Ed Mabe Interviews T-Model Ford

The Timeless Muse of the Blues:
An Interview with T-MODEL FORD
By Ed Mabe

If there is one topic T-Model Ford loves to talk about its women. No matter what question I ask him, somehow inevitably the conversation returns to women. Its not something he does intentionally, its just that livin' with, lovin' and leavin' women encompasses the entire tradition of the blues experience. Just think about Robert Johnson walking down some lonely Mississippi backroad carrying nothing but his six string guitar and the eternal burden of another good woman gone bad. Its the common demoniator of all the great bluesmen .Their timeless muse.

And in the world of T-Model Ford its all about the ladies. Its a simple equation: music equals women, drinking equals women, touring equals women. T-Model is definetely a ladies man. His dark black glassy eyes only begin to sparkle when a pretty young woman enters the room. This78 year-old man seems willing to take on just about anything.

When I met T-Model for our interview he was heading toward the the bar, walking slowly because of a cane, wearing bluejean overalls and carrying a glass of Jack Daniels straight-up. I notice he seemed very careful not to spill the glass of JD. Between questions T-Model would take a sip of his bourbon, look off to one side, roll his eyes and smile to himself like he was keeping count of the times he'd felt good bourbon wash down his throat. I'm certain whatever the number, its not enough. Because what else does a good bluesman like T-Model Ford have besides whiskey and women? One inevitably leads to the other. And in the case of T-Model Ford the sooner the better.

As we spoke T-Model seemed very determined to make me understand what a great time he was having while traveling around the world preaching streethustler blues to his flock of converted fans. He doesn't seem to care that along the way he was selling records, making a little money, getting to see the world, etc. The only real reason T-Model was smiling about his late-blooming septegenarian career was obviously because he got to meet lots and lots of "womens" out on the road.


TM: Me and ol' RL (Burnside) was drinking and he tried to help me but he couldn't. I'd done had too much.

EM: RL came and got ya?

TM: He tried. By then I'd done got to the top and couldn't go no further. Then the police come down there. Brought the damn ambulance and everything.. (much laughter). Them police woke me up and I said "how ya'll doin'?" They said, "Alright... How you? You want us to carry you to the hospital?" and I said, "nah, I'm fine...but I didn't eat and I drank that Jack Daniels."

EM: What did they do with you?

TM: Nothing...They took me and got me to where I was laying down on the couch and I went on to sleep.

EM: When did you wake-up?

TM: When I heard 'em talking about the ambulance. See most times I'm the boss of that Jack Daniels, but this time he got the last punch in on me .

EM: OK, let's talk about your music for awhile. We'll get back to drinking stories later. Matt Johnson described you as "the friendliest, fun-loving psychopath you'll ever meet..." What did he mean by that?

TM: Well I guess it means I ain't sorry. I don't feel sorry for nothing I done. I'm the same thing everyday. But now, if you do me wrong I ain't gonna "stay" mad with ya, I'm gonna "get" mad with ya. I don't like to talk about all that kinda ol' mess. Reminds me of Spam (long-time friend and drummer). We was stuck together like that (wraps his forefinger around his index finger) but now...I'm gonna tell you the truth. I don't like him no more.

EM: Why? I thought you guys were buddies? he's part of your sound.

TM: We ain't buddies no more. See, he's started going back telling his sister a bunch of lies on me. What I was doing...when I was just trying to help him. I used to go over there and help that boy. But that all changed when he had his sister calling my ol' lady (the infamous Stella from T-Models hit "I'm Insane ) telling her a bunch of lies about me going with some ol' woman that drives a school bus. Finally I was over there one day when she called and we got into it on the phone. She was talkin' about coming and whooping my ass and all this...

EM: Could she whoop your ass?

TM: Shit...I ain't seen it yet cause she don't want none of me. I told her, "if you jump me you better have some help." I'm crippled to a point but can't no woman whoop me. Cause I'm a man...

EM: So the bottom line is you're through with Spam.

TM: Yeah...I'm done with him. I ain't even spoke to him in a long time. I don't let nobody do me wrong...nobody. One of my oldest sons...

EM: How many kids do you have?

TM: 26 kids through five wives. But all of 'em ain't with my wives. Its some other womens. I'm a woman's man. I like them womens. I'm an old man now but I still get with 'em. (points to his crotch ) He don't jump up like he oughta no more but when I gets with the right woman, he'll raise.

EM: OK, we're straying again. Let's get back to the Matt Johnson quote.

TM: Oh yeah, well they done treated me real nice over at Fat Possum. They been the only ones that could get me anywhere with my music and I appreciate it.

EM: How did you end up working with Fat Possum?

TM: Them guys around there, Bruce (Watson: Producer at Fat Possum Records) and Matt (Johnson: Founder of Fat Possum Records), they heard me play and they liked it. One night they come out to see me and I had this woman with me at the time, Jessie-Mae...she was a fine looking woman too, really good looking. I loved that woman but she died in my arms.

EM: What? How did that happen?

TM: Well, we played in Springfield (Mississippi) that night. Me and Spam and she was with us. There was this other woman with us too and I believe she give ol' Jessie-Mae a pill behind my back cause I heard 'em talking about it. Jessie-Mae was supposed to have went up to Jackson but she didn't go so I took her with me. Jessie-Mae had gone and got herself pregnant by me. She told one of her friends that she was supposed to take an operation. But she never did. She drank some kinda poison instead and never made it. She dies in my arms. I still ain't over it. I loved that woman. (T-Model sits back and takes himself a big gulp from his glass of Jack Daniels )

EM: Sounds like you really live the blues.

TM:Don't mean to but I do. Cause I'm a bluesman...

EM: OK, but how did you end up with those guys at Fat Possum?

TM: They come to my house. They come to my house for two weeks trying to catch me. Around that time I didn't know I was that good to get out and play. I could play 'em but I didn't know how good. All of 'em around there, Willie Foster, Frank Foster, all of them guys played around Greenville. See, I didn't pick up a guitar till I was 58 years old.

EM: What made you pick it up then?

TM: Well, my last wife left it when I was working in the woods driving log trucks. I was bringing my money home then telling her I wasn't gonna throw it away out on the street. So one day she jumped up and bought the guitar without me knowing; guitar and amplifier. And I come in one evening and my little children was the first ones to get in my lap; I had three of 'em with her and she was pregnant with another of mine. I come in that day and she said, "you see yer present?" And I said "what present?" I looked up there and saw it sitting in the corner and said, "what is that?" And that's when she told me she had bought me a guitar. I said, "what you spending my money on junk like that for? I don't know nothing about no damn guitar." And she said, "well you can learn." So I said, "if I learn you gonna live with me?" And she said, "yeah..."

I still hadn't taken the guitar outta the box then. About a week later it rained and I had this job up in the woods. And I come home to eat lunch one day and all the kids was out in the yard. I seen her in there talking on the phone and right when she saw me I knew she as mad. I didn't know who she was talking to but like I say, I knew she was mad. She didn't say nothing though and I went on back to work.

That night when I come home and I seen this strange car up in the driveway.

So I just went on in the house. I got in the house and all the children and my mother-in-law was sitting on the couch. My mother-in-law says to me, "James, didn't nobody come to hurt ya." And I said, "I know that mama..." They had packed up all her clothes and I didn't know nothing till it was time for her to go. And she just went on.

All my little children went with their mama except my little boy, Billy. All the girls went with their mama but Billy didn't wanna go. He kept saying, "come on daddy, go with us." But I couldn't.

They pulled away and I guess my ol' lady was expecting me to try to stop 'em but I didn't. I was hard back then and I just stood there...

I went on in the house. I was sitting there thinking, ya know. I didn't have my mind on no guitar cause I wasn't fooling with no guitar. So I had this gallon of corn whiskey over there sitting behind the bed...and I'd never drank none of it. I wasn't no whiskey drinker then.

I sit there for a few and walked up to the amplifier and plugged it in but didn't nothing come on. I turned on another button and nothing. Turned on another one and a little red light came on. I plugged in the guitar and starting turning them buttons and could get no sound. Turned another button and I started getting that, "dum-dut, dum-dum..." It wasn't tuned and I didn't know how so I tuned it my way. Started feeling them strings. Then I started playing one of
them chords that I'd heard in a Muddy Waters songs. And I liked it and started playing it all the time.

One of my buddies that I work with came by that night while I was playing. He said, "you can't play that damn thing." I said, "you wait." And I been kickin' ass ever since. So I learned myself how to play guitar. But I never got back with my ol' lady after she left that night.

EM: That's a good story.

TM: That's cause I'm a man. I'm a friendly black man.

EM: You got lots of stories about women.

TM: All of 'em about women. I done had 'em all. I been getting me some white women too. You wasn't allowed to be with no white women when I was born. But I done got out there now. I like them white women. I got me one in Switzerland. My first time with a white woman...

EM: Yeah, you had a Swiss woman?

TM: Yeah...and she wanna marry me. Fine looking! Last time we was in Europe she come and seen us and she started putting her hands on mine. Then she started hugging and kissing me. And you know what, I done lost her phone number. But that's all right I'm gonna find her when I go back over there. And next time I might not come back.

EM: How would you describe your blues style?

TM: Well, I got my own style. All sounds...can't nobody else play like me. Come up with it on my own. And you know why?

EM: No, why?

TM: Cause I'm the boss of the blues.

EM: OK...how about the new record, "You Better Keep Still." It starts off with the song, "If I Had Wings." That reminds me of an old gospel hymn.

TM: It ain't no gospel hymn. I heard that song when I was a little boy but it was different. So I started making things up with it and everybody that hear it, they like it. All them songs I made up my own self. Now the Muddy Watters song (If I Had My Baby in my Right Arm) I copied that my style. And I copied another Howlin' Wolf song (If You Gonna Dog Me Around) and did it my way. All the rest of 'em I made myself.

EM: How do you go about writing a song?

TM: I don't write cause I can't write. And I can' t read and can't spell what I'm doing. I just get it in my head and just hold it there. Bruce and them over at Fat Possum want me to cut some more songs for 'em too. And you best believe they gonna be bad when they come out...

EM: How about the song, "These Eyes?"

TM: Yeah, I like that one too but Stella don't like it. She get mad every time she hear it. And I just made that up.

EM: I bet so. That a song about all the women you had, isn't it?

TM: I guess...all them white and black women like to look at my eyes. Got pretty eyes. This woman down in Greenville works behind this counter, ya know, and I was giving her the eye one day...

Photos and text copyright 2000 by Ed Mabe
Read Ed's RL Burnside Interview