For Norman Blake, old-time music is always just there

Norman Blake

by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., November 2, 2001) – One of the advantages of playing old-time music – music that has long gone out of style -- is that it never really goes out of style. It’s just always there.

That, anyway, is how Norman Blake sees it. For Blake, the old-time folk and country music that he’s been playing professionally for over four decades is simply the music that’s always just been there.

“It’s just a natural thing with me. I was just raised with it,” said Blake, in a recent phone interview from his home in Rising Fawn, Ga., about 25 miles south of Chattanooga, Tenn.

“It’s what I heard on the radio and records when I was a child, as far back as I can remember,” said Blake, who performs at the Clark Art Institute on Saturday night at 8 as part of the Clark’s “American Roots: Traditional Music from the Rural South” series.

With a handful of Grammy nominations in the traditional folk category and a reputation as one of the premiere acoustic roots guitarists, the 63-year-old Blake – who also plays mandolin, fiddle, dobro, sings and writes new songs – has become something of a living legend in his field.

Among mainstream fans, Blake is familiar for his work with the likes of Johnny Cash, Michelle Shocked, Steve Earle, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, who drafted the guitarist to lend his aura of authenticity when Dylan broke the rock-country barrier with his “Nashville Skyline” album.

More recently, however, Blake found himself in the very unlikely position of hitting the top of the pop charts, as one of a few dozen, roots-oriented musicians included on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the unlikely hit soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film of the same name, which included performances by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley and Gillian Welch.

While Blake would have never predicted that the album would have become a hit, he’s not surprised that once people are exposed to American roots music they like it.

“I think people are tired of music that comes out of Nashville,” said Blake. “They appreciate old-fashioned string music if they have the chance to hear it. They’re bored with the state of country music today.

“People are tired of being smoke screened and tricked. They want something real, and they want to know it’s real.”

Blake has been around long enough to know that these things run in cycles. He was there during the great folk revival of the 1960s. He enjoyed an upswing of popularity with the resurgence of roots music in the 1970s, spurred in large part by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a star-studded roots-music collaboration that very much anticipated “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

“These things go around in cycles,” said Blake. “A lot of young people were leaning in that direction anyway -- a lot getting an interest in discovering these things. Then this ‘O Brother’ deal gave it a shot in the arm.”

The shot in the arm will continue, said Blake, when a group of performers included on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, including himself, will join forces for an “O Brother” concert tour in January and February, and perhaps another one in the summer.

In addition, T-Bone Burnett, who produced the album, is currently recording an album with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, with guest appearances by many of the “O Brother” artists, including Blake.

“I think it’s going to be a very interesting album,” said Blake. “Not taking anything away from Ralph, but it presents a different dimension than anybody’s ever heard him in.”

Blake’s concerts and albums like his recent “Flower from the Fields of Alabama” and “Chattanooga Sugar Babe” (both Shanachie) are filled with old-time country and folk songs, fiddle and banjo tunes that he has transposed for guitar, blues, rags, cakewalks, gospel and bluegrass tunes.

What ties them all together, said Blake, are three things: their origin in a specific time (pre-World War II), a specific place (the rural American South), and the fact that it is acoustic music.

“The overall quality that ties it together is the world it came out of, the time machine, the representation of a certain period of time,” said Blake.

“Also, the fact that it’s usually rural music – white, black or indifferent, it’s rural.

“And the other big one, no matter what kind of music it is, horns, strings, jazz, hillbilly, classical -- one big thing, it’s acoustic music, it’s all acoustic in those days.

“These people weren’t the Rolling Stones. Rock and roll wasn’t on the scene. They didn’t hear drums or the rock and roll beat. It is a time and a place and it’s rural and all music was played without the benefit of electricity. Even when they were recording with electric microphones in the mid 1920s, people’s approach was to play without electrification. They played with dynamics.

“Nowadays everyone plays on a track and they fix it in the mix. We don’t do that. You play the way you play in a room. No overdubbing and fixing in the mix. You just play and cut down when the singer or lead instrument comes in.

“Dynamics have gone out the window these days, except for the classical players. They’re the only ones who remain unfettered by electronics.

“Everyone was an acoustic musician in those days. That is the difference between today’s music and the old music.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 2, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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