOU HANG.
We visited throughout the evening and I took great joy in hearing his stories. I was also excited to see that he really seemed to enjoy the opening band. Every time I’ve seen T before, he’s always been very still. He never expressed himself through others’ music much. The last time I’d seen him, he was fresh off of suffering a stroke and he wasn’t quite himself. He wasn’t nearly as animated as he’d been the first time I met him and his mind wasn’t overly sharp. He’d start one story and end with part of an entirely different story. He’d forget where he was headed with a thought, etc.
But last night, he was on the money. And he was having a good time. He immediately picked up his cane and played air guitar on it throughout the opening band’s set. As always, though…he did look at me anytime the band did anything flashy, or anything that elicited a big response from the audience, he looked at me and said, “I ain’t scared of ‘em, though…”
When the time came for T to hit the stage, his band was already in place. So I had the privilege of escorting him to the stage. With a bit of difficulty (he’s a 90 year old man with a bad hip, a cane, and the effects of a stroke, and the stage at Off Broadway involves a BIG step), we got him onstage and Marty began to get him situated. Just as I was getting ready to head back to my seat, Marty shouted, “Hey Ryan…can you hold Black Mattie?” I had one of those frozen-time moments.
Black Mattie is T-Model Ford’s guitar. The divinely-touched instrument that he coaxes those beautifully rough North Mississippi Hill Country BLUUUUUUUUES sounds from.
I immediately remembered a story I’d heard about Eric Clapton, who was humbled to be able to perform onstage with one of his idols, the legendary Albert Collins. (I’m pretty sure it was A.C.). One of Collins’ guitar techs handed Collins’ axe out on stage and asked Clapton to pass it over to its owner. Clapton refused. He later explained his superstitious belief in the power of a bluesman’s guitar. He didn’t want to interrupt whatever juju the instrument had working through it with his own mojo.
I took the risk and grabbed hold of ol’ Black Mattie and when T was seated and ready to roll, I respectfully placed this mighty vessel in the hands of her master.
And he went to town.
I don’t remember exactly what songs T played and that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that I couldn’t even tell what a few of them were. It doesn’t matter that you can’t always make out what he’s singing. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t even bother singing into the mic part of the time. It doesn’t matter that he performed “Mannish Boy” twice, about 15 minutes apart. It doesn’t matter that a few times he’d start one song and by the time it ended he’d used the second half of an entirely different song.
It matters that he showed up.
It matters that he loves the people who come to see him.
It matters that T-Model Ford gives it his all. For us.
T-Model Ford picked up a guitar for the first time at the age of 58. Within a week he’d gotten good enough that he was invited to play house parties. He didn’t record his first album until he was 75 or so.
He plays in a way I’ve never seen before. I’m certainly not a musician, but I’ve seen enough guitar players to know that T does it differently. He does it his own way. And it works.
T-Model Ford needs to play THA BLUUUUUUUUES. He needs to do what he does. I can only assume that it does the same thing for him as it does for his audience.
Everyone left in a good mood last night. A little North Mississippi Hill Country Therapy did us all good.
I looked around the audience several times. At one point I saw my buddy’s dad jammin’ away, stompin’ his foot HARD and snappin’ his fingers. That was the first time I’d met the man, and while I knew he was a big music fan, I got the impression he wasn’t typically an overly-expressive music consumer. But he was moved.
Of all the girls T flirted with before the show, there was one girl in particular who I thought could have spelled trouble for all of us. Most girls humor T with his “are you married” shtick. He’s 90. He can hardly walk. He’s a sweet (albeit vurrrry, vurrrry durrrrrty old man). He’s not exactly “a threat.”
But this one girl – very pretty and in her mid-thirties – laughed when he asked if she was married. Then she smiled. Real big. Eventually she managed to say, “Well….officially, yes…but not for long.” And then there was that fire in T’s eyes. And an awkward pause. Believe it or not, a really long, very awkward pause. And for probably the first and only time in my life, I don’t mind using the cliché, “You could cut the tension with a knife.”
The girl’s friend, and I, and the guys I was there with all kinda looked at each other, jaws on the floor, eyes like saucers. Even though none of us could muster words, there was a definite communication happening: YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.THIS ISN’T REALLY HAPPENING IS IT? THIS CAN’T REALLY HAPPEN, CAN IT?!?!?!?!?
The girl eventually snapped out of it (whatever it was she was in) and walked away. But I looked at her several times during the show; and while she was watching T-Model, she never, ever lost that genuine smile on her face.
One of the guys I was at the show with marveled to me afterwards, “Dude! You really danced tonight. Way more than when we saw Social Distortion.”
It was a beautiful night. We were all washed clean of whatever ailed us. Soon-to-be-ex-husband trouble. Work trouble. Money trouble. Woman trouble. Lack-of-woman trouble. Health problems. Whatever they were, they were taken care of. We received first-hand North Mississippi Hill Country Therapy and were all baptized by the divine cleansing power of THA BLUUUUUUUUES as only T-Model Ford can deliver ‘em.
With him being 90 years old, you never know when T-Model will stop doin’ his thang (voluntarily, involuntarily, or mortally). So if you’re interested in seeing him, do it when you can. After spending the evening with him and building a friendship with him and Marty over the last few years, I felt OK giving him a farewell hug. I wasn’t sure how he’d respond (after all…as I said in an earlier blog post…T-Model Ford is a teddy bear. He’s a teddy bear that would kill you without thinking twice…but he IS a teddy bear).
I said my goodbyes and told him quickly I was gonna give him a hug. As I leaned in awkwardly, he said, “OK.” I gave him one of those “safe side hugs” and he laid his head back on my shoulder for a few seconds.
I hope I see him again.
But whether I do or not, I now know – without a single doubt – the secret to a long and healthy life.
The blues can be a longing thing (you need a woman). They can be a sad thing (your man left you). They can be a fun thing (me and my woman are happy and want to celebrate). They can be a renewing thing (when it’s sho’nuff been a week and you need some more North Mississippi Hill Country Therapy).
It cures what ails you.
Bring on THA BLUUUUUUUUES.
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