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Yeah! The tail-dragger from Greenville, Mississippi!" bellows 80-year-old James "T-Model" Ford in the opening seconds of Bad Man, his fourth album on the blues song-catcher label Fat Possum. Just in case you stumbled onto Bad Man without prior knowledge of his greatness, T-Model continues: "Can't read or write/Never been to school in my life/I'm the boss of the blues!"
Some folks are born to play the blues, and some simply are the blues. T-Model Ford is both; his childhood ensured that. Being sent to work in the fields at age six and losing a testicle at eleven when his father beat him wasn't enough. At age 17, Ford was cuckolded by his first wife with help from the same man who'd knocked off half his wedding tackle. "I found him on the porch and cussed him for an hour," T-Model recalls. "I swore I'd kill him if he ever touched anyone I loved again. He didn't even get up once. He was bad, but he knew I had some of his blood in me."
By age 21, T-Model was a convicted killer serving on a chain gang. "I got stabbed in the back. The knife missed my spine by an inch," he remembers. "I opened my switchblade with my teeth, turned around, and stabbed him in the neck. I got sentenced to ten years, but after [serving] two, Momma sold my house and got me a lawyer." After prison, he became a logger -- until a tree fell on him, permanently displacing his hip.
Rather than turn his sour lemons into lemonade, T-Model let them ferment into moonshine. On his 58th birthday, he came home from driving his logging truck to find an electric guitar and an amplifier in the living room he shared with his wife at the time. "I said, 'What you spending my money on junk like that for? I don't know nothing about no damn guitar.'" And she said, 'Well, you can learn.'"
Before he could start lessons, T-Model's wife and kids were gone. But his guitar remained. "I was sitting there thinking, you know. I didn't have my mind on no guitar, 'cause I wasn't fooling with no guitar. I had this gallon of corn whiskey sitting behind the bed, and I'd never drank none of it. I wasn't no whiskey drinker then. I sit there for a few and walked up to the amplifier and plugged it in -- but didn't nothing come on. I turned on another button and nothing." (His inability to read, one imagines, didn't help matters.) "Turned on another one and a little red light came on. I plugged in the guitar and starting turning them buttons but could get no sound. Turned another button, and I started getting, 'dum-dut, dum-dum....' It wasn't tuned, and I didn't know how, so I tuned it my way. Started feeling them strings. Then I started playing one of them chords that I'd heard in a Muddy Waters song. And I liked it and started playing it all the time. One of my buddies that I work with came by that night while I was playing. He said, 'You can't play that damn thing.' I said, 'You wait.' And I been kickin' ass ever since. So I learned myself how to play guitar. But I never got back with my ol' lady after she left that night."
T-Model's self-taught guitar chops break every rule one might try to apply. Though his music is classified as blues, the only 12 bars to be found are the ones where he orders drinks. T-Model plays a primal stomp boogie that makes 99 percent of punk rock seem sissified. "Feel so bad/Feel like breaking someone's arm!" was the first thing Fat Possum owner Matt Johnson heard when he caught T-Model and his drummer, Spam, at a tiny Greenville juke joint in 1995. Two years later, Fat Possum released his debut, Pee-Wee Get My Gun. Spam's two-piece drum kit is the only instrumentation behind T-Model's guitar blast and ass-whuppin' fables on Pee-Wee Get My Gun, which set a new standard for minimalism. The music press declared, "So primitive, it sounds modern."
The next three years included two more albums and worldwide touring for T-Model, who joined Fat Possum label-mates like R.L. Burnside and established greats like B.B. King on the road. "B.B. wanted me to come up onstage with him in Australia and I didn't know what he was playing!" T-Model recounts. "He said, 'You got your clamp, right? Put it on.' B.B. shouldn't have done that, because I whupped him. Everyone there loved my playin' better than his." A month spent in Switzerland on the festival circuit almost netted T-Model his sixth wife. "She was pretty! And only 36! But I left for a little while, and she had a new boyfriend. She said she was sorry, but I ain't got time for that. I'm an old man."
With 26 kids by five wives ("They all Mama's babies but Daddy's maybes," T-Model chuckles) and more grandchildren than he can count, T-Model exudes a power that can be felt even in his relatively short recording career. Inspired by a tape of T-Model's playing, Chicago blues patriarch Buddy Guy traveled to Mississippi and recorded Sweet Tea, a nine-song album issued in 2001 that features seven covers of Fat Possum artists, including three T-Model tunes. Sweet Tea reinvigorated Guy's career (to date, it has sold nearly 120,000 copies), easily placing it among his biggest sellers. As a reward for helping Guy relocate his groove, T-Model and Spam are currently his opening act, debuting Bad Man's gutbucket blues.
"Buddy's good," T-Model admits, "but he's got five people behind him, and I only need one."