Wanna talk blues? Wanna talk blues that isn’t cheesy 12 bar stuff with big blues licks and generic blues scale solos? Wanna talk bluesmen with hats with a layer of dirt and dust? Worn guitars and too old dirty strings? Wanna talk genuine life experience? Crazy shit and tall tales? Heartbreak, poison, and hardship? Wanna talk danger and staying in Mississipi way too long? Wanna talk about being down so long that it looks like up? Well, if you have, you’ve come to the right place, cause it rarely gets better (or worse) than T-Model Ford.
It was an old pal of mine that introduced me to the music of T-Model Ford back in 2006 or 2007. He introduced me to a few of the electric blues artists that were signed to Fat Possum, actually. What they gave us were real people with real troubles who were never likely to walk away from their troubled lives, or stop playing their songs on porches or juke joints.
I guess it was similar to the discovery of Skip James and Son House, etc. in the 60’s, but Fat Possum were bringing the Mississippi blues to a new audience. The label would discover, sign and record bluesmen with rich character and history; guys who just weren’t designed for the mainstream, I guess. As well as T-Model Ford, we got R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Asie Payton, Johnny Farmer and Charles Caldwell. Each of them with stories to tell.
Ford’s story, though, is quite a striking one; a real tale of woe. As well as some strife, there’s violence and murder (apparently spending time on a chain gang for killing a man in a bar-room altercation). As a kid, he was beaten so badly with a piece of firewood by his father that he lost a testicle. He’s been beaten unconscious, stabbed, shot, and trapped under a fallen tree. And the heartache? Well, his first wife ran away with his father and he watched another die after drinking poison, while the only woman he ever truly loved poisoned him at breakfast. Still, he loved the womans and they appeared to love him. In addition, Fat Possum gave him a platform to tell his tales to the listening world.
… But the woe didn’t stop there. As a recording musician for Fat Possum records he would be robbed, the victim of vandalism, and learn that the elderly woman teaching him to read and write has been the victim of a heinous crime that has resulted in her death. But still, he didn’t want to move despite the efforts of his label to get him out of town. In fact, Fat Possum’s Matthew Johnson considered him to be a “happy-go-lucky psychopath”; whether he was or not depends on how you interpret his songs and performances.
Anyhoo, Taledragger is T-Model Ford’s last album and, while not as vibrant and raw as the releases on Fat Possum, it’s still a brilliant document of the man’s particular blend of the electrified Mississippi blues. He’s backed by GravelRoad, who initially hooked up with him for a run of dates in 2008 and they provide suitable, eh, gravely backing for old T-Model. His unique playing style and wicked slurred growl are intact and he sounds great for a guy rumoured to be about 90 at the time (and he didn’t start playing until he was near enough 60 when his 5th wife said cheerio, apparently).
His blues is as repetative and hypnotic as his old label mate Kimbrough’s and opener Same Old Train really sets the tone. There’s some Hammond on here that really adds a wee something special and I’m fairly certain this song is a reworking of Mystery Train with T-Model singing what words he can remember with some of his own. I should add that part of the wonder of T-Model is deciphering what he’s singing. There’s no lyrics with the LP and his slurred growl doesn’t make it easy. I am confident, however, that he mentions train and a “long legged woma” (who makes more than one appearance).
The early highlights are Comin’ Back Home and Someone’s Knocking On My Door, with the former churning like the Mississippi and at times it reminds me of Morphine. The sax flourishes and Ford’s howl when he says “bae-ee” (babe / baby, I assume) are awesome and Brian Olive’s sax outro is particularly special (make it worth the admission price alone). Someone Knocking… on the other hand is lit up with Stefan Zillioux’s sizzling guitar. Seriously, it’s a BBQ pit death waltz… Ford chanting about death and the gentle rapping on his chamber door.
Side 2 is pretty special, with How Many More Years transcending electric blues. It’s dark, hypnotic, and the drum often does this wee quick step thing that leaves you feeling a bit woozy. There’s some heavy reverb on T-Model Ford’s vocal and Zillioux’s wah-wah’d guitar finds us veering off into a psychedelic dirge. It’s followed by 7 rolling and tumbling minutes of Big Legged Woman. Again, the lead playing of Zillioux lights this up, with his slide playing like a switchblade. I guarantee you if this was recorded in the 60’s Led Zeppelin would have released a similar tune within months without having ever heard this.
Ford is clearly a fan of reverb and although it’s not uncommon for bluesment to delve into some tremelo or reverb ocassionally, one of the most interesting things here is the use of the reverb on the vocal and the occasional veer into psychedelic vibes. Given how difficult it is to grab the words that Ford throws out, it’s very effective. Those psychedelic dirge vibes come back with I Worn My Body For So Long (what a title, eh?). This time it’s driven by some kick ass bass and the lead noodlings appear to be from an acoustic or dobro (or resonator of some sort).
Lyrically, when you can make out what he’s saying, it sounds at times like he’s making things up as he goes along, singing what he remembers of existing songs, while throwng in his own experiences (Same Old Train, Big Legged Woman, Red Dress and Little Red Rooster). There’s a whole lot about mortality on here (natural given his age). Of suffering and journeying. Trains, betrayal, and a big legged woman. Y’know, the typical blues themes, I guess.
And while this is T-Model Ford’s boogie board, the band are damn good. From what I gather, they are rooted in the blues, while having a hard rocking edge… and they do provide a helluva backing to T-Model Ford’s unique playing. Lots of fuzz, too. You gotta love fuzz. In fact, if you like R.L. Burnside’s elctrified stuff, it’s safe to say that this will be right up your street.