Bluesman T-Model Ford is loose. So loose that he blows B.B. King and Honeyboy Edwards — the only other practitioners of his craft who are near his age, which he estimates as 90 this year — out of the water.
While Edwards, now 94, lacks oomph, and where King, 84, comes across as somewhat pampered and predictable, Ford sounds as liberated, ragged, and raw as he did at the relatively young age of 77, when he recorded his debut album, Pee-Wee Get My Gun.
Born James Lewis Carter Ford sometime around June 1920, Ford's public persona reads more like some mythical bluesman of the early 20th century than a musician who is actively performing today. During a stint at a saw mill camp, he was sentenced to 10 years on a chain gang after murdering a co-worker; allegedly, he served just two years before release. He cannot read or write, he has a well-documented propensity for Jack Daniel's whiskey, and he didn't pick up a guitar until well after his 50th birthday.
Although he was slow to start performing, Ford hasn't stopped since Pee-Wee was released on Fat Possum Records in 1997, touring and recording with a bevy of musical partners, including the Greenville, Mississippi-based drummer Spam, the legendary Sam Carr, and Ford's 11-year-old grandson, Stud. He met his current drummer, Marty Reinsel, a member of the Seattle blues trio Gravel Road, on one of Reinsel's first trips to the Delta nearly a decade ago.
"Stud's bad with the drums. I love that ol' big-headed boy. Marty, he's a fine little fella. I like 'em all," Ford proclaims.
Ford's been collaborating with Reinsel since 2008, when Gravel Road was asked to back him at Minneapolis' Deep Blues Festival. That date was one stop on a two-week tour that ended in Wichita, Kansas, where Ford cut The Ladies Man, his seventh full-length (and his first for California-based Alive Records). Although The Ladies Man was recorded in a bona fide studio, the sessions are so relaxed they could've been cut in Ford's living room.
Fans accustomed to Ford's hypnotically droning electric guitar riffs might be surprised to find him playing an acoustic instrument throughout The Ladies Man. But the extended vamps are still there — five of the album's 11 tracks clock in at over six minutes, with the last song, "Hip Shaking Woman," running 10-and-a-half minutes.
A natural raconteur, Ford peppers songs like "My Babe" and "Two Trains" with extended soliloquies, such as "I Was Born in a Swamp" and "I'm Coming To Kick Yer Asses," which make it clear he belongs not in a museum or casino but in the corner of a smoky, crowded juke joint.
The release of the album was somewhat delayed when, in late 2008, Ford went into the hospital with heart trouble.
"They put in a pacemaker, and he was on the phone with us from the hospital saying, 'I'm ready to get back on the road,'" Reinsel explains. "We've been doing a tour every three months ever since. We even went to Europe last fall, and T-Model seems happy and healthy and strong."
"Thank the Lord I'm living and able to go," Ford says. "I'm picking up a little more speed now. I've got transportation, so I'm not sitting and worrying about nothing."
Their current tour, which started in Boston last month and ends in Albuquerque on March 28th, includes a date at the Hi-Tone Café Friday night.
"Hanging out with T is easy," says Reinsel, who adds that in his "alternate life," he works as a clinical educator with a specialty in crisis response.
Ford, Reinsel says, is "completely independent. What he relies on me for is getting him from A to B and making sure he doesn't get ripped off. I use a system of checks and balances — reporting the numbers at the end of the tour to T-Model and [his wife] Stella, to Randy Magee of the Highway 61 Blues Museum, and Roger Stolle at Cathead in Clarksdale. Otherwise, T-Model completely takes care of himself.
"The things I'm learning from T are life lessons," Reinsel continues.
"We move so fast in the world these days, and T-Model moves slow. He reminds me to go slower, to be more patient. He helps slow me down, and when I'm with him, I find myself being a little more thoughtful and a little less selfish."
Then Ford chimes in. "You've got to use yourself in happiness," he says. "I'm happy with my life, like I'm living. The ladies treat me nice, and the men treat me nice, too. Nobody wants to fight, so I'm happy with it."