T-Model Ford Lives Large

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ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, MAY 20, 2004

By Steve Newton

Multiplatinum gangsta-rapper 50 Cent is famous for the several bullet wounds he sports. Big freakin’ deal: T-Model Ford’s been shot, stabbed, and poisoned. He even spent time on a Mississippi chain gang as a youth after killing a man. Looks like there’s a new bad-ass mofo in town, and he’s 82 years old!

One of the original purveyors of the hypnotic North Mississippi hill-country blues style, Ford is part of the Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan that visits Richard’s on Richards on Friday (May 21). On a cellphone from a van outside Little Rock, Arkansas, Ford explains that he’s still got the marks around his ankles from the irons he wore during his incarceration.

“I didn’t serve the whole 10 years,” he explains. “I served two of ’em. I was a pretty nice black boy down there, I wasn’t lyin’, I respect everybody. So they got me out on good behaviour. I done all right for eight years; the ninth comin’ in, I like to had to go back–over a woman, so… I tell you, that lovin’ women. I like ’em now. I don’t love ’em, I like ’em now.”

On his latest CD of raw, electrified blues, the Jim Dickinson–produced Bad Man, Ford starts the first song, “Ask Her for Water”, with a feisty pronouncement. “I’m a tail-dragger from Greenville, Mississippi!” he proclaims. “I’m the boss of the blues. Can’t read, can’t write, ain’t never been to school a day in my life.” Then he and long-time drummer Spam start spinning out a backwoods boogie groove, and it’s easy to picture the two rocking out on the back porch of a decrepit sharecropper’s shack, raggedy barefoot kids dancing about.

There’s not much Ford likes more these days than playing music–except maybe relaxing, in a down-South kinda way. “Well, I sit out in the yard, under an old shade tree, stealin’ naps. Wake up and think about somethin’ else to do. I feel like it, I grab my old guitar, go to playin’ the blues. I got a grandboy there, he’s just six years old, and I really love him. He wants to beat on a set of drums; he wants big drums, that what he want. He like his granddad. I don’t like nothin’ little, I like it beeg.”

Ford’s appetite for living large carries over to his approach in concert. Although he’s not doing it on this tour–it wouldn’t leave time for the other Caravan acts, Paul “Wine” Jones and Kenny Brown & Cedric Burnside, to do their thing–he’s been known to keep his Peavey amp humming for eight hours straight.

You’d think marathon sets might be difficult for a man of his age, dislocated hip and all, but you’d be wrong.

“It ain’t hard to me,” he bluntly states. “It’s just like walkin’ in the kitchen and grabbin’ a biscuit and start eatin’ it. Yeaah.”

By the age of 11, T-Model–born James Lewis Carter Ford–was plowing fields behind a mule on his family’s farm in Forrest, Mississippi. Later on he worked in a sawmill and drove a truck, all the while absorbing a deep blues vibe.

“When I started out, I liked the Muddy Waters sound, and Howlin’ Wolf. Jimmy Reed sound, little bit of B. B. Well, all of ’em. I tried to learn somethin’ from all the stars’ sound and playin’. I pick it up my own self. If I hear it and want to play it, I play it.”

While legendary artists such as Waters have helped bring the music of the Mississippi Delta to a mass audience, the hill-country style that Ford favours is not so widely known. In recent years it has gained in popularity, though, thanks mostly to the success of R. L. Burnside. But Ford holds no grudge against his fellow Fat Possum recording artist. “I ain’t jealous of nobody,” he hotly claims. “They jealous of me.”

With effective distribution by venerable L.A. punk-rock label Epitaph, Fat Possum, out of Oxford, Mississippi, has done much to promote the music of Ford’s home state. It hasn’t hurt his bank account, either. “I really like Fat Possum,” he points out. “I’m workin’ for them, they pay me. I’m not a rich man, but I be able to live a bit, since I been with them. I feel pretty good of myself, a little.”

While Ford hardly fits the stereotype of the elderly bluesman–often seen smiling and strumming contentedly on an acoustic guitar–he does seem to have found some peace in his later years. “I’m another man now,” he relates. “I have somebody by my side, kept me here, so I ain’t worried about nothin’. I feel good, thank him for lettin’ me be able to play the blues.

“They say I’m 82,” he continues. “I don’t know. I ain’t lost nothin’, but I’m gettin’ in bad shape. That tree fell on me got me where I can’t get around and walk like I used to. But I’m still goin’. I ain’t givin’ up.”

From the sound of things, T-Model Ford’s death-dealing days are way behind him. But it’s not recommended that you mess with the guy. “I don’t want to murder no more,” he says, “but if they pushin’ me, I guess I’d have to do it again.”

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