As I’ve come to realize is routinely the case whenever I’m attending a show at the Tractor Tavern, whiskey figures as prominently into my night as the music does. The fact that T-Model Ford, the aging blues legend from Forest, Mississippi who often dons a Jack Daniel’s hat and always drinks it definitely didn’t result in any toning down of the whiskey-fueled, good-time-having. The reason I bring this up is not because I think you care, but to preemptively apologize for any mis-rememberings or non-remeberings that might have been pertinent to the show. I’m basically just trying to recall the gamut of my drunken emotions throughout the night, and I invite you to fill in any blanks or share your thoughts in the comments section below if you happened to be there.
After an extremely raw and wild set by Watch It Sparkle that we mostly spent outside smoking cigarettes and ducking into alcoves to pass a flask around, we headed inside, grabbed a few drinks from the Tractor Tavern’s fine bar, and shuffled over to see Gravel Road, who would be playing a set of their own before welcoming up T-Model Ford. Gravel Road played some good time blues rock behind front man Stefan Zillioux’s “gravelly-road” wail and electrified riffs that at times brought to mind ZZ Top. They were a serviceable blues rock band with a good energy about them. As we were mingling around, my friend ran into someone he knew from a blues camp who said that T-Model had injured his right hand somehow. This probably should have been disconcerting, but we had been drinking so much that it didn’t even register with us. We weren’t thinking about the implications of anything. Any concerns we might have had, however, were quickly assuaged on our way out to smoke another cigarette when we saw T-Model sitting on the bench next to the Tractor’s entrance, his cane at his side as he was signing a woman’s arm with a smile on his face. A ladies’ man never gets old.
We came back inside and made another obligatory visit to the bar before sliding into position in front of the stage for good. I don’t think the show sold out, but it definitely wasn’t a thin crowd and it was difficult to get into good position. After a few minutes T-Model came on with Gravel Road…at 11:30! He took a seat and with his guitar in his lap started rambling’, asking everyone who they were doin’ a few times, mentioning something about Jack Daniel’s, and then informing us that he just had a stroke the other week “in his right arm.” So there’s the “injury” we had heard of. Regardless, everyone was cheering and just happy to see the blues legend live and in person.
After playing a few songs one of the members of Gravel Road told us that T-Model had just celebrated “what we think is his 90th birthday.” 90 years old! And he just had a stroke! You’d have to chain T-Model up and throw away the key to keep him from playing the blues. I’m not sure to what extent the stroke was affecting his playing capabilities, but it sounded like it was to some degree, at least. He played simple little blues riffs over the rhythm section of Gravel Road, who definitely toned it down a bit to accommodate T-Model. And though his lyrics were basically indecipherable, his moaning bluesy wail was unmistakable and a treat to hear, especially on “Sallie Mae.”
Though we were slightly disappointed with the sharpness of the music (although we weren’t any sharper) and our inability to hear very well, every time I saw T-Model flash a grin it reminded me that we were there to see and appreciate the longevity of a Mississippi blues legend. After all, he’s 90 years old. I don’t know what most 90-year-old people’s daily lives are like - I don’t know anyone that old and I don’t think I ever have - but I’m pretty sure the majority of them aren’t traveling around night after night, playing blues and drinking Jack Daniel’s, taking strokes in stride and entertaining hordes of women who still cling to their every word. T-Model is one of a dying breed of bluesmen who are simply conditioned for this lifestyle. It’s how he’s always lived and he’ll be doing it until he doesn’t have the strength left in him to strum a chord. On our way out we stopped by the bar to take one more shot for the road. “Long live T-Model Ford!” someone earnestly slurred before we threw it down the hatch. I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate to raise a glass to.
*Also feel free to use the comments section to discuss T-Model Ford’s free show at the Columbia City Theater on Monday night, if you happened to be there*