Old man riffer

T-Model Ford turns 90 . . . or thereabouts
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  February 25, 2010

A/K/A 'THE MAN' "I'm the best of 'em. Nobody can touch me. I'm a bad man, and all the ladies wanna flag my train."

Bluesman James "T-Model" Ford is a survivor, and has been for a very long time. When he was a boy, he was beaten so severely by his father that he lay down in a ditch to die. His mother rescued him, but the incident cost him a testicle. As a young adult, he stabbed a man to death in self-defense and was sentenced to 10 years on a Mississippi chain gang. He still bears the scars of the leg irons. In his 50s, more than 30 years ago, his hip was crushed in a logging accident; because of improper medical treatment, it never correctly healed. That earned him a hobbled leg and a nickname, "the Tail Dragger from Greenville, Mississippi."

This truly old-school singer, guitarist, and songwriter kicks off his nationwide "90th Birthday Tour" at P.A.'s Lounge in Somerville tonight, with Boston's own Mississippi-hill-country-inspired bone crunchers the 10 Foot Polecats as openers. Ford is the eldest of the Magnolia State's electric juke-joint players, having outlasted R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Paul "Wine" Jones, Asie Peyton, Johnny Farmer, Charles Caldwell, Sam Carr, and Frank Frost — all of whom recorded for Fat Possum Records, the Mississippi-based label where Ford began his recording career in 1997, at age 76 or 77.

As he'll tell you, with characteristic modesty, "I'm the best of 'em. Nobody can touch me. I'm a bad man, and all the ladies wanna flag my train." At least one of those statements is true. He is a bad-ass who has taken bullets and spent many Saturday nights in jail. When pressed, he admits he isn't even really sure that he's 90 — his birth date has been reported as both 1920 and 1921.

But Ford is a unique performer who specializes in an especially raw style of Mississippi blues based on a handful of grinding riffs and crunching rhythms that he can use to propel drunk or sober listeners across dance floors anywhere he plays. These appearances are sometimes punctuated by offers to display his remaining ball, and by boasts about his sexual prowess.

Like his idol Howlin' Wolf, Ford is a fan of distorted guitar tones, and he bawls his lyrics — stories about his rugged life, rabbit hunting, hard drinking, and the women he loves (which is every one of 'em) — with a dry, wicked rasp that he can temper into surprisingly sweet notes. And despite all he's endured, seen, and done, he's mellowed over his many years into a rascally charmer whose undiminished ability to consume liquor inspired the title of his 2008 live album Jack Daniel Time (Mudpuppy) — a cry he frequently issues from the stage.

His latest album is the acoustic The Ladies Man (Alive), an even rustier take on the sound he's developed since he started playing guitar, some 30 years ago. Sporting an "explicit lyrics" warning, of course, it includes his own variation on Wolf's "44 Blues," a nastier rewrite of "Rock Me Baby" that he calls "Love Me All Night Long," and spoken slices of his world view. What none of Ford's seven albums captures is the hypnotic quality of his live shows, which dwell on the few chords in his repertoire and his use of mantra-like spare vocal melodies — sometimes for three or more hours — until they engender an all-encompassing momentum.

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