T-Model Ford Obituary
It started in Canada in 2001. I was nineteen. I had followed a girl across the Atlantic, flying blind into the unknown. It didn’t take long for my teenage heart to be broken and for me to be seeking solace in the only place I have ever known it – in music and momentum. I found myself standing alone in the Sam The Record Man store on Yonge Street in Toronto, surrounded by more records and CDs than I had ever seen. It was my first experience of a record shop on this scale. I was deliriously delightedly distractedly overwhelmed.
Now Sam’s was closing down and everything was on sale. I didn’t care about money thanks to the broken heart, all that I wanted was music to move me on. Amongst the endless racks I knew I would find it. After hearing Who’s Got The Crack? on a late night John Peel show before I left, I knew that I needed the Moldy Peaches’ album. I also wanted some gritty distorted blues music like the R.L. Burnside I had been listening to back home – I needed some primal, battered guitar music to kick some defiance into me. I knew that Burnside had recorded on a small label called Fat Possum so off I went.
Sam The Record Store Man had both. I bought a Fat Possum compilation called Not The Same Old Blues Crap and the Moldy Peaches debut. Delighted with my purchases, I pretty much skipped out onto Yonge Street. Things were looking up. Until it hit me – I had nothing to play these CDs on. I had a backpack with some clothes and a camera. Before monetary concerns had a chance to dampen my spirits, I went rushing to a big department store and purchased a CD Walkman and batteries. I plugged in, went to the bus station and booked a Greyhound bus east – I wanted to go to Montreal.
These two albums sound-tracked endless small towns and wide horizons across Canada. On a prima facie level these two CDs were very different but I soon learned that there was a raw energy and fuck you spirit that flowed from both. One track stood out for me on the Fat Possum release, a song called Sail On by T-Model Ford. It helped move me forward – music and momentum. I made it to Montreal, eventually, and mended my broken heart too, eventually. I thank T-Model for helping me on my way.
When I returned home to England, I started university in Manchester. Some hazy years passed before T-Model Ford made another appearance in my life. In 2005, I spotted a poster that suggested that this wild bluesman was performing at the Night and Day Cafe on Oldham Street. I could not believe that this mythical figure from Greensville Mississippi was alive, let alone playing in the city where I lived.
In the years since my Canada trip, I had listened to T-Model Ford’s Fat Possum back catalogue often, getting hooked on the rawness of his sound, the impurities, the defiant, belligerent realness of it. I had even done some research. I found out that he could not read or write, had only picked up a guitar in his late fifties and taught himself to play. I thought this was pretty amazing until I then discovered that he had served two years on a chain gang for stabbing a man to death in a bar fight and had had six wives and more than 20 kids. He had also been shot and stabbed. He was a bona fide blues hellraiser. Surely such a man could not still be alive, not still performing, not coming to Manchester where I could actually witness him in the flesh? He belonged to a different world that would never cross with mine or so I thought.
Fast forward a couple of weeks. It is a warm evening. I am sat in the Night and Day cafe drinking red wine. To my left sits my friend Nicola and to my right T-Model Ford. Yep, T-Model, there sat next to me at the table. He is an old man but this means nothing. He is solid. He has huge thick fingers that grasp his glass and his voice and laugh are solid too despite being cracked and fissured like a dry river bed. There is a light though that dances behind his eyes that is the opposite of solid – this man knows mischief and it gutters behind his eyes. I babble praise and questions at every opportunity between the noisy garage punk of the support band but it is too loud for a conversation. I mime at him about putting cigarette filters into his ears to block out the racket. He takes a strip of filter tips from me and proceeds to feed them one by one into his deep cavernous ears. I can still see him so clearly, watching the small white cylinders disappear into his head. I remember laughing and him laughing too. It was hilarious, how they just disappeared.
I don’t know if he got them out before the show or ever for that matter but it did not affect him in any way. As soon as he was on stage, strumming out that distinctive tumbling rhythm, adding his vocals in mantra-like repetitions, picking out stuttering funky guitar lines, I knew what music meant to him. His eyes were twinkling as he channelled all of his mischievous energy through his fingertips and into his guitar strings. The audience had no choice but to dance hard and sweaty and free for nearly two hours. It was everything I had wanted and more from the evening.
More years passed. Then in 2009, I was now living in Bristol, I saw another flyer advertising a T-Model show. He was in his eighties in Manchester, now, he’d be pushing ninety. How could he still be going? Then I remembered that spark that danced behind his eyes and that smile and it made sense. I made my family and friends come and witness the taledragger from Mississippi on the Thekla.
The night arrived and there he was – T-Model was older and less solid. It seemed his body and mind were faltering, finally starting to breakdown. Yet on stage again that same raw energy still flowed from his fingers and people still had to dance free and hard to keep up. He forgot what songs he had played or what lyrics he had sung but the rhythm kept on coming, fast and funky, unrelenting, pouring forth. Every now and again he would stop to allow his body respite and shout joyfully “Jack Daniels time. Jack Daniels TIME!”
On July 16th 2013, T-Model Ford passed away at home in Greenville, Mississippi. He was between 89 and 94 years old, nobody knows for sure, least not the man himself. I guess now it is Jack Daniels time all the time for T-Model Ford.