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The Last of the Real Mississippi Bluesmen

James Lewis Carter "T-Model" Ford didn't take up the guitar until he was 58, when his fifth wife ran off for good, giving him the instrument as a parting gift. As the story goes, the native Mississippian stayed up that whole night, drinking moonshine to dull his heartache as he started teaching himself how how to play the blues. When he got the hang of it, it sounded like this:


That Ford, who died in Greenville, Miss., on July 16 at age 89 - or 93, depending on who you ask - didn't have any musical training didn't matter much: What he lacked in technical skill he made up for in feeling. He'd lived the sort of life that spawned the blues in the first place, from picking crops in the Mississippi delta to doing time on a chain gang, to loving and losing more women than most men ever even know.

Here he is in 2008, backed by the blues band GravelRoad:


It's no wonder that Ford has been described as the last of the authentic Mississippi bluesmen. Whether or not that was true, over the past several decades,the self-taught guitarist and singer became a musical phenomenon - recording seven albums, performing at festivals such as Austin's South By Southwest, and getting rave reviews for his raw, raucous style.

Here are some interesting facts about a remarkable performer:

  • Growing up in the Depression-era South, Ford reportedly never learned to read and write because he had to drive a mule and plow the fields instead of going to school. "It was a tough life," he told an interviewer in 2006. "We worked every day. I never got to play with no children. Never been to school a day in my life. For clothes we'd wear what people gave us."
  • He got his nickname, T-Model, from a logging truck that he drove while working for a sawmill as a teenager.
  • He had scars on his ankles from serving two years in a chain gang after he was convicted of stabbing a man in what he said was self-defense. "They gave me 10 years," he explained in a 2001 New York Times article. "Mama got a lawyer and got me out in two." When asked if he'd ever killed anyone else, he replied: "Do I count the one I run over in my Pontiac?''
  • Because he didn't know the proper way to tune a guitar, Ford developed his method - "in the key of T," as his fellow musicians described it - that gave his music what his New York Times obituary called "a strange, soulful tonality."
  • Ford reportedly was married six times, and by his own count fathered 26 children.
  • He had a reputation for being difficult to work with. According to the liner notes of his 1997 record Pee Wee Get My Gun, the late blues harmonica virtuoso Frank Frost, who performed on a couple of tracks, said at the time, "I want everyone to know that I'm playing against my will."
  • As a performer, one of Ford's stock tricks was to pick out an attractive couple in the audience and begin talking to the man. "He'd say, 'You'd better put your stamp on her because if she flags my train, I'm going to let her ride,'" his longtime friend, blues aficionado Roger Stolle, told the Associated Press. "He'd do it with a gleam in his eye and a smile. He could get away with a lot."
  • Ford told an interviewer in 2003 that he owned his longevity to three factors: "Jack Daniel's, the women and the Lord keeping me here."


Here's Ford performing at a music festival in 2009.


Photo: Bobincasco via Wikipedia


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