James T-Model Ford
Due to problems with my father and his Alzheimer's I hadn't seen the old Taildragger in more than a year. But I had talked several times via telephone with him and Stella and Renee, so I knew things were going well. The CD that T-Model and a drummer with the unusual name of Spam made with Fat Possum Records was selling briskly. T-Model and Spam had just returned from a European tour. From all reports, about half the folks in Europe were madly in love with the old Taildragger from Greenville, Mississippi, USA.
He even toured Yankee land. A friend of mine, Julie Ferguson, saw the old Taildragger at the original House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Needless to say, I was anxious for the old Taildragger to fill me in on his adventures.
Finally, one afternoon in May of this year, 1998, I drove the Bluesmobile down Clemons Street. To my immense pleasure, there sat T-Model beneath his shade tree. When I parked the Bluesmobile and got out, the moment felt like the return of the prodigal son--me. We all hugged, and I had tears in my eyes.
I pulled up a chair and sat beside the # 1 Tailgragger in the Mississippi Delta. "Taildragger," I said, "I'm damned glad to see you alive an' kickin'."
"Well, I'm alive fer shore, but I ain't-a kickin' so high. I'll be 78-years-old next month."
"Damn, that's right," I remembered. "June 24, 19 . . . Hey, weren't you born in 1924?"
"You'll be 74 next month."
"No, I won't. I'll be 78. I know how old I am. Tell you somethin' else. I'm gonna live to be 110."
"Hell, I hope you do, T-Model. I hope you live to be 110 an' you're still playin' the blues an' I'm still alive an' I'm listenin' to you play."
"I'm gonna be!" T-Model stated loudly and emphatically. The look on his face was serious. "God came to me in a dream. But it was real. God said, 'T-Model, you live a good life an' you'll make 110.' God told me that. An' I've lived a good life. I've been good to my wives and my family. An' I done been through a heap of knock-out, leg-broke, jaw-broke, fell-down troubles, an' I'm still here. I think I'll make it to 110. "
"T-Model," I stated softly, "something tells me that you are gonna make it."
Stella, as I had hoped, said, "Come on, Renee. We goin' to tha store. We gonna bar-b-que. "
"Aw, heck, Stella," I said, "I didn't come to Greenville to eat y'all out of house and home."
"Ain't no problem," she informed me.
"Okay," I said. "I'll provide the beer. What kind? Pabst Blue Ribbon?"
Stella grinned. "You remembered."
Look closely below at T-Model. The guitar is a Peavey RAZER recently presented to him by the grateful folks at Fat Possum Records.
The gold letters spell, the way T-Model spells it:
Money could not buy that medal from T-Model Ford.
Along about this time in the afternoon, T-Model's 17-year-old son, Michael, showed up. He's a good-looking kid, as you can tell, and T-Model is very proud of him. But T-Model is no different from most fathers when it comes to the extremely baggy pants kids wear nowadays. "Look at those damned pants," T-Model said to me. "Down around his ass."
Michael rolled his eyes like, Oh, God, here we go again.
I grinned at Michael and said, "Don't worry. He'll get over it."
For the entire 3+ years I've know T-Model he's bragged about Michael's drumming ability. Michael would have accompanied his father on drums when we filmed JUKE, but his mother wouldn't let him. Believe me: It was our loss. The kid has an amazing talent.
Half the afternoon both T-Model and myself kept begging Michael to get the set of drums out of T-Model's equipment trailer. Finally, we looked up and saw Michael at the open rear door of the trailer and battling wasps and extracting drums. T-Model grinned at me. He knew I would like what I was about to hear.
Y'all, it was like this 17-year-old child could read his old bluesman father's mind. He followed T-Model perfectly, like he'd been doing it for 17 years. He'd suck his lower lip inside his mouth and bite it, holding it there, and he'd close his eyes, like following his father with his mind instead of his eyes.
On and on they played, father and son, but playing not with guitar and drums but with each other. The father changing notes, syncopating rhythms, trying to make his son miss a beat, the son adding beats, inserting quick drum rolls and cymbal crashes, trying to make his father miss a note. Oh, but it was a grand blues concert there beneath the shade tree.
Here's the scene in T-Model's yard. The smoking and meat-laden bar-b-que pit sits out of sight to the left background. It contains link pork sausage, chicken leg quarters, and crayfish, which, by the way, were delicious bar-b-qued. All that meat was accompanied with sliced white bread and the best damned meatballs and spaghetti I've ever eaten. We chased all that wonderful food with . . . What else? Ice cold 16 oz PBRs.
It don't get no better than that.
The shade tree is just out of sight to the left. That's T-Model's ramshackle house in the background. To the right you can see the rear of Stella's van. Renee is inside it listening to blues and doing homework. The toddler in front of Stella belonged to a neighbor. Stella was babysitting it.
Here's a close-up of Michael from the side.
Notice the toddler's left foot. You can't see it in a snapshot, but that tiny foot is tapping in time with the beat of T-Model's guitar and Michael's drum. In other words, tapping to the living beat of the Mississippi Delta Blues.
Y'all, in this photo you see not a young drummer and a dancing child. You see the continuation of the Mississippi Delta Blues.
That baby got so excited that he started dancing in his chair. All of a sudden, he hit the ground head first and with an audible, "Whap."
Stella quickly picked him up, dusted him off, and, unhurt, placed him back in the chair. He shed neither tear nor whimper and started dancing again.
After the meal, we mellowed out while T-Model regaled us with tales of the Taildragger. Here's Renee holding up a blues festival poster from Holland.
"They loved me everywhere I went over there," T-Model said. "Had my picture in every paper. Everywhere I went, people had a paper with my picture in it. They'd point at the picture an' they'd point at me, an' they'd say, ‘T-Model! Oh, T-Model!' They'd follow me on the airplane. Spam got lost goin' to the shithouse, an' we damned near missed an airplane. People even said, ‘Oh, Spam! Oh, Spam!"
"Wait a minute," I said. "People would follow you onto the airplanes? Spam got lost?"
"Every airplane. They'd follow me on there holdin' out a paper with my picture in it. T-Model! Oh, T-Model! Spam went to the shithouse an' turned in the wrong direction when he came out. He ain't never been out of Greenville, Mississippi, far as I know, an' he shore ain't never been in no airport. We had to all go huntin' for him. Found him down at the other end of the airport walkin' in the wrong direction. He was easy to find ‘cause he was the only black man walkin' through all those white people."
"If y'all hadn't found him," I observed, "he might still be there."
"That's right," T-Model agreed. "Spam is something else. First big fine hotel we stayed in, Spam went to get off the elevator, an' he walks so slow an' probably ain't never been on no elevator before either, that the doors closed before he got off the elevator, so he went up to another floor an' got lost again. If I get my way about it, Spam ain't never goin' back to Europe with me."
And at that point, with the fate of Spam left to the fates, we close this episode of T-Model's Shade Tree, 1998.
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