Back in 2007 I went on a trip to the USA (down south), my second. I was flown over and shepherded around by the finest of old muckers, Michael Greer. Played a gig or two, had a drink or two, that sort of thing. However the highlight of the trip, for both of us I think, was a couple of days spent in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I was particularly up for it as this wee town is steeped in the history of early blues – John Lee Hooker was born there (so too John’s cousin Earl, Son House, Ike Turner …), Muddy Waters was raised there. Muddy’s old house was on Stovall’s Plantation and once you’ve visited the site you can check out the actual shack which is now itself housed in the Delta Blues Museum, right in the heart of Clarksdale next to Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero bar/venue. A hell of a place.
While Clarksdale was the highlight of the trip, the highlight of our time there was seeing and meeting T-Model Ford. I had been a fan for the past couple of years, listening to Bad Man on loop and having seen the fantastic Fat Possum documentary, You See Me Laughin’ – The Last Of The Hill Country Bluesmen. T-Model was a warm, charming man, who seemed happy to spend much of his offstage time in the company of a pair of increasingly drunk Scotsmen (that is, when not being cheerfully distracted by the young ladies in the audience). Sadly, though he never stopped working and did play over here a few times after that, I didn’t get to see him again. Still, that was a hell of a night, and a great way to remember him. I read today that T-Model has died after a long illness. He wasn’t sure of his birthdate, but he was around the 94 mark.
Here’s an excerpt from the old MySpace blog I kept at the time. I’ve included some pictures – low quality (phone cams were a mystery to us in 2007) but precious none the less. Michael almost certainly did the actual photo-taking.
27 May 2007
So we’re driving through Clarksdale talking – fittingly enough – about the Hill Country bluesmen on Fat Possum Records – specifically Junior Kimborough, R.L. Burnside and my own personal favourite, T-Model Ford, whose ‘Bad Man’ album I played to death last year. We pass by what looks like a derelict building and Tour Manager Michael spots a sign on it saying ‘Blues Club’ and so, figuring it to be a long-closed juke joint, we get out to take a picture like the tourists we are.
Hang on, but it looks like this place (Red’s Blues Club, now that we’re up close) is open – and there’s a handwritten sign on the door which says ‘Live Tonight – T-Model Ford. Adm. $5’. You couldn’t make this up.
We paid our $10 and took the place in. Red’s is a proper juke joint, one room, ceiling caving in, scary toilets, drum kit on the pool table (admittedly that last bit isn’t a prerequisite for juke-joint status, but, come on – there’s a fully set up drum kit on the pool table! If I ever have my own pub, there will be a drum kit on the pool table). Friendly, cool people. Red himself is a top chap, telling us stories about the acts that have played his place and giving us a bit of history. I think he said the club’s been there for 37 years.
Before the music was due to start, we nipped out for some food at Ground Zero and when we got back, there was T-Model, sitting with his mad old Peavey heavy metal guitar, giving it plenty. In between songs he would declare: “Jack Daniel Time – for damn sure!” , nipping at a quarter bottle of JD. Just him and a drummer; it was a grand noise. Fucking magic, in fact.
At the end of the first set, T-Model came straight over to us and shook our hands – I think we stood out because we were obviously totally loving it (the crowd of about 30 were right into it but were all regulars), or possibly because every couple of minutes I was enthusiastically hitting Michael on the arm shouting “That’s T-Model fucking Ford!!!” in a big happy drunk Scottish voice. When he came over I yammered something about it being a real honour and a pleasure to meet him, to which he replied “Yeah – I gotta go pee.”
In the break, the drummer (Lightnin’ Malcolm) started doing a one-man-band type thing which was good but after a while we thought we’d give the band at Ground Zero a look-see. They were awful – or rather they could play but had been saddled with a bad sound mix and the internationally recognized Pub Band Blues Set List From The Depths Of Hell (the kind you could have caught in Studio One on the Byres Road any weekend until quite recently) – and the crowd consisted of the kind of kegged-up rich-kid imbeciles that Molly Ringwald would have erroneously left Andrew McCarthy for in an ’80s John Hughes movie. This lot was dancing horribly enough to start with, but when one of them started doing ‘comedy blues dancing’ to ‘Mustang Sally’ (yes, ‘Mustang fucking Sally‘), with the others ‘whooping’ him along, Michael and I dragged each other out of there before we hit somebody. Really, somebody was going to get hit. A lot.
A few deep breaths and back to Reds – caught the rest of T-Model’s set and spent a good while chatting to him afterwards. He’s well into his 80s, just gotten over an illness and was off the next day on a flight to Europe (right enough, he was headlining a London festival a few days later). What a guy.
R.I.P. T-Model Ford.