T Model Ford
People like you and I don’t know people like T-Model Ford. Sure, we hear about them from time to time, but it’s always in some very far off, mythical sense.
T-Model Ford is one of the original blues artists on the Fat Possum Records label. In its early days, Fat Possum specialized in raw recordings of hardscrabble Delta bluesmen. Most were completely self-taught and completely unconventional. Now that Fat Possum has gone more in the direction of indie rock, T-Model has recorded for Mudpuppy Records and, most recently, has issued a few albums for Alive Records.
I first met T-Model Ford in 2008. After following him for a few years, I found out he was going to play at Off Broadway in St. Louis (the best live music club around, for the record). I set up an interview and was very, very nervous going into it. Up until then, in any pictures of or interviews with him that I’d seen, the man was just plain scary. Rough, tough, and MEAN. He looked mean and sounded mean.
But age must have gentled him down. He was kind, gentlemanly, and grandfatherly. A teddy bear. Make no mistake – he’s a teddy bear that’d kill you, but he’s still a teddy bear.
T-Model Ford’s real name is James Lewis Carter Ford. A white man he was working for gave him the nick-name T-Model. He grew up in and still lives in Greenville, Mississippi and got a big kick out of the fact that I was from Greenville, IL.
T-Model is now approximately 90 years old. I say approximately because it’s everyone’s best guess; he has no way of knowing for sure.
He told me that his father “rode me hard” when he was a boy. When he was very young, his daddy beat him so badly once that he split his sack and tore one of his nuts off. Following that story, T-Model IMMEDIATELY told me that even though he “only had one”, he still fathered 26 children – THAT HE KNOWS OF. There could be more. He couldn’t tell me how many grandchildren he had.
He bragged on one grandson in particular; an 11-year old who serves as his drummer back home. But “he can’t handle the road”. He said, “I sho’ wish you could hear him play with me”. A proud granddad 🙂
In his younger days, T-Model Ford killed a man in a knife fight. He was stabbed in the back, which felt “like a piece of hot iron going in”. He immediately turned around and grabbed his knife, “one o’ them ol’ 25 cent switchblade knives and opened it with my teeth – I had good teeth back then” and swung at the man who stabbed him. He cut his throat and killed the man. T hid out in a hole for a few days before he was caught. He was put on a chain gang and served two years of a ten-year sentence. He was put in a penitentiary later for another offense.
Throughout his life, T-Model has been shot, stabbed, and poisoned. He “cain’t read, cain’t write, ain’t never been to school a day in my life.”
At the time of our first interview, T-Model had been married 5 times.
His fourth wife bought him a Gibson electric guitar and amp for his birthday, but he never bothered to learn it. The day she left him, he told me he “watched her drive away, and I looked up at that moon, and I said, ‘God, she done left…it’s just you and me now.” He walked back inside his house, “saw that guitar…and said, “I’m gon’ learn me to play that muthee-fucka.”
He was 58 years old then. He walked me through his process of getting out the guitar, turning on the amp, and making some noise with it. Within a week he thought he “had somethin’”. He’s never had any formal training. He recorded his first album in his mid-70s.
After his 5th marriage, T-Model said he was “done with that”. At the time of my 2008 visit with him, he’d been with “Stella” – who he sings about a lot – for almost 20 years. She “TRIES” to keep him on the straight and narrow 🙂
The second time I met T-Model, in 2010, I’d heard a rumor that he’d gotten married. I asked…could it be true?!?!? He grinned, “MAN!!! She tricked me, man!!” I forget the explanation he gave, but I’m sure it made sense at the time…she conned him into a trip to the courthouse and they were married. They recently celebrated their first anniversary.
A free fell on T-Model several years ago, which permanently messed up his hip. He walks with a cane and has a hard time getting around. He also had some serious heart trouble about three years ago and had a pacemaker put in. He forced me to rub his chest so I could feel the coils inside.
When I saw him in 2010 he’d recently suffered a stroke. He told me it had caused some problems in one of his hands and he couldn’t play quite like he wanted to.
I asked him if all of these stories, all of these hard times, and all these heartaches were what made him want to sing the blues.
He said, emphatically, “NO WAY! The big man up above has been good to me and He’s what makes me want to do this.” I said, “Yeah, He is good”. He looked me like I was crazy and said “GOOD??? He’s the BEST!”
When asked how he still did this at nearly 90 and how long he’d keep it up, he said “As long as I can. As long as HE lets me do it. Only He knows.” He’s had that stroke since then and is still doin’ it.
And man, can he do it. T-Model doesn’t play like anyone else I’ve ever seen or heard…and he makes a glorious sound like no one else, too. He takes pride in the fact that his fingers aren’t calloused in his fretting hand (most guitar players have tough fingertips). His are “like doctor’s cotton”.
He’s also pretty competitive with that guitar. There were three opening bands the first time I saw T-Model and me and my buddy Bill got to sit with T during each of the openers. Every time someone did something flashy with a guitar or got a big response from the audience, T looked at me and shook his head…”I ain’t scared of ‘em,” he’d say.
Another frequent occurrence during both of our interviews was that any time a woman – ANY woman – came into the club, he’d tap my knee under the table or elbow me in the side, motion to her with his eyes, and grin. He even did it from the stage. It was a bit like junior high…but I gotta admit, it was fun.
During the interviews and all of the opening bands, T-Model sat very still. He didn’t even tap his toes to the music. He told me he never practices his guitar; he only plays guitar on stage. He doesn’t even listen to music.
He told me when he was a young boy, he heard one Muddy Waters song and one Howlin’ Wolf song. He only heard them each once, but they stuck with him his whole life. When he decided to try and play music, he went after the sounds of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf that he’d kept tucked away in his mind for over 50 years.
Each time I’ve seen T-Model Ford live in concert it was plainly obvious that we – the audience – made this man’s night. After all of the hardship and struggle he’s been through in his 90-ish years, he’s living the life. He’s good at what he does, he is respected, and he loves the fan adoration.
He deserves it.
My favorite part of encountering T-Model Ford is his graciousness and generosity. He’s glad to do what he’s doing and he’s glad to be appreciated. And he reciprocates it.
During our first interview, T’s road crew went out and got him some dinner. When they put his chicken and fries in front of him he asked if my buddy and I had eaten dinner yet. We hadn’t and he insisted that we share his food with him. We objected, but he wasn’t taking no for an answer.
After each concert, as I left the venue, T had a crew of young people (mostly college-aged, mostly girls…go figure) sitting at his feet on the stage. I still smile at the thought of what wisdom he must have been passing on to them…
So, if I accomplish nothing else in my life, I can say I’ve felt the pacemaker of and double-dipped with one of the baddest men alive. I can live with that.
It TRULY does my heart good to know that T-Model has reached some level of notoriety and success and that he’s out there doing his thang. God bless him.
T-Model Ford will play this Thursday, May 26th at Off Broadway in St. Louis. There won’t be many more chances to see him play live. And you definitely won’t have many opportunities to meet someone like James Lewis Carter “T-Model” Ford. There’s only one phrase that seems appropriate for an invitation like this (one that I’ll borrow from my good buddy Ian)…GET THINE ASS TO OFF BROADWAY THIS THURSDAY NIGHT AND SEE ONE OF THE LAST TRULY GREAT DELTA BLUESMEN.