By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
James "T-Model" Ford is the baddest blues-playing murderer in the world, and he'll tell you so.
"I'm the best there is," says Ford, who spent two of his younger years in prison for a murder he committed, in self-defense, as a young man. Today he's killing time in his Greenville, Mississippi, trailer, watching a few reruns and blowing his own horn. "Ain't anybody in the world that can play like me. I'm different."
That he is. T-Model Ford -- all 78 hard-earned years of him -- is a walking, talking anachronism, a bluesman of rare stock and trade. One of the Fat Possum label's team of freshly dug-up artists, Ford has a catalogue that's all of three years old -- and while most of today's senior-citizen blues legends are decades and countless recordings removed from their woeful pasts, Ford is still getting his blues firsthand. "It's rough living down here with the folks now, with everybody fightin' and killin' one another," he says. "And if you jump on one now, you better have a gun and tell your people don't come out after the sun go down."
8 p.m. Tuesday, June 13, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $8, 303-830-6700
If hard luck and struggle are requirements for a blues pedigree, Ford is as authentic as they come. His list of troubles rivals those of the characters from the fictitious Yoknapatawpha County and the mind of another Mississippian, William Faulkner. Adding to Ford's man-from-the past status is his politically incorrect personal politics. He candidly discusses a range of raw-boned subjects, from the pleasures of Caucasian women ("I ain't smart, but I done got a couple white women in my lifetime," he says. "Yeah, man, I like 'em -- whooooo!") to fistfights with his current girlfriend ("I had to show her who wears the pants a coupla times," he says). He is equally frank about his past, including his relationship with his father, an old-fashioned ball-breaker in the most real sense. "He was mean, and he beat me up between my legs," Ford says bluntly. One particular assault dislodged one of Ford's teenage testicles, which his mother attempted to reinstall with grease and bandages. It didn't work. "I only got one now," Ford reveals with chilling frankness. "I don't reckon my Daddy liked me."
Ford's father put him to work behind a mule and plow before he was a teen, and Ford endured more beatings and broken bones along the way. At eighteen, he was attacked by a stranger outside a grocery store in Tennessee, and his self-defense tactics cost him -- and his attacker -- dearly. "This guy come at me with a knife," Ford says in a gravel-road voice, his fractured grammar echoing his lack of schooling. "And I didn't have nothin' to fight with but a knife in my pocket. So I broke and run, and he caught me and stabbed me in the back. I reached in my pocket and grabbed that ol' switchblade knife, and I opened it with my teeth. I just grabbed and whirled and stabbed him in the neck. Cousin, I killed him right there. They sentenced me to ten years, but Mama come and got me out in two. And I been a behaved man ever since."
On Ford's leg, there remains a shackle scar from his time on a prison chain gang. Once free, he spent a couple of decades working in the timber mills of the South, first as a grunt and later as a truck driver and mechanic. On weekends he brawled with his co-workers and did jail time as a consequence. He also fathered an estimated 26 children with five different wives, the first of whom ran off with Ford's father. Another wife died from a poison overdose, the result of a failed attempt at inducing a miscarriage. In 1970 Ford watched another bride leave him, but before she split, she gave him a gift that would change his life. "I give her my money from workin' that log truck," he recalls, "and she bought me an electric guitar and an amplifier. I told her I was too old to learn it, but she said she wouldn't never leave if I learned it. But she left me that night. Left me. So I hooked it up and started messin' with it and got a good hum in it." That night Ford says he paired his first guitar effort with his first attempts at drinking, from a jug of "field liquor" a friend had given him. "I started hummin' and rappin' on that guitar and gettin' gooder and gooder," he says, "and pretty soon I went to rockin' that thing. And I been playin' ever since."
For years Ford's playing was confined to the gin mills and juke joints of his home state. Since 1997 he's been reaching fans outside of Mississippi through his recordings with Fat Possum, the Oxford, Mississippi, label that's resurrected the careers of other regional artists like R.L. Burnside and the late Junior Kimbrough. Burnside's A Ass Pocket o' Whiskey (recorded with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) lifted Burnside and Fat Possum from obscurity and placed both on the A-lists of hipsters everywhere. The label's Burnside followup, Come On In, was a hip-hop remix of Burnside tunes that pissed off many of the label's loyalists while quietly selling over 50,000 copies to record buyers who welcome such genre-blending. Thanks to these successes, Fat Possum's co-founder, Mathew Johnson, says the label has been able to reduce its debt to about a half-million dollars and has landed a distribution deal with the punk label Epitaph Records.