T-Model Ford and GravelRoad: “Taledragger”

Here’s an old-time bluesman who knows where it’s at– who knows, that is, that, with the blues, the story you’re telling isn’t nearly as important as how you’re telling it. T-Model Ford’s entire life has the air of a great tall tale. He says he’s around 91 years old– he can’t remember the precise details of his birth; who can, I suppose?– and that he never picked up a guitar in his life until he was well past fifty. Even his record label casts some doubt on these claims. There’s also a story going around that he did ten years in a chain gang for murder, something that has perhaps a tiny bit more footing in reality, though his claim that he cut his sentence down to a mere two years is a little iffy. He has his own catchphrase, a badass promise he makes to every young session musician to walk through his studio: “T-Model Ford is going to remember you sorry fuckers how it’s done.” This last part, I’m pretty sure, is entirely true.

The new album is called Taledragger, which is actually a pretty descriptive play on T-Model’s nickname, Taildragger; he’s playing with stories here, taking bits and pieces of old blues tales and moving them into the arrangements that best fit his whims. He recorded the set with a young blues troupe called GravelRoad– a unit who, like The Black Keys, know their blues inside and out but filter them through decades of indie rock, meaning that they’re smart enough to know they don’t have to play up the historicity of this music for it to be authentic. Simply put, the record is a righteous, hot blues album, a big-time groove record that spits and kicks with awesome fury and ample atitude.

T-Model’s loose relationship with the hard-and-fast rules of truth-telling and linear time is as wiley with regard to his music as it is with his bio; on this set he dips into Mississippi juke-joint blues, electrifying Chicago-style stuff, and deep wells of psychedelia that might seem a little campy if everything here wasn’t sold so vigorously. GravelRoad turns out to be a perfect fit for his style– not only do they keep up with ol’ T-Model, but they share his distaste for genre distinctions, his stubborn refusal to play the blues like he’s supposed to. Thing is, it’s that contempt for classicism or formal purity that makes this music howl; its primitiveness, its utter lack of manners, is what makes Taledragger feel like it’s perversely true to the spirit of the blues.

Certainly, the ringleader and his posse are in terrifically cantankerous form throughout; they open the set with what sounds like “Mystery Train” done in a drunken, half-remembered haze, the lyrics more an approximation of the original than a straight rendition and the whole tune boozily stumbling along with an off-beat piano setting the pace. T-Model calls the song “Same Old Train,” but clearly he’s found a way to make it run like new. The song also introduces the “big-legged woman” character who darts in and out of these songs, a strange and mysterious muse whose presence is more of a MacGuffin than anything else, a vehicle for T-Model to amass a pile-up of old blues tropes about suffering, betrayal, and mortality.

Indeed, blues tradition is a sort of shape-shifting presence here; T-Model sticks to the typical sounds and themes but arranges them in unconventional ways, using the blues as a common vernacular for his own self-expression. How else would one explain a record that blurs the lines between Howlin’ Wolf-style vamps and juke-joint rave-ups– the latter best represented by the standout “Big Legged Woman,” where Olive Smith’s piano work lifts this thing out of the shadows and into full-on party mode? Or the fact that the album begins in a relatively traditional electric blues configuration– albeit one that blurs the lines between different blues subcultures– but takes a wild left turn into full-on psychedelic terrain, sweaty B-3 organ and baritone sax adding a touch of the surreal, all while T-Model’s voice is put through a filter that makes him sound less like a bluesman than some weird, disembodied carnival barker?

Actually, for the bulk of the record, you’re not going to be able to make out much of what the man is actually singing, but that, it seems to me, is almost beside the point. Remember: It’s not the story, but the way it’s told. You don’t need to know the words to know that this man is singing the blues– wildly impure, and in its own way perfect– and he’s singing it like his life depended on it. To hear him tell it, it probably does.

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