It's hard to know which incident had a greater impact on T-Model Ford's life — cutting another man's throat at the age of 18, or picking up a guitar for the first time at the age of 58.
As it turns out, the 90-year-old bluesman is pretty open to talking about most subjects, but not all of them. His manager and occasional drummer, Marty Reinsel, advises in a pre-interview e-mail against certain topics that, while not entirely off-limits, should be moved through carefully. These include the number of times Ford has been to jail, his 15-year-plus relationship with Stella (whom he recently married), his hometown of Greenville, Miss. — "it could turn ugly, he's seen a lot of hard times there" — and his abusive father.
"T-Model lost a testicle due to one beating at the hands of his father," Reinsel explains.
Curiously, details about when he learned to play guitar are also on the proceed-with-caution list.
Among the topics that have traditionally not been a problem are Ford's age, number of wives and children, musical influences and, surprisingly, how he killed a man in self-defense and subsequently spent two years in shackles on a chain gang.
Oddest of all, though, is the one area to be completely avoided: Ford's relationship with his previous label, Fat Possum Records. During the course of our interview, I do touch upon the subject, however obliquely, by asking how he and his label-mates Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside felt about suddenly reaching a new, younger audience in the late '90s.
Ford ignores the question entirely.
Likewise, the first time I ask about him getting a guitar, Ford tells me he can't hear too good. "Let Stella talk to you," he says, seemingly ending the interview as he hands the phone over to her. Stella answers a few questions in 10 words or less, after which I ask to talk to her husband again.
"He wants to talk to you," she says, sounding surprised. Ford ends up hearing fine for the rest of the interview. He even brings up Fat Possum, with no prompting at all.
James Lewis Carter Ford was born in a small Mississippi town called Forest, which was also home to Delta bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup (best-known for penning "That's All Right," which became Elvis Presley's first single). After moving a few hours northwest to Greenville — an old river town on the banks of the Mississippi, 150 miles south of Memphis — the future blues icon spent the first half of his adult life driving Caterpillar tractors, hauling logs, and putting down cement.
But after Ford's third wife — there've been six — bought him his first guitar, he went through a mid-life career change that began with him playing a local barbershop for $30 a night. Earliest this year, he released his seventh album, The Ladies Man, a project bookended by a pacemaker implant and a mid-April stroke. While it's his first acoustic album, there's nothing reserved about it, as evidenced by the rousing eight-minute opener, "Chicken Head Man," as well as other future favorites like "I Was Born in a Swamp" and "I'm Coming to Kick Yer Asses." It's about as far from the sleepy acoustic "blues" of artists like Eric Clapton as the deep South is from Surrey, England. Actually, quite a bit farther.
At one point in our conversation, Ford tells me he still lives in Greenville and finally managed to buy himself a house, down the street from the Seventh Street U-Haul right off Highway 82. When I ask him if he's ever lived anywhere else, he tells me he lived for a while on Greenville's Canal Street, and over on Harbor Street, and a few other places. I'd actually been wondering if he'd ever lived outside the Mississippi Delta, but from his music alone, I should have known how unlikely that was.
Following are excerpts from my interview with Ford on the eve of his flight to New York, where he played a Labor Day festival curated by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. Other acts on the bill — ranging from Raekwon and Kool Herc to Sonic Youth and the Stooges — were all a bit younger. Ford's performance got a typically raucous reception, and we can expect no less when he comes here.
Indy: Not everyone is out on the road playing at the age of 90. Is it tough going out on tour?
TMF: No, it ain't tough to me. I can sit down when I want, when we goin' out, I can sit there and play for five hours without even stopping, and never be tired in my fingers.
Indy: Sure, but what about going from city to city?
TMF: The cities be all right. At first, I was scared of the white women in the front. But now that I done been around the white peoples, the white ladies, they all comes and hug me and kiss me and all like that. There's one waiting for me to come back to Sweden — not Sweden but Switzerland — waiting for me to come back and marry her. But I ain't used to no white woman.
Indy: Well, it don't sound like it's a good idea to marry her if you just got married.
TMF: Oh, that's my sixth time I done getting married.
Indy: Sixth time?
TMF: Yeah, heh-heh.
Indy: And is it gonna work this time?
TMF: Well, it might and it might not. I wasn't in love with no woman, I just married because they asked me to marry them. That's all I was doing.
Indy: And you couldn't say no?
TMF: Naw. [Laughs.]
Indy: Well, I kind of understand that.
TMF: Yeah, well, I was just born to it.
Indy: So it took you and Stella 15 years to get married.
TMF: Yeah, I met her over in Arkansas. I wished I hadn't.
Indy: It's too late now.
TMF: Yeah, but I been thinking about we getting a divorce and letting me get back to singing.
Indy: You wrote a song about her on your first album called "I'm Insane." [Sample lyric: "I see Stella get out of a car with another man / I'm mad as hell / I didn't know she would do me like that / But I found out / I'm gonna start thumpin' her ass."] How did she feel about that?
TMF: Well, I don't know.
Indy: She didn't say anything about it?
TMF: I didn't tell her about it.
Indy: But she must have listened to the record.
TMF: Well, [the lyrics of the song] ain't so. There's people going around running their mouth and lyin' on me. Ain't none of it so.
Indy: Why did you decide to do an all-acoustic album after all this time? How come you waited all these years?
TMF: I waited a long time because I didn't have nothing like that on my mind.
Indy: And now that you're touring this album, will you be playing much acoustic guitar?
TMF: Well, I'll probably be playing my electric guitar. Yeah, I like my electric guitar better. Them acoustic guitars make your fingers hurt. I play them every now and then.
Indy: Are you gonna be playing solo, or are you gonna be bringing a drummer?
TMF: Well, I'm intending to bring my little grandboy with me. [Ford's grandson Stud sometimes accompanies him on drums.]
Indy: So when you were kid growing up, did musicians come through and play? Did you get to see other musicians play?
TMF: No, I sure didn't.
Indy: How did you hear this music, then?
TMF: Well, I was a young boy, about 12 or 11 years old. That's when I heard Muddy Waters' sound and Howlin' Wolf's sound. And that's what I went out with, yeah.
Indy: Which one do you think you sing more like?
TMF: Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. I can go sound like both of them.
Indy: I want to ask you about the guy you killed and the time you spent on a chain gang. Can you tell me about that?
TMF: Yeah. Well, yeah. Well, he cut me first. He stabbed me in the back. I had a knife in my pocket. I just grabbed it and opened it with my teeth — I had good teeth then — and I just opened it and swung. I hit him in the neck and pulled it out.
Indy: And what was the fight over, why did he do it in the first place?
TMF: Well he cut me first!
Indy: But why?
TMF: I don't know why. He was standing at the door looking.
Indy: What door?
TMF: In Humboldt, Tennessee. I had four ladies at the table with me. I was buying beer for 'em, I wasn't drinking then, you know. I said, "Y'all know that guy standing at the door?" And he's looking at me, and I know that he's mad. I said, "Why don't y'all call him and tell him to come to the table and sit down and drink with y'all?" 'Cos I was buyin' the beer.
They called him and he come to sit down, and he done reach over and snatched his knife out and cut at me. And I hit him with a chair and knock him down, and he got up and cut me.
Indy: And you had never seen this guy before?
TMF: He just showed up. And when he cut me, I cut his throat. I was a man then. I wasn't no boy. I wasn't no pushover.
Indy: So that's a bad turn of events. What happened after that?
TMF: Well, they sent me to a chain gang. I stayed there two years [out of a 10-year sentence].
Indy: When all that happened, you knew your life was gonna change?
Indy: And how did it change? What was it like after you got out?
TMF: Well, it was different to me when I got out. I had got all that old grouchy mean out of me, what I had in. My mama, she was still livin', and the white people where I was born and raised at, they liked me. So I stayed two years there, and then mama got with them white folks and they come and got me out of there. I was a happy boy then.
Indy: How long ago was this? How old were you?
TMF: I was 18 years old. Eighteen.
Indy: So yeah, that's an adult, but that's still pretty young, compared to now.
TMF: Yeah, well I don't think about it now. I don't think about nothing like that now. Yeah, I'm 90 years old now. I don't try to fight now. If me and a guy get in an argument, I walk away and tell him I'm through with that, man, just forget about it.
Indy: Sounds like a pretty good idea.
TMF: Yeah, now I don't even talk to nobody I don't want to. I walk away.
Indy: So how did you pick up music?
TMF: Well my third wife bought me a guitar and a little amplifier. They wanted 50 dollars for it. She had the money so she bought it. I come in that evening — me and her had three little children walking around, and she was pregnant with another one — and she say, "Hey honey, you see your present, up behind the bed." I say, "As old as I get, I can't play no guitar."
But Friday night come, and I sat down with it. And somebody had come out and brought me a gallon of moonshine whiskey. I wasn't drinking then, but I started sipping it and it was the best whiskey I ever had. And I started messing with that guitar. And I been playing the guitar ever since.
Indy: And then when did you play your first professional gig? When did you get paid?
TMF: Well, I was livin' close to where I'm livin' now. And there was a bunch of colored people live all in that community. They was comin' every other night, pitchin' parties, and they'd come get me when I come in from work. After I take my bath and put on some clothes. I had gold teeth in my mouth, too. People liked me, women liked it. So I just went on out there and went to playing them blues.
Indy: Was there a club, a bar, in Greenville that you played at?
Indy: What was it called?
TMF: It was down on Nelson Street. It was a barber shop. And I was on Nelson Street one morning, playing my guitar and singing the blues and women dancing and drinking and talking at me, and all that. And this guy drove up in a pickup. And he said, "T-Model!' I said, "Hey!" He said, "Why don't you quit wasting your time and go on out there and make you some money?" I said, "Well, I ain't good enough." He said, "Yeah, you good enough. You can play good as anybody."
Indy: What was your day job back then?
TMF: Driving log trucks.
Indy: And how long was it before you were able to give up doing that?
TMF: Well, it was a long time. A big limb out of a tree fell on me and broke my leg. I could sit down and play, and I could walk around a little bit, not too much. But now, I feel like a young boy. Now I act like a young boy.
Indy: You act like a young boy?
TMF: Yes, indeed.
Indy: What does that involve?
TMF: Heh. And people come now, they say I ain't 70 years old. That's what they say! Um-hum. White and black come to hear T-Model play the guitar.
First man I played with was Willie Foster. He was a harmonica-blower. And he hired me to play with him on "Black Diamond." We hooked up that evening, and everybody come out to the country to hear Willie Foster and me and Sam Carr play their guitar. But now, I don't bring nobody with a guitar. If you was to come up and look at my guitar right now, you'd say they brand new. But they don't make them guitars no more.
Indy: What kind of guitar is it?
TMF: It's a Razor Sharp.
Indy: Razor Sharp?
TMF: A Razor Sharp, that's the name of the guitar. I had three of 'em. One of 'em, I had it named Black Nanny. The other one, Red Nanny. Another one, Gold Nanny. Three of 'em. They done stole two of 'em. I don't know where they at. They stole 'em in California, when we played there one night. I ain't got neither of them back yet.
Indy: The new album starts out with the song "Chicken Head Man." Where did you come up with that?
TMF: Well, we went to a club one evening, and I was sitting there messing with my guitar, and I come up with "Chicken Head Man."
Indy: So what is a chicken head man?
TMF: Well, when you kill a chicken, save me the head. I love chicken head. Heh-heh. Heh-heh-heh.
Indy: You eat chicken heads?
TMF: Oh yeah, you can eat it. Yeah, you can eat a chicken head.
Indy: Why is that better than the other parts?
TMF: I don't know, but I eat 'em. Yeah, I eat chicken head. Put it in the pot and boil it good. Take your hammer and bust their head. Go and get that bowl out and start eatin' it. It's good.
Indy: So how much time do you spend out on the road these days?
TMF: Well I just come in off a tour. I was up in Seattle, Washington. I stayed two weeks up there playing the blues. They treated me nice and they give me a nice amount of money I brought home. So I like 'em.
I were with Fat Possum, them. And Fat Possum taken all my royalties. I ain't got none of my royalties with them at all. And they try to get some white man to get me to play for them, and let them come in and be the boss of it. So I ain't gonna fool with 'em. You get me? I did like 'em, but after they took my royalties away, I don't fool with 'em now, I'm through with 'em.
Indy: How long do you plan on keeping playing and touring?
TMF: Well, long as the good Lord let me live. I feel so good, I feel young. So I'm lucky. I thank the Lord for letting me live to at least 90 years old. I didn't have but one sister, she died. I had three brothers, so it was four boys and one girl, and they all died, but me. I'm the oldest.
Indy: So what's the good thing about being a musician versus the other things you've done?
TMF: Well, it's good if you know how to carry yourself, how to treat people. Yeah. I'm good amid white peoples, and amid black people. Everybody's there for T-Model Ford. And the white ladies named me The Ladies' Man. That's one of my songs I made, and they love it. There's gonna be a bunch there. When they see that plane comin' to land, they'll be standin' in line with cameras, snappin' pictures.
Indy: Just like the Beatles.
TMF: Yeah. Yeah. When you hear me, you will love it, too.