Death of a late-blooming bluesman

Margalit Fox / New York Times News Service /

T-Model Ford, a raw-sounding, mesmerizing guitarist and singer who was among the last of the old-time Delta bluesmen — and whose career was all the more noteworthy for his not having picked up a guitar until he was almost 60 — died Tuesday at his home in Greenville, Miss. His exact age was shrouded in the smoky legend that often attends the blues, but he was almost certainly in his early 90s.

His death was announced on the website of Fat Possum Records, an independent label in Oxford, Miss., that produced several of his albums.

Once described by the head of that label as “the friendliest fun-loving psychopath you’ll ever meet,” he began his musical life in the 1980s in Mississippi juke joints.

Ford did not release his first record, “Pee-Wee Get My Gun,” until 1997, when he was well into his 70s. Afterward, he performed to great acclaim across the country — appearing at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas — and around the world. He was featured in the 2002 documentary about the blues “You See Me Laughin’.”

Ford toured energetically until last year, when he suffered a stroke. He owed his crackling longevity and lust for life, he said (he had six wives and at least 26 children), to a simple three-part regimen.

“Jack Daniel’s, the women and the Lord been keeping me here,” he told The Chicago Sun-Times in 2003. In old age, however, on doctor’s orders, he reduced his involvement with the first of these to some extent.

Ford was a completely self-taught musician, and the blues that sprang from him was stark, harsh and haunting even by the standards of the genre.

Because he did not know the proper way to tune a guitar, the eccentric tunings he devised lent his music a strange, soulful tonality — he played, as fellow musicians sometimes described it, “in the key of T.”

If Ford exuded the aura of a backwoods bluesman from Central Casting, he came by it more or less honestly, for his personal narrative seemed to rival that of any blues song:

There was the childhood spent working the fields under the brutal Mississippi sun. There was his first wife, whom he married when he was a teenager, and who left, Ford said, to run off with his father. There was another wife, who he said drank poison to try to end a pregnancy but died instead. There were the times, more recently, that he tried to stab members of his band, because they irked him.

Of the stories that swirled around Ford, some were tall tales in the oral tradition of old bluesmen. Others seemed born of the gleeful, spur-of-the-moment hyperbole with which Ford, who could neither read nor write but was no less canny for that, embellished his many interviews.

And still others, given the realities of black life in the Depression-era South, were apparently true — including the two years he spent on a chain gang for killing a man in self-defense.

When Ford was in his late 50s, his course was changed forever. “Before then,” he told The Bergen Record in 2000, “I didn’t have the blues in me.” Then, one day, his wife brought home a Gibson electric guitar.

“I said: ‘What are you spending my money on that for, baby? I can’t play no guitar,’” Ford told The Chicago Tribune in 2002. “She said, ‘You can learn.’ She was all the time running off, leaving and coming back. And I said, ‘If I play it, will you stay?’ And she said yes. She left the next Friday night.”

Ford’s survivors include his sixth wife, Estella, and myriad children and grandchildren. His other albums include “Bad Man” (2002), “Jack Daniel Time” (2008) and “The Ladies Man” (2010).