Tuesday, August 6, 2013

R.I.P. T-Model Ford

Had I not worked at used record-and-book shop L'Échange (I'll tell the whole tale eventually) in the late 1990s, I would never have found out about all the great blues artists on the Fat Possum label roster, among which Junior Kimbraugh and the late, great R.L. Burnside, who I opened for in 1998 or 1999.

Also on that dream team of disregarded and discarded Mississippi old-timers was T-Model Ford, often an afterthought because his simplistic guitar-playing style didn't have Burnside's feel, or Kimbraugh's raw chops, or even Cedell Davis' weirdness (he plays off-key and de-tuned, whether you want to go with it or not, using a butter knife as a slide that he'll just change the angle to to get the tone he wants to hear).

But Ford was much more than a storyteller who accompanied himself, much more than ''shredding other people's songs and refashioning them as minimalist chants, underpinned by open-chord guitar and (drummer Tommy Lee Miles, a.k.a. Spam's) joyous drumming.'' He melted the songs down to their essence, then went inside himself to extract the honesty needed for the delivery, and gave you the concentrated soul of each song.

With 1997's Pee-Wee Get My Gun and 1999's You Better Keep Still, he made a name for himself and a reputation that was only accentuated with his next 6 releases. His reputation wasn't always stellar, though, as he didn't lean to play in a school or anything - he didn't even go to elementary school - so ''properly-trained'' musicians often found him difficult to work with:
Frank Frost, who played on a couple of tracks, had declared, "I want everyone to know that I'm playing against my will."
Well, in any event, the man died in mid-July. He may have been between the ages of 89 and 93, as his record label put it:
T-Model thinks he's seventy-five but isn't sure.
That was in 1998.

And this is how one of his nights went, in his hometown:
T-Model and Spam are the only men still playing on Greenville's Nelson Street. Most of the audience has scattered due to violence from the crack trade, and with the exception of T-Model, the street that once boasted Booba Barnes and others is dead. On a typical night Spam and T-Model will arrive at the club and unpack T-Model's guitar and amp, and the bass drum and snare he allows Spam to use. When T-Model feels there are enough people, they start banging away in their own post-war Peavey-powered hill stomp. It's nothing unusual for T-Model to play eight hours a night. They keep going until no one's left standing. After his equipment's packed up T-Model will coat himself with Outdoorsman Off and climb into his van to crash.
 I miss him already.

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