T Model Ford scarcely needs to self-mythologize. When a man who can't read at all, let alone read music, picks up his first guitar at 58 and is still touring at age 91, the legend has essentially written itself. But that doesn't stop him from boasting a little.
"Well, I stay in attention with the ladies," Ford says on the phone from his Greenville, Miss., home. "The ladies come up, I have to tell 'em I done married again. I told 'em I been married my sixth wife now, and she's gosh darn fine."
That would be Stella; she and T Model married in the spring of 2010, not long after Ford had a stroke, and on the eve of his 90th birthday. But the Delta blues guitarist hasn't taken the opportunity to slow down. On the contrary, his recent health concerns have pushed him to work even harder on the touring circuit.
"One writer who's written about T Model mentioned, ‘I think it's life-giving music for T Model,' and I agree," says Marty Reinsel. Reinsel, a Pittsburgh native, drums in the Seattle-based band GravelRoad, which has become Ford's touring band.
Reinsel recalls the band's first tour with Ford, in 2008, after which they recorded his album The Ladies' Man together. Ford had a heart attack only weeks after the tour ended, and Reinsel called him at the hospital.
"When he answered and realized who it was, he said ‘I'm ready!' And I thought -- ready for what? Has he seen the light? And he says, ‘Ready to go back on the road!'"
As a young man, long before the road meant touring, Ford drove a truck for a logging company, in addition to holding down various other jobs -- "Chopped cotton, hoed cotton," he recalls. "I never did have to worry about a job. I kept a job."
That doesn't mean he was necessarily a model citizen, though.
"I was a rough little guy when I was 18," Ford says. "I wasn't scared. Yeah, I been on a chain gang for killin' a man. He tried to kill me but the good Lord give me the power, I out-cut him."
His voice quickly rises.
"It didn't make me bad; I'm a nice fellow. I don't have nothing like that on my mind."
The homicide rap, like much of Ford's early life, is a bit mysterious; in the deep South in the early 20th century, record-keeping wasn't particularly fastidious when it came to the black population. Even Ford's date of birth isn't known for sure.
"He was born around the summer solstice, we know that," says Reinsel. "Some believe he could be as old as 93 or 94, some say he could be as young as 89. He has a half-sister, and she strongly believes that he was born in 1921, which would mean he's 90.
"But in some parts of the South, there's no such thing as being zero years old -- you go straight to being 1. So when he says he's 91, he could be right in that sense."
Ford got his first guitar and amplifier when he was 58: a gift, he says, from his third wife. (In other interviews he's said it was his fifth wife, but at 91, T Model's not sweating the details.)
"I worked with it 'til I found out what I had to do," he recalls. "I checked two plugs, get the sound to … change over. I saw a button on the side, I hit that button, I hit it, it said ‘BOOM BOOM!' I said, ‘Ahhh!' That's when I went to work on it.
"Now I'm the man. I don't have to worry about it."
Without any formal training, he set about trying to emulate favorites of his like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf (players of his own generation, but whose careers were at their peaks a full 50 years before his).
"The blues is like a little baby, keeps crying, keeps groanin' on," Ford says. "So I give it a name, the blues. It makes you wanna play guitar and all like that. You got to have the feeling in you. You got the feeling in you, you can go ahead."
In the 1990s, Ford began releasing a series of electric blues albums on Fat Possum, the subsidiary of Epitaph Records that at first focused on lesser-known blues artists from the deep South. In the mid-2000s, his relationship with Fat Possum soured, and his partnership with GravelRoad, and with the label Alive Naturalsound, grew.
Working with a self-taught -- and illiterate -- musician is a different sort of experience, Reinsel says.
"He's not the type of musician where he's teaching me tricks when we play; it involves spontaneity, listening skills. I really think it's made me a much better live player."
As for Ford, touring has made the charismatic Southern gentleman a hit amongst young people all around -- in the United States and even Western Europe and Scandinavia, where he plays occasional blues festivals.
"A whole lot of young folks these days, they're trying to get into me. They wanna learn my style. Yep.
"There's a whole lot of 'em wanna be like T Model."
T MODEL FORD with RIC & JOHN (of The Pawnbrokers) 8 p.m. Thu., July 21. Thunderbird Café, 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $15-18. 412-682-0177 or www.thunderbirdcafe.net