Like the biographies of many great bluesmen, some parts of T-Model Ford’s story are most certainly apocryphal. The Greenville, Miss., performer, whose voice and guitar style are both appealingly rugged and inexact, believes he was born around 1920. In between that year and his finally becoming known as a musician in the ’90s with the help of the label Fat Possum, he apparently murdered at least one man, spent time on a chain gang, and slept with many, many fellas’ wives. He claims not to be able to read or write, though he helmed an advice column for Arthur magazine for a time.
In short, he’s got all the credentials you’d hope for in a Delta blues player, and his bio’s veracity isn’t necessarily important as long as you can hear his life experience in his work. That was somewhat easier to do on his last album, early 2010’s The Ladies Man, which featured his acoustic deep blues interspersed with conversations about his life and times. He was inspired by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, he notes, but didn’t actually start playing until he was into his 50s.
His latest, Taledragger, is performed with his band GravelRoad and takes a page from the style of R.L. Burnside, the electric blues player who was also a Mississippian brought to recognition by Fat Possum. (Both artists are interviewed in the remarkable 2002 film, You See Me Laughin’: Hill Country Bluesmen.) Ford’s not quite as untethered as R.L., nor as compelling a player, but his compositions have an unmatchable gravity. “I Worn My Body for So Long” and “How Many More Years” are as heavy as their titles, and work not by evoking a sense of pain or stoicism, but by demonstrating a peace with what is.
Elsewhere, crunchy, imprecise drums drive murky, distorted vocals (often nearly impossible to make out) and feedback-drenched guitar, which don’t recall Muddy Waters so much as Woodstock-era psychedelic rock players. (The sound may actually remind younger listeners of Built to Spill’s Perfect From Now On.) Ford returns often to the subject of a “Big Legged Woman”—who is the title character of one track and the focus of another—but it’s never clear if she is friend or foe, a character of his past or a hallucination. Like T-Model’s personal history, Taledragger is a difficult story to unravel, but one that succeeds on its bullish affability.