February 07, 2012
One of the problems with becoming a world-famous blues performer lies right there in the job title. The blues are a form of music based in misery and repression, not fame and fortune. Forgive me for sounding a little like St. Carlin, but I have trouble taking blues seriously when performed by fat, white movie stars surrounded by a 40-piece brass band.
Blues, as a style, is best when kept intimate and small. It’s a sad truth that once you get more than four people in a blues band, things start to lose focus. Five is the absolute cutoff.
The best blues songs are usually about a guy who has lost his girl, or vice versa. When you’re listening to a solo blues performer, it’s easy to imagine that the guy singing is actually sad. The song gains meaning because you believe the sentiment behind it is authentic.
A blues duo is acceptable, too. We’ve all commiserated with a friend during a breakup, so two guys sitting around while one wails a sad tale of love lost is perfectly normal, especially when rye whiskey is involved.
A three-piece also works. Chances are the third guy is a bass player or a drummer, and a smart blues band never passes up one of those. Besides, there’s a pretty good chance they’re already horribly, horribly depressed.
However, the fourth member of a blues group begins to stretch things. Four guys sitting around who are all sad because one guy lost his lover? What are they, a bunch of codependent losers?
And five members? Chances are the fifth guy is probably the jerk who slept with the singer’s girl and inadvertently started the blues band in the first place.
No, the blues are best when they’re honest and unpolished and dirty — and nobody puts the blue in blues quite like T-Model Ford.
Take the poeticism of the first verse of “I‘m Insane,” from T-Model‘s first album, Pee-Wee Get My Gun. Try to find the subtle, read-between-the-lines hints at the violence that has plagued his life: “I been home, and I went to jail / I’ma put my foot in ya ass / I’ma kick ya ass, gon’ put my foot in ya ass / Stella? If I catch you %$@#in’ her, I’ma beat the hell outta you / You best not let me catch you %$#@in’ her / I’ma beat ya ass."
T-Model’s blues are mean and angry and usually mention cutting someone at least once per song. They’re also loose when it comes to structure and rhythm, but this is handled well by his accompanying musicians. Part of the fun is hearing the drummer try to guess when and what hiccup the crazy old man will inevitably throw into the groove.
You have to cut T-Model some slack, after all. He’s a completely illiterate, completely self-taught guitarist who didn’t take up the instrument until his fifth wife left him one as a going-away present. In 1997, T-Model released his first album in his mid-70s — his exact age is unknown — and toured as recently as 2010.
T-Model has to be taken with a grain of salt, though. His lyrics are honest and brutal, depicting tales of a violent man living in the poor Mississippi Delta. He spent time as a young man on a chain-gang working out a murder sentence, and most of his life he distanced himself from family and friends with his violent rages and trouble with the law.
Where T-Model Ford’s songs are lyrically violent, Cedell Davis’ are sonically violent. It sounds like he doesn’t perform on guitar so much as hack at it with a steak knife — which is exactly what he does.
Davis is renowned for two things: 1) attempting to bring the Hitler moustache back into style decades before Michael Jordan tried in those weird Hanes-on-an-airplane commercials and 2) using a metal steak knife in his fretting hand when he plays guitar.
He played guitar as a child until he was stricken with polio. In his effort to continue playing the instrument, he experimented until he found the only way he could: by positioning a metal knife in his right hand and using it as a slide while strumming the strings with his otherwise useless left hand. (Davis is in a wheelchair but not because of the polio. He was trampled during a police raid of a club he was playing back in the 1950s. The guy’s lived the life of a blues song.)
My favorite Cedell Davis song is “Chickenhawk,” from the album The Horror of It All. It showcases the two parts of Davis’ greatness: his thick, oozing, near-perfect deep blues voice and his status as the absolute worst guitarist ever recorded.
I know, I’m kind of mocking a crippled guy, but I truly, honestly love his music. His voice and enthusiasm make him a finer musician to me than ten B.B. Kings or Eric Claptons.
But wow. You don’t listen to “Chickenhawk” so much as have it inflicted upon you. Davis’ guitar playing on this track is unlike anything I’ve ever heard, before or since. Rhythm, key, chord progression — none of these things matter during this song. His guitar warbles and yelps and cries in pain from his assault, while the drummer keeps up as best he can with a low-key, booze-addled beat.
And the solo — man, what a way to finish a song. It sounds less like a guitar and more like a series of detuned Dobros falling off a wall onto a drunken armadillo. It may be my favorite guitar solo ever, just because of the reactions I’ve witnessed from people hearing it for the first time.
But that’s what the blues are about, in the end. Anyone can play the style, but it takes emotion and the fickleness of life to create a true bluesman.w