He called himself The Chicken Head Man. He even sold t-shirts at his gigs that proudly proclaimed the fact. Such were the rustic eccentricities of the bluesman known as T-Model Ford, who died earlier today. In true blues fashion, his exact age can’t be verified. Most bios claim his birth year to be either 1923 or 1924. None of them are specific enough to whittle that down to a date or even month. Suffice to say, the artist born James Lewis Carter Ford lived to be somewhere around 90.
Ford did not have the kind of career that approximated anything resembling a conventional blues star trajectory. Nonetheless, his life was the blues – not necessarily the music, mind you, but serious real life blues.
His bio claims he killed a man in self defense, spending as much as 10 years in prison – some of it on a chain gang – as a result. He was supposedly married six times. It was his fifth wife, we are told, that gave him a guitar as she exited his life. That paved the way for a blues career that began, in earnest, around age 58.
The blues, as played by Ford, was a fat, greasy meditation. He had little interest in 12 bar compositional forms and opted instead for long, boogie-style grooves that owed equally to the formative music of John Lee Hooker and to the rhythmic traditions of his Mississippi upbringing.
It’s a good bet that Ford would have remained an unknown were it not for the ‘90s renaissance of fellow Mississippi blues elder R.L. Burnside. When Burnside began amassing a cult-like following among college audiences, he took pals like Ford on the road with him.
Eventually, Ford built a modest-size following of his own and began cutting records full of unrelenting, elemental groove. The best were a quintet of albums for Fat Possum – the label that gave rise to, among other stylists, The Black Keys. Of the lot, 2000’s She Ain’t None of Your’n was probably the best. That was also the record that brought Ford to Lexington a few times to perform at the long defunct Lynagh’s Music Club.
Many could never get past the fascination that surrounded Ford as a character. But give Ford’s music an attentive listen and you will experience the lean, unspoiled blues grooves that have long rolled out of rural Mississippi. Such sounds always possessed a special deep fried flavor when they were served up live and hot by The Chicken Head Man.