I first met James T-Model Ford in 1997. He had opened for R.L. Burnside. His music had a memorable approach to a number of blues standards I would eventually grow to adore. Ford’s music served as an introduction, as the necessary open-valve to a whole world of blues music. His renditions of “Cut You Loose” and “My Babe” showed an affinity for James Cotton and Little Walter; and his renditions of “Smokestack Lightnin’” and “Catfish Blues” were excellent covers of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. For me, his and R.L. Burnside’s music were the blues analog of Frank Zappa to classical modernism—that is to say, a gateway drug, so to speak.
I witnessed T-Model Ford play in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000. I was always the youngest person in the club when I attended those shows, always going with the accompaniment of a parent and always drinking Coca-Cola. One of my fondest memories was having the opportunity in 1999, to play guitar alongside T-Model Ford’s drummer, nicknamed Spam, at Santa Fe’s Thirsty Ear Festival, which primarily presented roots music and underground alternative rock. Spam and I played for about 30 minutes as a duo and he used a snare drum in a North Mississippi Hill marching style, which he muted with a handkerchief to match the dynamics of the small saloon we played in. I ran through a number of styles: Robert Johnson style Open-G riffs; John Lee Hooker style vamps; and Muddy Waters-influenced stomping drones in the key of E. Even to this day, this is one of my fondest memories of my adolescence. Later, Spam admitted that “a white boy learnt” him the drums.
In the interim between these show experiences, I participated in weekly jam sessions and gigs throughout the bar scene in New Mexico. I was thirsty for playing experiences and I was often the first musician to arrive at 8 PM and the last to leave at 2:30 AM. I would be so wound up, I sometimes couldn’t get to sleep and I would cram in as much studying as I could before attending school the next morning around 7:30 AM. Those early morning study sessions often involved practicing for jazz ensemble; studying voice leading for music theory; and writing research papers on music (Anthony Braxton, Eric Dolphy, Arnold Schoenberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen are four names I remember writing papers on at this time). I remember the feeling of walking around school after a great show—having not had time to wash the cigarette smoke out of my hair—and I would have to listen to the other kids gossip and bicker; meanwhile I was living this double life of student and bar musician and there was always this compartmentalization between being the kid with a guitar that the high school cliques ignored and being the kid with a guitar that the college cliques cheered for the night before. After my third gig, I stopped telling the other children because they usually didn’t believe me, the response was always, “Sure, in your wildest dreams you played at a bar last night and some older girl with a fake ID gave you kiss on the cheek as she was leaving.” I was fourteen when this started and it went on until I was seventeen.
I estimate that I had something like 8,000 hours of gigging, rehearsal and practice and jamming experience by the time I reached legal adulthood. Between studying classical, jazz rehearsal, guitar class, and watching movies with my guitar in hand; I was playing about 4 or 5 hours a day, and I’ve done my best to keep this pace up with all my passions throughout life. These were crucial, formative years for me and I still prefer early morning to any other time for work, often rising as early as 3 AM to start weightlifting, write critical essays, compose music, and create visual art; I also typically read for 1 or 2 hours every night before bed. I don’t drink, I don’t take drugs, I don’t pursue unnecessary partnerships, I make time for meditation, and I attempt to sublimate everything into my work. I feel truly blessed at this point. I wish I could tell T-Model Ford how much he and Spam set the forces of my passion for music into motion. James T- Model Ford passed away in 2013. He was about 90 years old.