Barrett Anderson

Barrett Anderson
In Their Own Words - Jammin’ with T-Model at Red’s

By Barrett Anderson
August 2013

Mr. Managing Editor’s note - After Barrett’s first installment of ‘in His Own Words’ it was clear that Barrett knew his way around a story just as well as he knew his way around a guitar riff. When Barrett approached Mr. Managing Editor regarding a second installment, there was only one acceptable profane reply offered.

Barrett’s second album, The Long Fall, will be released in September. It was recorded in Massachusetts but influenced, like all Barrett does, by those sweaty nights in North Mississippi clubs. Get the whole lowdown at: Do yourselves a favor, buy several copies of The Long Fall and give them out as gifts.

On January 19, 2007, I was nearly 24 years old, and farther south than I had ever been. It was 6 PM, and I was headed to Clarksdale. I had passed through Memphis, and was on Highway 61, about an hour away from one of my life’s defining nights.

I grew up in small-town-central-Mass., in a sleepy village of a thousand people who were far outnumbered by the trees surrounding their homes. I was thirteen when I began playing the guitar, and it wasn't long after that the blues drew me in. Nothing was ever the same after that music took hold of my life. The songs of the day riding the radio waves suddenly held no interest. Sports, which I was never much good at any way, were all but forgotten. Friends ignored, phone calls not returned. School work was always finished, but done quickly and to the soundtrack of Buddy and Junior, Muddy, Wolf, and Son House. I could feel Mississippi’s pull.

Between my freshmen and sophomore years in high school I begged my parents to let me go south. I wanted to pick cotton, believing that would give me some greater relationship or ownership of the music I so desperately wanted to inhabit. My parents didn't send me to Mississippi that summer. They reminded me that it was thankless work, and people would not take kindly to a kid with some romanticized notion, doing this back-breaking labor by choice, when it was their life. We somehow had forgotten Mr. Eli Whitney and his 1794 invention, the cotton gin, which all but eradicated (thankfully) the grueling work of picking cotton by hand during the south's scorching summer heat.

I was undeterred by my parent's refusal to let their 14 year old son go to Mississippi, and in the following years blues continued to define my life. When I was 15 I won my high school's battle of the bands. Later that year I befriended 'Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, and got to spend countless, treasured times onstage with him and Pinetop Perkins. At 16 I believed that my band, who wanted to play the blues hits of the day, Jonny Lang and Stevie Ray-inspired songs, weren't "blues enough," so I left the band and spent the summer busking on the streets of Boston (even if I couldn't get to the south, I could relive some southern rites of passage; I had a vision of young Riley "BB" King on Beale St. while I plucked away at my guitar in Park St. Station). When I was nearly 17 I began a three year stint with my hero, Ronnie Earl and his legendary Broadcasters. At 19 I began another three year stint with The Monster Mike Welch Band, which resulted in more gigs than I had ever done, and 2005's album Adding Insight to Injury. At 23, two months shy of 24, it was time to record my very first album.

I left my Lower Allston apartment before noon on Thursday, January 18. The plan was to head first to Clarksdale, MS, and spend the weekend there, basking in, reveling in, and absorbing the place and culture that young Muddy Waters called home. On Sunday I would drive up to Memphis to pick up my girlfriend (now wife), Ms. Emma Lee, at Memphis International Airport so she could be a partner in my great southern experience, and on Tuesday I'd begin recording my first solo album, All The Way Down, at Jimbo Mathus's Delta Recording Service, in Como, MS.

On Friday, January 19, after a day and a half on the road, I was south of Memphis for the first time in my life, and nearing the Mississippi border. Fabled land. I was 23 years old, and finally going to Mississippi.

An hour later and I was checking in at The Shack Up Inn. "The Shack" declares itself MS's first "B&B" (Bed and Beer, though I suspect that combination has happened, however unofficially, in many places before The Shack opened its doors). The Shack Up Inn resides on the old Hopson Plantation, and is a very "rustic" place to stay, where a visitor can check into one of ten or so shotgun shacks, which have been minorly updated with the barest modern amenities ("Does the roof leak?" "Only when it rains!"). Despite the questionable air conditioner, every shack housed a piano, more or less in tune. I was staying in a shack aptly named "The Crossroads Shack" (The Shack Up Inn is about 5 miles south from the legendary "crossroads" intersection of highways 61 and 49, where Robert Johnson allegedly made a deal with the devil to secure his place as one of the very finest blues musicians). Hopson Plantation was also home to the first commercial use of the cotton gin, and a young Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins grew up there. The connection with Pinetop seemed somehow cosmic ... My first professional gig had been backing up this legendary piano-man, and now, on the brink of recording my first album, I was staying on the land he had grown up on.

When I checked in I told the man behind the desk/bar who I was, where I was coming from, and where I was staying. "What're your plans for the night?" he asked me, in a thick accent I was able to, after initial puzzlement, decipher. "Well, I'm tired, I've driven 1500 miles and was hoping to get a little rest," I replied. "No," he said, "you should go up to Red's. T-Model is playing there. Go to Red's tonight." Okay, well, I knew I was exhausted from the drive, but I also knew who T-Model Ford was, and was (and still am) a big fan of his recordings for Oxford's Fat Possum Records. Regardless of where I had come from and how tired I was, I needed to go to Red's. There was no question. I checked into my shack, unloaded my clothes but left my guitar and my amp in the car, and then headed back to Clarksdale.

I'm not great with directions. I get lost when I know where I'm going. Mississippi is not really much different, although I like to think I know my way around. Even though I got directions to Red's from the man behind the bar when I checked in, I had no real idea where I was going, so across from the legendary crossroads, I stopped at a gas station/liquor store and asked for help. "Red's ... You don't want to go to Red's ... That's the place on Sunflower Ave that's closed ... Trust me, it's closed. There's no music there tonight ... You don't want to go there ..." After insisting that I did want to go there, whether closed or not, I was told to head up Riverside, under the railroad tracks, then take the next right onto Sunflower. A few moments later, I was outside a broken-down looking door, and I was about to enter one of the great nights of my life.

It was early when I walked into Red's; before 9, and the music had not yet started. The crowd had not yet started. A few regulars flanked the bar (no alcohol, just beer) and T-Model was setting his amp up in front of a couple neon lights and racy beer posters with alluringly attired women smiling at the camera, promising untold delights with your bottle of Bud Lite. I stood out somehow (can't imagine how, youngish white kid with long hair looking around nervously), and the titular "Red" approached me. "You want some good music tonight? Get ready, we got T-Model in the house!" he proclaimed. An older, but still robust and ebullient African-American man, Red made quite the impression. Despite the darkness of his club, he had on dark shades and his loud voice would quiet any room. "Do you play drums?" Red asked me, "T-Model's alone tonight." "I don't play the drums, but I play guitar," I replied. "Do you play drums??" was Red's droll reply. "I've never in my life been behind a drum kit, but I play the guitar ... I have my guitar and amp out in the car and could have them in here in 5 minutes," I replied. "Well son, you better go get 'em," Red told me, and I did.

I brought my guitar and amp into the club and walked up to T-Model. I thought Red was imposing, but he was nothing compared to T-Model. T-Model is the real deal ... A man who plays blues by birthright, someone who is unsure of his own age, someone who has spent time on work farms for murder (whether or not he's actually killed anyone is another story). He's also a kind soul, a gentleman in a rough way, and a passionate, compelling, thoroughly commanding self-taught musician.

I was a sniveling little boy approaching The Man ... "Excuse me, T-Model? Red has told me to play with you tonight ..." "Well, you got your amp? Set it up there and pay attention." And I did. T-Model began playing a minute or two after I put my amp on the floor, and I hustled to keep up, flipping the power switch and sitting down to play, a foot or two from the man, as quickly as I could. I followed him left, right, up, down, and sideways. After my years backing up Ronnie and Monster Mike I had figured out how to support without stepping on toes, and T-Model put me to the test. He didn't play standard progressions, changing chords when he felt like it, leaving you only with your instincts to guide you as to what came next.

T-Model's pointy black Peavey guitar would lay down a groove, then his foot would start pounding out the beats, adding punctuation and percussion to the backbeat heavy, hypnotic rhythm he was creating. He'd close his eyes, tilt his head back and start singing, "I'm a bad man," and he was. Bad in the best way possible.

I played mostly slide guitar, just fitting in little bits here and there. Once T-Model figured that I could keep his hypno-boogie back-beat intact, he'd let up on the guitar and solo, playing angular, ornery riffs, blending from rhythm to lead without dropping a beat. It was raw, and powerful ... Unrefined and all the more compelling for it. The room responded. When T-Model started to play it was just past 9, and the place had steadily been filling up since my early arrival. These weren't blues fans, but locals looking to get out and let it out on a Friday night. They were there for the fun, for the drinks, for the party.

T-Model brought the party. In his 80-some years, he had figured out how to tap right into the pulse of a crowd and provide a groove for them to shake it to. T-Model brought the groove, and everyone in the room had no option but to submit. And they did. There was shaking, moving, dancing, and grooving like I've never seen in any northern club. T-Model put his energy out there, and the crowd absorbed it and threw it back at us, stronger than before. Good nights of music have that kind of synergy; a good crowd can get even the weariest musician rocking like never before. T-Model wasn’t weary (or if he was he didn’t let on), he was fired up and he made sure everyone else was too.

When the crowd was ready for a new song, a new feel, T-Model sensed it and would bring the current number to an end. I followed his leads, and made sure that his guitar provided the last note of every song. While the crowd cheered and clapped, T-Model would turn to me, wipe his brow with a little towel, reach down behind his amp, lift up a bottle in a brown bag, take a swig and pass it over. “Whoooooo-eeeeeeee... ... ... ... It’s Jack Daniels time!!” he’d exclaim into the mic. After a drink myself (it was indeed Jack Daniels time!), I’d pass him back his brown bag, and he’d tuck it behind the amp and get ready for the next song, picking up as if he had never stopped playing, and the crowd would start in again. Dancing, swaying, shaking, and moving. It was a trance. It was a release. It was sexy and sacred. It was the Blues.

On the rare in-between song break that didn’t result with the little bottle of whiskey appearing, T-Model would pull the microphone up to his mouth, peer out into the group of sweaty revelers and proclaim “Let it all hang out! Once it’s out it can’t go back in!!!!!” He'd chuckle, then launch into the next song and we were back in the rhythm of the night.

Mine the groove... Don’t let up until the deed is done.

T-Model did not let up. We played through the night, no break longer than the Jack Daniels ritual, and suddenly it was 2 AM, and the crowd had mostly dispersed. Most of the dancers had found a favorite partner, and headed off into the next phase of their night. The last lingerers slipped away, leaving Red, T-Model, and myself alone in that smoky, dark, run-down, perfect room. T-Model quietly put his guitar back in the case, and suddenly seemed tired.

He had given his all and the crowd took it. They gave themselves back, but he was an old man and was running on fumes. I asked him if he’d like a beer, but he refused. “Only Jack.” I thanked T-Model for the night, and tried to tell him how much it meant to me. “You’re always welcome on my stage,” he answered.

Before packing up my guitar, the blonde Telecaster that has been on every gig with me, I asked T-Model to sign the back. He took out a sharpie, and left his mark. He didn’t write small; his signature filled the whole instrument; edgy, angular lines reflecting the music he had just made. It took years, but through my playing, rubbing, and sweating his signature has worn off, but I can still see it there. I like to think, through my music, the guitar has absorbed a little of that night with T-Model, as that night certainly left its mark on me too.

As Red shut down the neon lights, I carried T-Model’s amp and guitar out to a battered brown van. T-Model shook my hand, and climbed into the cab. “I’m staying at the Shack Up Inn, you’re welcome to take my room ... I can sleep in the car,” I blurted out. I couldn’t think to offer anything else, I just knew that I had to reciprocate all T-Model had left me with. “No, thanks though. I’m just down the road a ways, and I’m going to head home,” and with that he shut the door, the van rumbled to life and T-Model was gone.

I walked back to my car and thought of how you never know when you're walking into a club, a place, a moment, that will change your life. Heading south past Memphis hours earlier, I had never imagined what lay in store, and how it would shape and form me, my music, and the relationship between the two.

At Jimbo’s studio, the next week, I began recording my first album, and it was different because of that night at Red’s. When the red light was on and the tape was rolling I could close my eyes and picture the swaying, sensual mass of dancers from that night. I could smell the sweat and smoke in the air, and picture T-Model, somehow leaning back and forward in his seat at the same time. Suddenly the backbeat was heavier, the grooves groovier, and the soul deeper. All The Way Down, and every note that has come out of my guitar since, has been shaped by that night, and better for it.

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