Life-Giving Music

So what if he's approaching 90? T-Model Ford keeps the blues going

Marty Reinsel couldn't have been happier last week. He was hanging out with his idol and bandleader T-Model Ford down in Greenville, Miss., at a gathering of Ford's extended family. Kids were running around; meat was on the barbecue; Ford's latest CD was on the hi-fi.

Reinsel plays drums in the Seattle-based trio Gravel Road, which has been backing up legendary octogenarian blues artist Ford for about year. He took a break from the party to talk on the phone the day before Ford and Gravel Road set off on a new tour that will bring them to Plush on Friday, March 20.

Gravel Road also features guitarist/vocalist Stefan Zillioux and bassist Jon "Kirby" Newman. Zillioux will not perform at the Plush gig; he'll join the tour later after dealing with family obligations, Reinsel said.

Down in Greenville last week, final tour preparations included packing all the gear and ensuring the van was tuned up.

"We're also making sure that all the medications are taken care of and in order, which isn't a very rock 'n' roll thing to worry about, but it's the reality of the situation. I mean, T-Model is 88, after all," Reinsel said.

Ford's age, actually, is a popular point of contention, Reinsel added.

"Well, T-Model's somewhere between 84 and 88. He has a U.S. passport that lists him as 84; the state of Mississippi says he's 87; and he'll tell you he's 88. And all of those sources have different dates for his birth, but they're all in June.

"I mean, this is a man who was born in a field in rural Mississippi. ... There were no birth certificates in that area back in those days."

This is also a man respected for being among the last of the old-time raw, rural blues musicians--and he's a testament to late-starters. Ford picked up the guitar later in life and didn't really tour until the 1990s. His first album, Pee-Wee Get My Gun, wasn't released until 1997.

That remarkable recording--and three other Ford CDs since--came to the world courtesy of the Oxford, Miss.-based independent label Fat Possum Records, which has done a great job of unearthing exciting, unvarnished blues artists such as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Lately, Fat Possum has been expanding its horizons to include such nonblues artists as Andrew Bird and the Heartless Bastards.

So Ford's most recent recording, the live Jack Daniel Time, instead became the first album released by Mudpuppy Recordings, a just-off-the-ground indie label dedicated to the preservation of authentic Delta blues. Mudpuppy also was a producing partner in the 2008 film M for Mississippi, a documentary about traditional Delta bluesmen, including T-Model Ford.

Ford has incredible energy and vitality for a man of any generation, said Reinsel, who is less than half of his mentor's age.

"He's amazing. We usually try to schedule a couple of days off each week, but he can keep it up for days if he has to, and sometimes, we have to ask him to slow down. Some nights, if we don't have a show, he'll get to bed by 7:30 or 8, while other nights, he can stay up to 1:30 or 2 if he has to. And he's fine with that."

Ford is a natural musician who never learned music theory or how to read music, Reinsel said.

"He totally comes from that Delta blues tradition, not the cornier side of the Chicago style, and we have been fortunate to see his process. I mean, he's illiterate--he hasn't learned what he has by studying scales or reading books."

Every day he gets to play with Ford, Reinsel learns important lessons about music, and life, he said.

"When I started out with him about a year ago, it was about six weeks before the tour, and I suffered a pretty bad head injury, and now I have lost my hearing in my right ear. I haven't let it keep me down, in large part because I see T's vibrancy and enthusiasm. In a very subtle, understated way, he teaches me that there is no limit to what we can achieve and endure.

"Mostly, though, if you put a guitar in his hands, he immediately lights up, and his smile brightens. Playing music is what keeps him alive, I'm sure of it."

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