[6 July 2010]
“I’ve been good to my wives and my family. An’ I done been through a heap of knock-out, leg broke, fell-down troubles, an’ I still here. I think I’ll make it to 110.”—T-Model Ford
Problem is, if James Lewis Carter Ford, aka T-Model, does make it to that exulted age—and he’s going on 90 now—no one, including the old Taildragger himself, will actually know when that particular year comes around. His is an unrecorded birth lost in the mists of the Mississippi swampland. Through all of his stories, though, one thing is for damn sure—he’s the real deal. This is a Delta bluesman whose life has been as tough as the songs he sings: an uneducated sharecropper’s son out of Forrest, Scott County, who, as a boy, plowed the land behind a mule before finding work in the logging camps around Greenville, Mississippi, only to end up on a chain gang for killing a man in a bar fight. And he didn’t even pick up a guitar until he was 58 years old.
After a further 17 years honing his skills in juke joints and playing for change on the once-infamous sidewalk of Nelson Street in Greensville, an official landmark on the Mississippi Blues Trail, T-Model finally scored a recording contract with indie label Fat Possum, with which he cut four punchy electric blues albums between 1997 and 2002. Now, with a new label, Alive Records, and a new lease on life thanks to a recently-fitted pacemaker, the Taildragger takes it easy and heads down home on his first completely acoustic effort.
Recorded live with no overdubs during the course of one loose afternoon session at Planet Paul Studios in Wichita, Kansas, The Ladies Man has a field-recording atmosphere about it where the tape is left to run as the Delta bluesman regales the other musicians, including regular onstage collaborators Gravelroad, with tales of his place of birth (“I Was Born In A Swamp”), early influences, such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and questioning who’s Bogarting the Jack Daniels. Bullshit, the blues and hard liquor are indeed a powerful combination.
The end result is by far his best album to date, bookended by revisits to two of his finest songs, the ever popular live showstopper “Chicken Head Man” taken from 2000’s She Ain’t None Of Your’n, where T-Model is heard laughingly shouting “C’mon whiteboy” as he picks up the beat, and an epic stinging swamp-blues version of “Hip Shaking Woman”. Slotted in-between are front-porch, country-blues nods to Waters (“Two Trains”), legendary harp player Little Walter (“My Babe”) and rhythm guitarist Jimmy Rogers (“That’s Alright”), both band members in Waters’s first Chicago band, the Headhunters. Better still is a classic lowdown retelling of Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Love Me All Night Long”, where T-Model goes it alone showcasing his self-taught, yet erratic guitar style to great effect and a rough-hewn, sugar-shack-shaking cover of Roosevelt Sykes’s “44 Blues”. Like the man said, “I make the folk like what I do. It’s a weird sound, but it jus’ do something to ‘em”.