When septuagenarian bluesman T-Model Ford sings "I'm Insane," he's not playing around. Even in a musical genre defined by tough times and hard-luck stories, Ford's life stands out for its sense of madness frequently on the verge of spinning out of control.
Born James Lewis Carter Ford, T-Model knew little but chaos and violence from his earliest years. He says he was severely and savagely beaten as a child at the fists of the man he calls "Daddy." At 18, he killed a man and did two years on a chain gang in Tennessee. He's been in and out of jail for much of his life. A late bloomer as a blues man--he picked up the guitar when he was in his late 50s--Ford survived five marriages and, as far as he knows, has sired 26 children.
Ford, sporting a ball cap announcing himself as "The Best #1 Dad," simply says, "I know them if they come to me."
Catching up with Ford in Greenville, Mississippi, is easy. If he's not in his ramshackle trailer at the western edge of the town of about 40,000, he can be found cruising the city streets. Ford drives slowly, sometimes on the wrong side of the road. Meandering several blocks, he toots the horn and waves at nearly everyone he sees. He pulls to the curb at one point, yelling, until one of his younger children emerges from a bar to say hello.
The left brake light on his two-door, white 1974 Lincoln is burned out. Two stuffed teddy bears and a box of tissue are jammed against the rear window. A worn child's stroller is lying on the floor. Unused disposable diapers dot the back seat of the worn car. The modern, high-tech cassette player in the dash is worth more than the car--he paid $600 for the Lincoln.
On a lazy Saturday afternoon, Ford takes some time to sit down at the Walnut Street Bait Shop, a blues joint near the casinos that have sprung up in town. Stella, his girlfriend, is getting the club ready for the weekend crowd. Brad, the club owner, who is on a 12-hour furlough from the hospital, stops by to yak with T-Model. A friend passes and asks if T-Model is packing his pistol. Ford, flashing a smile highlighted by a gold tooth with a diamond-shaped pattern cut in the crown (most of his lower teeth are gone) answers by pulling a knife out of his pocket and says, "and I'm gonna kick your ass, too."
T-Model thinks he was about 58 when he first "fooled with the guitar." His pregnant wife--the fifth and last--bought him a guitar and amp. Ford yelled at her because he didn't think they had the money to waste.
She left him on a cold night taking their three kids. Fueled by a gallon of corn whiskey--which Ford claims he'd never tasted until then--he fiddled with the knob on the guitar to make it louder. He sat there until he got it straight. "I was walking those strings," he says as he raises his thick, bushy eyebrows.
One of the first tunes to come out of Ford's new toy was Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years." Others followed, many of them original works about Ford's life experiences.
As time went on, T-Model says he was "gettin' gooder and gooder," with the guitar. He adds, though, "the more I drink, the better I sound.
"I didn't have the blues," he adds. "I didn't figure I'd ever learn. But I got it in me and wanted to play it. The blues will make you do things you don't wanna do."
T-Model was born in Forest, Mississippi, on June 24, but he has no idea what year. Folks tell him he's 77 years old.
"I'm not gonna argue about it, 'cause I've never been to school a day in my life," he says. "I can't read, I can't write, I can't spell nothin'. If something comes up, I get the white man to explain things, straighten it out."
T-Model says "I'm not mean, I'm not bad. If I tell you something, you can trust me. I'm just an honest old black man."
Ford describes his father as "a mean man," who inflicted severe beatings on his son. The abuse reached a sadistic peak when he lost a testicle at his father's hand. "He cut it out," Ford recalls.
"My momma and a white woman came with some grease and put it back in," he says.
The paternal drubbing continued when Ford was an adult. Ford's first marriage ended not long after his father took up with Ford's wife. "I had blood in my eyes," Ford says as he describes how he was loading his pistol when he found out about the affair. "But it was dirty for my daddy to do that to me. I was an angry man."
Ford's anger had a habit of spilling into violence. When he was 18, he killed a man who was about 40. Ford does not remember his victim's name, but it happened during a brawl.
The man Ford killed was going after his first cousin. T-Model grabbed a 10-cent bottle of beer and conked the man in between the eyes. "He come behind me and stabbed me in the back."
At that point, T-Model reached into his pants, grabbed a "25-cent switchblade pocket knife" and opened it with his teeth.
"Hit him right about there," he says, gesturing with a stabbing motion to the crook in his own neck.
Ford says "They gimme 10 years, but I didn't stay but two."
According to Ford, his mother sold her house and hired a lawyer to get him out. Nonetheless, Ford literally still has scars from this horrible episode in his life. Visible after 60 years are the indelible imprints from the strap that secured his left ankle and connected him to other members of the chain gang.
T-Model's fighting days continued after he was released from prison. "When I was a young man, I got into fights, but I never got whooped," he says.
He scrapped with women as well as men. Once he learned that one of his girlfriends had been with another man. T-Model knocked her down, grabbed her, threw her head back and was fixing to cut her throat.
"The Lord locked [my arm]. He wouldn't let me," Ford recalls. The Lord, however, did allow Ford to cut her arm.
"Me and her, we raised two boys after this. She was a fine-lookin', big old momma.
"But if I had did it, they'd have put me in the 'lectric chair. I was wrong."
His ugly spats with women--who he describes as "nice, sweet and hateful"--seem to have tapered off as Ford has gotten older. Ford says he has been trying to get rid of his current girlfriend, Stella, for three years. "But she won't leave," he says as he runs his long, craggy fingers through his tightly curled and matted hair.
Ford goes on, "I like it jet black," announcing that he's due for another dye job to cover the gray and red flecks. "That's the way the ladies like it."
According to Ford, he was employed on a logging plantation, a sawmill, as a truck driver and a mechanic. He has been hit in the head, had his rib cage shattered and has been cut, shot and beaten with a chair. Ford now limps with a cane, because years ago, he fell while "on the job."
For Ford, music has represented more than a latent career move away from the tough physical work that's dominated his life. Music is also his therapy. Ford and his drummer Tommy Lee Miles, a.k.a. "Spam," kick out a thumping, rawboned, in-your-face sound saturated with grease, grit, dirt and spit. Ford's lyrics, which usually sound as if they're written on the fly, tend to be hard-driving rants in which he recounts the various ass-kickings he's administered.
It's the kind of unpolished Mississippi blues that's in danger of becoming extinct, particularly with the passing of icons like Junior Kimbrough. Fortunately, it's a sound that has been diligently documented over the last decade by Fat Possum Records, the Mississippi label that Ford records for. His unbridled approach can be heard on the 1997 album Pee Wee Get My Gun and last year's You Better Keep Still.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
T-Model and Spam tour the world together, but when Ford plays in Greenville, the city he has called home since 1963, he needs to find a different timekeeper.
According to Ford, Spam--who is in his late 50s and resides with a guardian--is not allowed into the Greenville city limits. Apparently, Spam had a dispute with a woman that has not yet been resolved.
"Spam's old lady cut off his fingertips with a box cutter," Ford says, with a casualness that belies the viciousness of the act. "Even though he's my drummer, her peoples won't let him come down here."
T-Model Ford and R.L Burnside are scheduled to perform on Friday, June 18, and Saturday, June 19, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 8 p.m.