I was heartbroken today to hear the news of T-Model Ford’s passing. T-Model was a frequent guest on my Dirty Roots Radio Show and I’m very honored and proud to have been able to get to know him over the last few years.
When I tell people about T-Model Ford I always simply say, “You don’t know anyone like T-Model Ford.” They simply don’t exist. People often said he was the last of his kind. I say he was one of a kind.
T-Model started life as James Lewis Carter Ford, born into extreme poverty and violent surroundings. When he was a little boy, his father beat him so badly that on one occasion, his scrotum split and he lost a testicle – a fact he pointed out to me often when he bragged about his prowess in fathering children. He told me that he has 26 children that he knows of and has lost count of his grandchildren.
T-Model was stabbed in a tavern once and killed the man in self-defense. He served time both in the penitentiary and on the chain gang. He still had scars on his ankles from the shackles. He was asked once how many times he’d been in jail…he simply said, “Every weekend there for a while.”
T-Model has been married six times. He kept his most recent wife, Stella, at arm’s distance as long as he could. During one of our meetings he said she’d recently tricked him into a trip to the courthouse where she informed him they were getting married. I never met Stella, but know several folks who have and they say she gave as good as she got and could keep right up with ol’ T.
One of his wives had bought him an electric guitar and amp as a gift. He didn’t play and considered the gift a waste of precious money. At the age of 54 that wife left him and after he literally watched her drive off into the sunset, he went back into his house, saw the guitar sitting in the corner, and said, “I’m gonna learn me to play that muthee-fucka.” (his words)
He insists he didn’t hear much music growing up, but remembered one Howlin’ Wolf song and one Muddy Waters song that he’d heard many years before. He taught himself to play guitar (at age 54!!) and created a style all his own. Anytime I asked him about playing, he always pointed out how soft his hands were. Most guitar players form callouses on their fingertips, but T’s hands were – again, his words – as soft as doctor’s cotton. We watched a lot of his opening acts together and anytime one of them did something flashy with the guitar, he’d just look at me and say, “I ain’t scared of ‘em.”
No one knows for sure how old T-Model Ford was. A poor black man born in the time and place he was – the hill country of Mississippi in the early 20th century – didn’t have much use for a birth certificate. In the news since his passing I’ve heard everything from 89 to 94. The 94 figure is closer to what he’s told me a few times. He never went to school, never learned to read or write. He worked hard labor jobs most of his life. A tree fell on him during a logging job and messed up his hip. He’s been shot, stabbed, and poisoned.
He had heart issues in his 80s (at our first meeting he opened his shirt and made me feel his pacemaker) and a stroke in his late 80s (or so…again, depending on where you stand on the age debate). He had a series of health problems in his last couple of years, including more strokes.
Everything I’ve just detailed is more or less consistent with “official” reports on T-Model’s life, but I’ll stick with what I shared above, because it came from T-Model himself. The stories may have changed slightly from one telling to the other…but it’s his story.
I have so many memories of the times I spent with T. The first time I met him, a buddy and I presented him with a whiskey flask we’d had engraved with “Bad Man” – one of his album titles. It was a joy watching him realize that the writing (which he couldn’t actually read) on the flask matched one of his CDs. In that same meeting he practically wrestled me to the ground, insisting that I share his chicken dinner with him. His band had brought in take-out food for him and he asked if I’d eaten. I told him I hadn’t, but that I would later. I couldn’t imagine taking food off of T-Model Ford’s plate. But he wasn’t having it. So we shared a plate of chicken fingers and fries.
I was pretty scared going into that first interview. I’d only seen promotional material and footage of a slightly-younger, still pretty bad-ass T-Model Ford, and I’d heard he was quite a handful. I didn’t know what to expect. But the years between my discovery of his music and our first meeting had gentled him down quite a bit. You often hear people say something to the effect that T-Model Ford is a teddy bear…he’s a teddy bear that will cut you…but he’s a teddy bear.
The next time I saw T, he was still recovering from a stroke, and he wasn’t back to 100% yet. The interview didn’t go very well. He’d start telling one story and finish it with the ending of another story. He didn’t sing as much during his performance that night and he told me that his hands weren’t responding the way he wanted them to.
But the last time I met T, he was back. His health was on the rebound and he put on a great show. Sure, he repeated songs several times and yes, he was a little slower than he used to be. But he was there. And he wasn’t just phoning it in. He gave it all he had.
When I’d sit with T in a club, every time a woman would walk in, he’d tap my knee under the table and slightly nod with this head. It was very junior high…but man it was fun.
That last time we talked, I helped him to the stage when the time came. His drummer and caretaker-on-the-road, Marty, asked me if I’d hold Black Mattie while he situated T comfortably in front of the microphone. Before I had time to think, I reached out my hand and Marty put the neck of Black Mattie – T-Model Ford’s guitar in it. I stood there on the stage holding Black Mattie while Marty got T ready and thought about the music that instrument had made and the stories she could probably tell.
When that night was over I knew I may not see T-Model Ford again. You know that little voice in your head that tells you when something special is happening and urges you to commemorate it appropriately? Sometimes we don’t listen to that voice and we regret it. That night I heard that voice and I asked T if I could give him a hug. I wasn’t sure how he’d respond. He didn’t say a word, he just laid his head on my shoulder. I’m glad I did.
That’s the image I have of T-Model Ford tonight. My friend. I definitely didn’t know him as well as a lot of folks did. We have mutual friends, some of whom might be reading this right now, and they definitely had deeper and more profound relationships. I don’t want to put myself on par with them when it comes to remembering T. And I don’t want to sound pretentious. But T-Model remembered who I was each time I met up with him. We had fun talking. He always saved my seat when we were in the club together waiting for show time. Getting to know him was and is a big, big deal to me.
He was a good man. But he was also a bad man. In some ways I mean a bad man as in a bad ass. In the cool way, you know? But, in a whole lot of ways he wasn’t always the nicest of people. As cool as his story is from the outside, there’s the whole thing of being in prison, being married so many times, and all that. I’m not slighting him, but T – especially in his early days – was a mean, ornery cuss.
A bad man.
For better or for worse, definitely a one of a kind.
Born into the worst of situations, he lived through the worst of situations. He was handed one issue after another his entire life. And he just kept on going.
And he kept on smiling.
He kept making others smile.
That’s one of the greatest things you can say about anyone. He brought us joy.
He lived a long life. And I’m glad his suffering is over, but my heart is broken.
I want to send out special credit and thanks to Marty Reinsel, drummer for GravelRoad, who toured with T-Model on and off over the past few years and took care of him, and to Jeff Konkel, of Broke & Hungry Records, who worked with T-Model a lot over the past few years for several different projects. I appreciate both of these guys in a personal sense (each helped me facilitate meetings/interviews/etc. with T at some point) and in the bigger-picture sense (for playing huge parts in getting T-Model’s music and story out there). I’m proud to know both those fellas, too.
I’m off now to share tons of video clips of T-Model Ford on the DirtyRoots Radio Facebook page. And I’ll pay tribute to him on the show this Thursday night. I’m not sure yet if I’ll share a handful of tunes, or if we’ll play T-Model all night.
That may sound overkill, but it needs to happen. It needs to happen so that someone out there might found out about T. People need to know that a man like this existed. You don’t know anyone like T-Model Ford. There just aren’t any in this corporatized, bland-o, cookie cutter world we live in.
I’m so glad I got to know someone like T-Model Ford.
Rest in peace, T. It’s Jack Daniel time!