When B-Sides finally reaches Stella, the girlfriend, gatekeeper and muse for legendary Mississippi bluesman T-Model Ford, the phone line crackles with noise and the sound of children shouting all around her. "Children from down the street hunting freeze pops," Ford explains when he picks up. It's a hot day in Greenville, Mississippi, but Ford's spirits are high. Depending on whom you ask, he's anywhere between 84 and 88 years old, and he's about to hit the road again with the band Gravelroad, a summer tour that the pacemaker in his chest should make unthinkable.
But the Taildragger, as he's known, doesn't think much about the blues. He just grinds the songs out with a low-down, amped-up, ornery and mean propulsion that makes a mule kicking in a stall sound like Bach. Ford won't be around forever, but the force of his sound is deathless, and he gave B-Sides a hint of what makes a true bluesman tick.
B-Sides: How's your health these days?
T-Model Ford: Just come from the hospital. Had my checkup. Be 'bout three, four months before I have to go back.
Are you still wearing that pacemaker?
Yeah, man. I'm all right. I ain't suffering.
You came to the blues late in life. Before that, you worked some hard jobs.
I worked on the sawmill, drove tractors, cut logs, drove blind mules.
What's harder? Driving mules or playing the blues?
It didn't start me to doing that. My fourth wife bought me a guitar and amplifier. I came in, and she said, 'You see a present?' [I said] Nah, I don't. 'It's behind the bed.' After she spent my money on something like that, I told her old as I was, I couldn't play no guitar. She said, 'You can learn.' And so right there, I became a bad guitar player.
Do you still have that guitar?
Nah, I give it to my boys. They don't know what to do with it. But I got some good guitars now.
You were never interested in the guitar before you were in your 50s?
Never put my hand on a guitar before that. Didn't have nothing like that in my mind. But I did hear Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf in my young days, and I never forgot the sound they had. And when I started to play, that's who I followed.
You were friends with R.L. Burnside.
But I learnt to play before I met him. He was all right. He got to drinkin' a whole lot. He messed up a couple of shows. It got where they didn't call him to come back and play. I never messed up any shows. I'm still like I was when I learned.
Your last record, Jack Daniel Time, sounds real good. Do you just go in and record, or do you write the songs down?
Nah, I just go in. I get the first verse, and I make 'em on up.
How do you remember them?
It's easy! It's easy for you if you want to learn!
It has to be hard for a drummer to follow.
Nah, it ain't hard. I got my little grandboy beating drums behind me now. I call him "Stud." The white people like him. They crazy about him.
How many kids do you have?
They tell me 26. I don't know. I'm going by what they sayin'.
Do you still play out on the streets in Greenville?
When they got some money to give me. I can't play for nothing now no more.
You're a legend, T-Model. What's the biggest misunderstanding about you?
It's all good, far as I know.
You sound really nice on the phone, but you have a reputation for a mean streak.
Yeah. I got a reputation now!