To spend almost six decades in any business is a meteoric feat, much less a business as cutthroat and downright devious as the music industry. But for a 77-year-old unsung hero of folk, roots and bluegrass to have his latest album—one of nearly 40 he’s made—generate a mild media frenzy is positively otherworldly.
The host of press for Norman Blake’s Wood, Wire and Words, released earlier this year, including an engaging 40-minute segment with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, has catapulted him into the hearts and minds of more than a few new fans. The flame of mystique has been fanned not only by Blake’s music, but also by his history, one that reads more like a Paul Bunyan tall tale than a resumé: recordingNashville Skyline with Dylan; playing in the band for The Johnny Cash Show; touring with June Carter, Kris Kristofferson and Joan Baez; becoming a member of John Hartford’s influential Aereo-Plain Band, whose sole album release is considered the forerunner to the newgrass movement; and appearing on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal Will the Circle Be Unbroken album with the likes of Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Vassar Clements.
Blake grew up in a town that most mapmakers deemed unworthy of an embellished dot on their trajectory. While Sulphur Springs, located in northwest Georgia in the foothills of Lookout Mountain, most definitely appears on a map, it’s the other Sulphur Springs…the town with the very same name just a stone’s throw across the ol’ railroad tracks in Alabama…that gets the dot.
Ironically, it was Blake’s first album, Back Home In Sulphur Springs, made with Georgia dobroist Tut Taylor, that “put him on the map” in 1973. Considered by most a staple of the American music landscape, the indelible collection of flat-picked, folk and bluegrass songs introduced the world to the wiry-haired, fu-manchu’ed guitar and mandolin cavalier.
He was raised in the mountains with no electricity or telephone and little in the way of entertainment save for a jerry-rigged radio run by a car battery. With so few amenities, it’s no mystery why making music became such a vital social and expressive outlet for Blake. Influenced by the likes of Maybelle Carter, Mississippi John Hurt and fellow Georgia native Riley Puckett, he was just 16 when he began playing mandolin in the Dixieland Drifters for barn dances and on popular radio programs. Just two years later, he joined the Lonesome Travelers, a string band featuring Bob Johnson, Walter Forbes and David “Strings” Johnston. In 1961, the group was invited to play the Grand Ole Opry, a performance that became the first of many appearances. Crowds loved the Travelers’ speedy pickin’ and “reckless abandon” style, especially their version of “Cumberland Mountain Deer Race,” which could set the pace for a greyhound footrace to the Purina factory. In the early 60s, the Travelers backed up Walter Forbes on his two albums, Ballads and Bluegrass and Folksong Festival, for the great Chet Atkins over at RCA Records.
During this period Blake was drafted and spent two years in the Panama Canal, where he served as a radio operator and formed a bluegrass band called the Fort Kobbe Mountaineers. After his service, he returned to the states, married Nancy Short and though they eventually settled in a home they built in Rising Fawn, Ga., the Blakes spent considerable time in Nashville.
Among his varied gigs, Blake did a stint touring in June Carter’s road band, but it was his relationship with Carter’s husband that led to many collaborations and lasted until the Man in Black’s death in 2003. In hisFresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Blake recounts one of his earliest conversations with Cash. “He said if you can get a dobro, I’ll use you tomorrow…he wanted to use the dobro and mariachi trumpets at the time.” After he’d recorded his first cut, Blake recalls Cash telling him, “That’s really good, but that’s toogood for one of my records. Can you play maybe half as much?” It was a sensitive yet powerful comment from the artist who always preferred subtlety in his recordings.
Cash, albeit not personally, was instrumental in lining up Blake with Bob Dylan for the recording of his legendary record, Nashville Skyline. Acknowledging that the most asked question of him is always, “what was Dylan like?,” Blake describes the icon as having been a quiet soul who would play the songs on acoustic guitar with that quintessential harp in the harness, leaving no impression as to the influential role he’d play in the history of rock and roll.
A musician’s musician, Norman Blake’s artistic nuances have been heralded by bluegrassers, country pickers and rockers alike. It’s been said that singer/songwriter Gillian Welch was responsible for planting the seed with T-Bone Burnett to include Blake on what would become the O’Brother Where Art Thousoundtrack. The famed producer took Welch’s advice and Blake’s soul-crushing take on “You Are My Sunshine” showcases the custom flatpicking technique that has inspired generations of acoustic guitarists. Burnett is credited with having said, “I will continue to champion Norman Blake to the end of my days.”
Wood, Wire, and Words easily looms among the top of Blake’s records to date. Chock full of his calling card country rags, with several gems co-written with Nancy Blake, it’s a genuine throwback to the “one take” art of recording, when musicianship accounted for more than programming samplers and drum machines. Blake’s voice is as comforting as your grandfather’s, yet his guitar playing and songwriting will leave you jealous of his artistic stealth. Though there is simplicity in both melody and content, the authenticity and musical masterly spruces it up to what could be considered an American classic.
With Wood, Wire and Words, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel; Norman Blake hasn’t had a problem with it rolling at perfect speed and balance for almost 60 years. Slow and steady wins the race.
(Georgia Music 5/1/15)