T-Model Ford, Late-Blooming Bluesman, Is Dead
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: July 18, 2013
T-Model Ford, a raw-sounding, mesmerizing guitarist and singer who was among the last of the old-time Delta bluesmen — and whose career was all the more noteworthy for his not having picked up a guitar until he was almost 60 — died on Tuesday at his home in Greenville, Miss.
His exact age was shrouded in the smoky legend that often attends the blues, but he was almost certainly in his early 90s.
His death was announced on the Web site of Fat Possum Records, an independent label in Oxford, Miss., that produced several of his albums.
Once described by the head of that label as “the friendliest fun-loving psychopath you’ll ever meet” (Mr. Ford spoke openly, and amiably, of having killed at least one man), he began his musical life in the 1980s in Mississippi juke joints.
Mr. Ford did not release his first record, “Pee-Wee Get My Gun,” until 1997, when he was well into his 70s.
Afterward, he performed to great acclaim across the country — appearing at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex., and at various New York City clubs — and around the world. He was featured in “You See Me Laughin’,” a 2002 documentary about the blues.
Mr. Ford toured energetically until last year, when he suffered a stroke. He owed his crackling longevity and lust for life, he said (he had 6 wives and at least 26 children), to a simple three-part regimen.
“Jack Daniel’s, the women and the Lord been keeping me here,” he told The Chicago Sun-Times in 2003. In old age, however, on doctor’s orders, he reduced his involvement with the first of these to some extent.
Mr. Ford was a completely self-taught musician, and the blues that sprang from him was stark, harsh and haunting even by the standards of the genre.
Because he did not know the proper way to tune a guitar, the eccentric tunings he devised lent his music a strange, soulful tonality — he played, as fellow musicians sometimes described it, “in the key of T.”
If Mr. Ford exuded the aura of a backwoods bluesman from Central Casting, he came by it more or less honestly, for his personal narrative seemed to rival that of any blues song:
There was the childhood spent working the fields under the brutal Mississippi sun.
There was his first wife, whom he married when he was a teenager, and who left, Mr. Ford said, to run off with his father.
There was another wife, who he said drank poison to try to end a pregnancy but died instead.
“I heard her thump down on the floor, stone dead,” Mr. Ford told an interviewer in 1999. “I was sad, I loved that woman, but I didn’t let it get me down.”
There was still another wife — either the third or the fifth; the number varied with Mr. Ford’s recollection — who gave him his first guitar before decamping.
There were the times, more recently, that he tried to stab members of his band, because they irked him.
Of the stories that swirled around Mr. Ford, some were tall tales in the oral tradition of old bluesmen. Others seemed born of the gleeful, spur-of-the-moment hyperbole with which Mr. Ford, who could neither read nor write but was no less canny for that, embellished his many interviews.
And still others, given the realities of black life in the Depression-era South, were apparently true — including the two years he spent on a chain gang for killing a man in self-defense.
That man may not have been the only one Mr. Ford killed in his long life. As he wondered aloud in an interview with The New York Times in 2001, “Do I count the one I run over in my Pontiac?”
James Lewis Carter Ford was born on June 24 — of that much he was certain — about 1920, in Forest, Miss.
His father, whom he described as violent, was a sharecropper, and young James did not attend school, instead working each day in the fields. The elder Mr. Ford considered the blues the Devil’s work, and what little music James heard he caught by slipping furtively into juke joints.
Early on, James Ford worked for a sawmill, becoming a logging-truck driver; his nickname, T-Model, is said to derive from that time.
As a young man, he said, he was stabbed in a bar fight. Reaching for a knife of his own, he stabbed his assailant to death.
Sentenced to 10 years on a chain gang, he was released after two. Decades later, journalists wrote of seeing the scars from the shackles on Mr. Ford’s ankles.
When Mr. Ford was in his late 50s, his professional course was changed forever.
“Before then,” he told The Bergen Record in 2000, “I didn’t have the blues in me.”
Then, one day, his wife brought home a Gibson electric guitar.
“I said: ‘What are you spending my money on that for, baby? I can’t play no guitar,’ ” Mr. Ford told The Chicago Tribune in 2002.
“She said, ‘You can learn.’ She was all the time running off, leaving and coming back. And I said, ‘If I play it, will you stay?’ And she said yes. She left the next Friday night.”
Mr. Ford’s survivors include his sixth wife, Estella, and myriad children and grandchildren.
His other albums include “Bad Man” (2002), “Jack Daniel Time” (2008) and “The Ladies Man” (2010).
Though he might well have begun his musical life sooner, starting late, Mr. Ford said, proved to be his saving grace.
“One night, I was playin’ the blues in Mississippi, singin’, ‘How many more years, baby, you gonna dog me around,’ ” he said in the Bergen Record interview.
“This fella comes up to me; he thought I was after his wife. He put a .45 up to my nose and he said, ‘If you play that again, I’ll blow your brains out.’
“So it’s a good thing I didn’t start to playin’ the blues when I was younger. If I did, I might not be around today.”
James Lewis Carter Ford (June 24, c. early 1920s – July 16, 2013) was an American blues musician, using the name T-Model Ford. Unable to remember his exact date of birth, he began his musical career in his early 70s, and continuously recorded for the Fat Possum label, then switched to Alive Naturalsound Records. His musical style combined the rawness of Delta blues with Chicago blues and juke joint blues styles.
According to records, Ford's year of birth was between 1921 and 1925, though at the time of his death his record company gave his age as 94, suggesting a birth in 1918 or 1919. Starting with an abusive father who had permanently injured him at eleven, Ford lived his entire life in a distressed and violent environment, towards which he was quite indifferent.
Ford, an illiterate, worked in various blue collar jobs as early as his preteen years, such as plowing fields, working at a sawmill, and later in life becoming a lumber company foreman and then a truck driver. At this time, Ford was sentenced to ten years on a chain gang for murder. Allegedly, Ford was able to reduce his sentence to two years. He spent many of his years following his release in conflicts with law enforcement.
Ford lived in Greenville, Mississippi, and for a time wrote an advice column for Arthur magazine. Reportedly, he had twenty-six children.
According to music writer Will Hodgkinson, who met and interviewed Ford for his book Guitar Man, Ford took up the guitar when his fifth wife left him and gave him a guitar as a leaving present. Ford trained himself without being able to read music or guitar tabs. Hodgkinson observed that Ford could not explain his technique. He simply worked out a way of playing that sounded like the guitarists he admired — Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
Ford toured juke joints and other venues, for a while opening for Buddy Guy. In 1995, he was discovered by Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum Records, under which he released five albums from 1997 to 2008.
Since 2008, Ford worked with the Seattle-based band, GravelRoad. The project began as a single event, with Ford needing assistance to play the Deep Blues Festival in Minnesota in July 2008. GravelRoad, longtime fans of Ford and performers already scheduled for the festival, agreed to provide support for a ten-show United States tour for Ford through July.
Ford had a pacemaker inserted at the end of that tour, but appeared on stage again with GravelRoad in 2008, 2009 and 2010. He suffered a stroke in early 2010, but despite difficulty with right-hand mobility, managed to complete a successful tour with GravelRoad. This tour concluded with an appearance at Pickathon Festival. Ford and GravelRoad opened the third day of the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival, in New York over Labor Day weekend, 2010, curated by American independent film-maker Jim Jarmusch.
GravelRoad backed Ford on his 2010 and 2011 albums, The Ladies Man and Taledragger, both released by Alive Naturalsound Records.
Ford suffered a second stroke in the summer of 2012 that limited his public appearances. However, he was able to perform at that year's King Biscuit Blues Festival in October.
On July 16, 2013, Fat Possum announced that Ford died at home in Greenville of respiratory failure after a prolonged illness.
The discography of T-Model Ford includes:
- Pee-Wee Get My Gun - 1997 (Fat Possum)
- You Better Keep Still - 1999 (Fat Possum)
- She Ain't None of Your'n - 2000 (Fat Possum)
- Bad Man - 2002 (Fat Possum)
- Don't Get Out Talkin' It - 2008 (Fat Possum)
- Jack Daniel Time - 2008 (Mudpuppy)
- The Ladies Man - 2010 (Alive Naturalsound)
- Taledragger - 2011 (Alive Naturalsound)