If you ask blues man T-Model Ford how old he is, he'll tell you he's turning 90 in June of this year. He knows it's the 24th of June, but he never learned how to count. His passport says it's June 24, 1921. His driver's license says it's June 27, 1924. Regardless if he's 90, 88, 85 or some other number, one thing is true — Ford has led a long, storied life with plenty of trials and tribulations to fill countless blues albums.
Born James Lewis Carter Ford in Greenville, Miss., Ford, who is also known as "Taildragger," never went to school a day in his life. His father, a physically and emotionally abusive man, had Ford plowing the fields by age 11 and once beat him so bad with a piece of firewood that Ford lost a testicle.
When Ford was in his 20s, he was drinking in a bar when a man came up and stabbed him in the back. Ford pulled out his own knife and killed the man in self-defense. He spent two years on a chain gang after the incident. "That was rough," he says. "They gave me 10 years. It was self-defense, but they didn't see it like that. I was in Tennessee and Tennessee and Mississippi don't like one another. It didn't make no bad man out of me. Made a good man out of me.
"Where I was born and raised at, the white peoples liked me cause I respected them. So, my mom came and got me after two years."
He never had the chance to listen to music while growing up, out of fear that his father would beat him for it. Ford only remembers hearing two songs in the entire time he was growing up in the Mississippi Delta region that's so well-known for the blues he now plays -- "one by Muddy Waters and one by Howlin' Wolf," he says with a growling Southern drawl. "I was little when I heard them, but they stayed in my head," he says. "I liked to hear the sound of it."
It wasn't until he was 58 that Ford first picked up a guitar -- his wife at the time had purchased it as a birthday present. He simply tuned his guitar to what he thought sounded good. Within a week and a half, Ford was playing those Waters and Wolf songs he had heard as a boy. "It was easy to me [to learn]," he says. "I really wasn't interested in being a musician. I'd just play around Greenville at these houses. I didn't think I was that good, but I was."
He started recording his songs when he was 75 years old and has since released a handful of albums.
Ford, who has been married five times, has quite a few children. "They say I'm the father of 26 of them," he says. His drummer is his 11-year-old grandson, Stud, who has taken the place of his son. "It was my baby boy playing when he got big enough, but he got into some trouble up the road -- he's gotta spend four years before he can come home," he says. "Now, I got my grandson playing with me. I took care of him. He didn't want for nothin'. I was playing in the house all the time and had a set of drums and he'd be meddlin' with them all the time so I showed him how to do it. I had to show him how to beat and stay in time. Now, he's ready... and the white folks love him."
Ford is touring in support of his first all-acoustic album, The Ladies Man, which was released in January of this year. When asked if he prefers to play an electric or acoustic guitar, Ford says electric. "I like electric the best 'cause it's the easiest to play," he says. "Acoustic is harder to play. It's rough on the hands." His front-porch style of blues is usually accompanied with growls and stomping feet.
With no schooling, Ford is illiterate -- he can't read, write or count. One can only assume the setlist for his performances, is in his mind and he simply plays whatever he's feeling that night, or whatever he's heard before. "Once I hear 'em, I can play 'em," he says. "And I sound just like 'em." Most of his time isn't spent listening to music or playing though -- "Sometimes, I'm around the house and I want to hear my songs and they'll play it for me and it be soundin' good to me," Ford says with a laugh.
His concerts have been known to last as long as three hours. Ford says he loves seeing different parts of the country and making a little money while out on the road.
When asked how long he'll play or if he'll retire, Ford mentions that he once had a dream that he's going to live to be 110 years old. "I'm proud of myself," he says. "The good Lord done kept me here 89 years. I don't even feel like I'm 89 years old. As long as the good Lord keeps me in the health I'm in and I'm able to, I'm gonna play guitar as long as he lets me live."
T-Model Ford will be at Snug Harbor on March 2 at 10 p.m. Trouble Walkers open. Tickets are $8.