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He can’t read or write. He’s 90 years old. He had a stroke in April and a pacemaker put in the year before. He is a badass motherfucker.
T-Model Ford, the self-proclaimed “Tail Dragger From Greenville, Mississippi,” is still slogging it on the road from club to club across the world, bringing people the last smoldering embers of a bygone era.
Ford doesn’t just play the blues; he is the blues. Don’t expect the polished guitar loaded with technical wizardry you’re bound to catch at weekend festivals sponsored by jazz stations; the Tail Dragger plays a hypnotic stomp seemingly laced with voodoo by the trance it puts you in. Then there’s the busted-down, gut-kicked voice dripping with memories of a well-worn life. From a stint on a chain gang for a murder in self-defense to a lifetime dealing with prejudice, poverty and broken hearts, each experience has added more layers to his cache. Hell, he didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 57 because he was too busy trying to survive. Even with all that, this nonagenarian won’t cop to being unhappy.
“I’m feeling pretty good, always do. . . . I ain’t never been too down,” he says.
That sentiment may just be what makes Ford the last real bluesman alive. While all the trappings and pathways of his life may seem dour to an outsider, for a bluesman, that’s par for the course.
“The amazing thing about T is that he’s always saying he’s never had the blues,” says Marty Reinsel, drummer for Ford’s backing band, GravelRoad, and part-time road manager. “He’s the illiterate son of a poor farmer who started with nothing, and he’s thrived. . . . Through the work camps and all the down-and-out stuff he’s been through, he’s always managed to keep this incredible upbeat perspective.”
The Seattle-based Reinsel met Ford in 2005. He sought out the Tail Dragger when he heard the musician was stuck in Greenville with no drummer to back him. His longtime stick man and touring buddy Spam was no longer playing much, and Ford was sitting around the house stagnating.
“Me and a musical friend of mine went down to Greenville and played with him and hung out. . . . It was a blast, but I didn’t see him after that,” Reinsel says. “Through my acquaintances over the years, serendipity occurred in 2008, when GravelRoad were invited to the Deep Blues Festival [in Minneapolis] at the same time that T-Model was invited, but no one was playing with him. The festival organizers talked to me, I talked to T and some of my other Mississippi acquaintances to see if this could happen, and it got going from there.”
For the past two years, GravelRoad have backed Ford on most of his outings beyond the Mississippi borders, which includes tours of Europe. When he’s home playing local bars and juke joints, Ford’s 12-year-old grandson, Stud, fills in on drums. Reinsel is Ford’s junior by multiple decades, but on the road, the men have forged quite a relationship. Beyond playing music together, the two have developed a bond in which the old black guy teaches the young white guy the secret of musical longevity while the young white guy introduces his counterpart to the modern world.
“Every time I’m with T, something happens. . . . We could just be walking around somewhere, and something interesting is going to go down,” Reinsel says. “That’s the fun part, but there’s also some responsibility. He’s very independent for a person his age, and he takes great pride in doing things on his own, but there are things he counts on me for. For example, I have to read everything to him, make sure he gets paid. And there are things he’s not really capable of . . . like setting up things like the GPS in the car.”
While age undoubtedly will get to us all, Ford is not letting it get in his way. He claims to have written several new songs and plans to record a new album this year. He also hopes to continue touring the world with GravelRoad.
“I got some stuff cooking, that’s for sure,” he says. “I ain’t stopping no time soon. . . . This is what I do.”
T Model Ford performs with GravelRoad, Dano Forte’s Juke Joint Freak Show and DJ Oldboy at Alex’s Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; www.alexsbar.com. July 30; call for set times. $10. 21+.
This article appeared in print as "The Last Real Bluesman Alive: T-Model Ford has lived the blues for most of his 90 years."