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The Boston Phoenix Huntin' Possum

Ford, Farmer, and 20 Miles

By Ted Drozdowski

JANUARY 25, 1999:  If T-Model Ford had the wings of a beautiful dove, he would fly to the gal he loved. If she spurned him, he would find another. But there's a chance that could go badly too. As T-Model sings on the opener of his new album, she might even tell him, "If you don't git out of my face, I'll put my foot in your ass."

So let me introduce to you T-Model Ford's Lonely Hearts Club Two-Man Band: T-Model on guitar and his sidekick Spam on drums spanking the raggedy-ass Mississippi juke-joint blues on his second CD, what's nearly a concept recording, You Better Keep Still (Fat Possum). But T-Model and Spam aren't entirely alone. You Better Keep Still is joined by two other new arrivals in the Fat Possum bin: 20 Miles' second full-length, I'm a Lucky Guy, and the debut of solo guitar whacker Johnny Farmer, Wrong Doers Respect Me.

There is a rusty brilliance to both T-Model's album and Farmer's. The 10 songs on You Better Keep Still are bookended by "If I Had Wings" parts one and two, which offer just Ford's sandy caw and Spam thumping on a cardboard box. In between, the two rock out to a march chant ("To the Left to the Right"). Then T-Model worries like a crusty Delta Slim Harpo, playing a one-chord stomp as he sings about waiting for his woman ("Look What All You Got"). Eventually, he breaks down and asks her to "Come Back Home." But not before he's indulged in the schizoid "These Eyes," in which he gives us his best Dustin Hoffman performance, playing the vocal roles of himself and of various tootsies in a song he says (talking over the phone from his home in Greenville, Mississippi) was inspired by "all the women who wants me when they see me play guitar. They tell me I'm pretty, and I see the way they watch me."

The concept, then, is a tribute to love and testosterone. Make that lust, because other than a little moonshine or whiskey, that's what seems to fuel T-Model best. Many times I've seen this 77-year-old lothario hobbling after ladies half his age, propped up by a crutch and a toothy smile as his boxer shorts ride shotgun over his belt. Just as often I've seen him tear up a room with his distinctive cottonball-in-the-throat vocals and the wrought-iron guitar licks, all caught on You Better Keep Still. Although he started late, at age 58, Ford has wrapped both arms around the jukehouse-guitar tradition, grinding out beefy electric chords with enough licks and fills to pretend he's two men.

Fellow Greenville resident Johnny Farmer doesn't need to be quite as noisy. He's more a back-porch player than a juke-joint wailer, performing alone with just his guitar and a deep-well-socket slide on Wrong Doers Respect Me. Rest assured, however, that somebody's passing a bottle 'round on that porch, and that a knife fight among angry neighbors might not be too long in coming. Farmer flogs his guitar nasty as a blood-stained razor, and though he plays mostly standards, he does manage to leave his own fingerprints all over things like Son House's "Death Letter" and Muddy Waters' "Trouble." He's also that rare slide-guitarist who can make Elmore James sound urbane, which he does on a red-meat reading of "It Hurts Me Too." It's a cliché to call Farmer's vocal cords whiskey-soaked, but I'm not sure what else produces the dry, pinched, yet hearty tone he squeezes from his throat. Maybe they're sun-baked, because Wrong Doers Respect Me is the kind of unvarnished back-country blues album that speaks volumes about hard living in the heat of the South while saying hardly one word about it.

New Yorkers the Bauer brothers -- Jon Spencer Blues Explosion guitarist Judah and drummer Donovan -- don't know much about living down South, but they have learned to call up some of the signposts of its hippest blues playing for 20 Miles' I'm a Lucky Guy. Donovan has adapted the slack-tuned drum sound to his kit, which he rolls on as if he'd been listening to Mississippi fife-and-drum bands for years. When Judah's not making like Keith Richards, shuffling through the alternating bar chords of "All I Want" and others, he's got the one-chord open-tuning grind-and-chime down to a near-exact science. "Like a Fool" even sounds like a great lost Jessie Mae Hemphill number.

Judah's astute playing is so right that it's wrong. A jukehouse veteran would never worry as much about tuning and precision, but that's being picky. And God knows Judah got picked on enough by octogenarian Othar Turner and Turner's parade drummer, R.L. Boyce, when he hired Turner's fife-and-drum outfit to play on the Bauers' 20 Miles debut back in '96. Those coots still talk about the rock guy who "couldn't play none." But here Judah -- this time free of their hypercritical hectoring -- plays plenty, baring a sensibility that shifts between the Mississippi Hills and the Rolling Stones.

Now if Judah had the wings of a beautiful dove, where the hell would he fly?

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