Norman Blake’s strings have helped shape the sound of America’s music. His guitar work has anchored artists as essential as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. He was a driving force of the bluegrass revival. His discography includes more than three dozen titles and his playing can be heard on the soundtrack of movies including Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Cold Mountain and Walk the Line.
For all that, he remains an often unknown name. Unwilling to simply chase the popular style of the day, Blake is clearly driven by an intensely personal and uncompromising vision of American roots music. The strength, power and purity of that vision is fully on display with Blake’s upcoming album, Wood, Wire & Words, to be released January 20th on Plectrafone Records.
On Wood, Wire & Words, Blake strips roots music down to its most basic, fundamental incarnation: a single performer delivering vocals and playing acoustic guitar. This primordial approach is the perfect vehicle for Blake’s beautiful instrumental numbers and memorable story songs.
The album’s instrumental tracks are dominated by ragtime, a genre considered old-school even by the old-school. Blake confidently executes three rags on the album: “Savanna Rag,” a slow roots-rag; the more rambunctious but still very traditional “Chattanooga Rag” and, my personal favorite, the eponymous “Blake’s Rag.” The fourth instrumental track on the album, “Cloverdale Plantation” is a march and also well worth hearing.
The majority of music on Wood, Wire & Words comes in the form of story songs in the finest tradition. These tracks chronicle the forgotten lives of another era, tales of heroic postmasters, steadfast lighthouse keepers and other sepia-toned figures from history. Especially compelling is “Grady Foster’s Store and Cotton Gin,” a strongly visual piece of bittersweet nostalgia
Interestingly, the album offers two songs which explore contrasting images of the outlaw in America’s psyche. The story of one of America’s earliest highwaymen, “Joseph Thompson Hare On the Old Natchez Trace” presents the outlaw as a morally ambiguous yet compelling symbol of both the freedom and lawlessness of the frontier. In contrast, “Black Bart” chronicles the life and exploits of North Carolina’s Charles E. Bolton, an English-born outlaw who combined banditry with poetry and a gentlemanly flare.
If you wonder why Blake is beloved of roots music connoisseurs but has never really made a huge splash on the charts, perhaps you need look no further than “Farewell Francisco Madero.” This extremely ambitious song takes on the entirety of the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution as its subject matter. “Farewell Francisco Madero” expects a lot of its listeners, but also gives a lot in return. A folk song with a strongly populist bent, “Farewell Francisco Madero” brings touches that are reminiscent of Woody Guthrie along with thematically-appropriate nods to traditional Mexican folk music.
Musically, “There’s a One Way Road to Glory” combines elements of an old-school spiritual and a Woody Guthrie-esque folk number. Lyrically, it is worthy of the social consciences’ of Blake’s former colleagues, Cash and Dylan. It is one of the strongest tracks on a very strong album and also noteworthy as the only track to feature another musician. Blake’s wife, Nancy, joins in on vocals.
Listen to the tracks “Savannah Rag,” “Incident at Condra’s Switch” and “The Keeper of the Government Light on the River” here
Born in Chattanooga and raised in Sulphur Springs, Georgia, Blake has been playing professionally since the age of 16. His first band, The Dixie Drifters, performed on KNOX-AM’s iconic radio program, the Tennessee Barndance. By his early 20s, Blake and banjoist Bob Johnson were making guest appearances at the Grand Ole Opry. He was a member of June Carter’s touring band and, in 1969, became part of the house band for The Johnny Cash Show.
Blake’s album credits include Johnny Cash’s Orange Blossom Special, Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken? as well as Raising Sand by Alison Kraus and Robert Plant. Blake has performed as a touring musician with artists as diverse as Ralph Stanley, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle and Joan Baez. Norman and Nancy Blake have also received multiple Grammy nominations in the Best Traditional Folk Recording category.
A careful balance is important when discussing Blake’s music. While he certainly is a favorite of cognoscenti, even a casual listener will enjoy the beautiful music and delightful storytelling. His instrumentation provides a welcome reminder that great guitar playing is about the nuance of notes—not the number of notes. But there is also no doubt that it is listeners with a deep knowledge of America’s music and musical history who will get the most out of Blake. His music offers an auditory window into another era. Not merely roots music, Wood, Wire & Words takes listeners to the roots of roots music.
While Wood, Wire & Words hits most retail outlets on January 20th, it is already available for purchase through the Western Jubilee/Plectrafone Records site, where can you also check out several of Blake’s other albums.