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."
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.
Ford has produced three recordings for Fat Possum, the 1997 debut Pee Wee Get My Gun, the followup You Better Keep Still, and the brand-new She Ain't None of Your'n. Johnson, a soft-spoken 31-year-old, is optimistic that Ford's new disc might at least approach Burnside's successes and bring good fortune to a man that deserves a little. "T-Model's like a happy-go-lucky psychopath chock-full of bizarre confessions," Johnson says. "People generalize about blues guys and their pasts, but T-Model has a damn grocery list of troubles that he just checks off. Maybe he sings the same old sad song, but his is a really sad one."
Ford's story and gut-wrenching sound have helped Johnson and his partner, Bruce Watson, kick some life into a musical style that's become tired and predictable over the years. Fat Possum's acts are uncut and unrefined, with scars both musical and personal. Johnson says some music scribes have accused him of embellishing Ford's history to sell records. Most of these doubters, he says, "are people that come from a place that is infinitely nicer than this whole state." Besides, he notes, "I'm not a musicologist. I have a label, I'm trying to make records that rock, and I have to sell as many of them as I can. And the people that buy records are kids, and I can hold T-Model up to Nine Inch Nails or Eminem, and he stands up."
Musically speaking, Ford's new platter makes the aforementioned artists seem about as dangerous as 'N Sync. She Ain't None of Your'n is, at times, a shocking slice of sound, jarring in its primalness and immediacy. Ford's moaning vocals and falling-apart electric guitar playing form a boneyard of amplified blues, skin-crawling cuts that call to mind a haunted Howlin' Wolf and early John Lee Hooker. Backed by his sometime sidekick drummer, Spam, and a few guest musicians, Ford whips up an arresting collection of Neanderthal music. Highlights include "Sail On," a stumbling dinosaur blues that lurches in and out of straight time, the chords leaning into one another. Ford leaps out of the verses like some knife-toting madman hell-bent for a police-assisted suicide. His ragged, squalling solos leave blood behind. "Take a Ride With Me" is another bone crusher of distortion and urgency, and when he pleads, "Come on, baby, take a ride with me," a trip in the car never sounded so important.
The disc's other highlights include the incessant juju shuffle of "Chicken Head Man" ("When you kill a chicken, babe, save me the chicken head"), the Hooker-ish stops and starts of "Leave My Heart Alone" and the pine-barrens bravado of "Wood Cuttin' Man." The recording ends with a droning one-chord dirge, "Mother's Gone," that's sure to please lovers of Nick Cave and other gloom-theater creators. Overall, the disc's mistakes-and-all approach may be too dirty for mainstream blues fans. But for those hungry for unprocessed, real-life sounds, She Ain't None of Your'n is a thrilling wonder, forged by full-grown men who don't have a clue about production values, demographics or record sales.
Despite his record's toughness, Ford says his dangerous ways are behind him. "The only way I fights now is if I gots to do it," he assures. "I will do something to you if you cross me, but long as you don't cross me and don't hit, we can talk it out." As for the inspirations for his music, Ford gets fuel from a couple of time-tested sources: women and whisky. "I don't do nothin' but drink a little whiskey and play the blues," he says. "Then I just pick up the guitar and play it. And it makes me feel good, and it makes the women feel good. They like to look me in my eyes and smile, and I put that look on 'em. Seems like the more they brag on me, the better I get."
Ford is joined on his current tour (dubbed the "Fat Possum Mississippi Juke Joint Caravan") by labelmates Paul Jones and Robert Belfour. Jones, 58, is currently pushing his new CD, Pucker Up Buttercup, which is full of sloppy, gin-mill blues. Belfour, sixty, is marking the release of his debut, What's Wrong With You, a stunning collection of ghostly acoustic tunes. The tour gives attendees a rare glimpse of the musical culture of the Deep South, without the trip to some down-the-dirt-road speakeasy. Ford will be the act's closer, a position he feels he's entitled to. "They open up and I come behind," he says of his touring partners. "I take the show."
"T-Model sees it all as a battle," Johnson says, "and any time anybody plays guitar, it's like a competition. And I think that's an indication about his life -- everything's a challenge." When Ford's on tour, Johnson says, "He's like some Army guy on leave. It's great. I don't know how anybody that's been through such shit can be anything but the meanest, most miserly, angry, bitter person in the world. But the guy never complains, and he's got this profound maturity or sense of survival or something."
"I've had some hard times, they for real," Ford admits, but these days he's glad to be reaping a few karmic returns on his past. Over the past three years, he's played all over Europe and points far east, and he says he's enjoying the acclaim his Fat Possum deal has created. (Even if, he points out, "they ain't payin' me enough money.") He says his age isn't slowing him down as much as the injured hip that makes traveling a little tough. But he's happy to be schooling the unwashed in the ways of his musical release. "It gets in people's souls and they can't get it out," he says. "It's lovely. And it makes me feel like I'm doin' somethin'. See, you don't get too old if you wanna do it. And I get to travel to places I would have never seen before." Besides, he notes, as the theme from The Lone Ranger blasts from his TV set and he slips off the phone, "I like going anywhere I can see them good-lookin' women looking back at me."
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