Sitting down with a true Delta legend as T-Model Ford is a real treat for any music fan or lover of deep blues. There is no question: T-Model is one of a few “real deal” blues artists still performing today.
T-Model graciously said yes to our request to sit down and jaw, as he put it, for 20 minutes about his life in the blues: past, present and future. What we got was 45 minutes of greatly entertaining and sometimes stark stories and comments from an 87 year old blues man who loves every minute of what he is doing, wanting to just keep rolling along playing blues, drinking Jack Daniels, and meeting his fans, especially the young ladies.
Q: T-Model, tell us about your early years.
T-M: “My daddy was a hard man. He never let me go to school. I ain’t never been to school a day in my life. When I was 6 years old he put me behind a mule (working the fields). He was a hard man, and a hard man on me. I was 17 when I stood up to him and left home to go out on my own. I did trucking and loading green lumber. Nobody could lift and toss long 2 x 12’s like me. ”
Q: Tell us how you got started playing guitar.
T-M: “I was 58 years old when my 5th wife decided to buy me a gift. She bought me an old electric guitar and a little amplifier. I asked her what you doin’ spending my money on a guitar when you know I don’t know how to play. Then one day I came home from work and my in-laws are all there and had my wife’s stuff all loaded up and left nothing for me.
I asked what was going on, my mother-in-law said ‘James, this ain’t about you. Your wife called and said I have to leave here now, come get me.’ Then I sat down on an old coach with my wife. She had a big ol’ dip of snuff in her lower lip, I never even know’d she chewed. We had three little kids and one on the way. I stuck my hand in my pocket and tried to give her a wad of bills to help out with the kids. She told me ‘I don’t want a thing from you!’ After she left I got out that old guitar and started playing along to old Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf records. It was always in me. I was self-taught. Took me a week and a-half to learn how to play.”
Q: How did you arrive at that distinctive T-Model guitar sound?
T-M: “I went to a guitar store to find a sound I liked. Most were too light or tinny. Then I found an electric Gibson with a nice booming sound when I adjusted (the controls and amp). Every day after work I picked up that guitar and played along to old Muddy and Howlin’ records, singing along as I played. I had a good voice to sing.”
Q: How did you get so well known and achieve your status as a top Deep Blues artist?
T-M “I started playing outdoors in the evening along with a number of other guitar players/ singers in the area. Some women left their homes to come with me ‘cause of my playing and singing. Preacher got mad and yelled at us all for playing ‘The Devil’s music.’
Man heard me and said to us, ‘You can all play but T-model can stomp all of yah.’ He asked would I play for money if he could get me a job at the café down the street. I went down there with him and played 3 songs. I played Muddy’s ‘How Many More Years.’ Café owner asked me ‘What you gonna play for?’ I said ‘I don’t know I never played for money.’ He asked ‘Would I play for $30?’ and I said ‘yes.’ They had chairs lined up in the center of the café when I played and lines of people going out the door trying to get in and hear me. A lot of other blues men in the area came to hear me play, Frank Frost, Willie Foster, you know, them guys.“
Q: T-M, how is it different playing with a band compared to solo or with only a drummer?
T-M: “Don’t need a band. I ain’t afraid of nobody. I’ll stomp anybody else (blues guitarist/singer) myself. Any of these guys here (at the festival) want to take me on I’ll stomp them, too!”
Q: How did you get the name T-Model?
T-M: “I was working there wasn’t nobody that could load or drive like me. One day boss man at the gate says to me, “James, you the best worker I got. I want to give you a new name. I’m gonna name you T-Model Ford. It stuck!”
Q: When did you hook up with Fat Possum Records?
T-M: “It was in the 70’s. They were good to me, but I’m on my own now. I’m a ladies man. The ladies follow me everywhere. Some folks don’t like white folks. I like the white folks, they helped make me famous and I’ve made money. The white folks appreciate the blues, they appreciate T. Model. I love white folks.”
Q: Tell us about your new record label.
T-M: “I’m with the boys in this band backing me, Gravel Road Records.”
Q: What do you want to accomplish in the next few years, in music and life.
T-M: Just keep on doin’ what I been doin’. Goin’ on the road playing, meeting and talking to people.
As we were leaving T-Model commented on how people say what soft hands he has for a guitar player and invited us to feel his hands. No calluses, just very soft fingers, in spite of all the guitar he’s played. “Women love my soft hands,” he said with a knowing grin.
We had to let T-Model get ready for his show. He could have gone on for another hour, just talkin’ and telling stories. Every now and then you get a thrill in this business of writing about the blues, all we can say is ….”T-Model, is the real deal”!