Few musicians can be said to have had as major an influence on so many generations as Norman Blake. And while a good deal of that recent influence stems from his extensive work on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, his distinctive flatpicking style has also been used throughout the years by artists such as Bob Dylan, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Johnny Cash to add a particular resonance to their own work. Over the past 50 years, he’s spent his time perfecting this technique and delivering record after record of steadfastly traditional bluegrass, folk and country tunes. And that tendency to cater to the deep histories of those genres is exactly what has kept his work from feeling dated or lost to the shadows of decades past.
Blake wasn’t (and isn’t) a traditionalist just for the sake of carrying on the old ways—he sees legitimate viability in those specific musical inclinations. And he is able to tap into that hallowed bluegrass and folk antiquity to convey a deep emotional echo, the kind of intense intonation that removes the waste and leaves a lean sound filled with honest sentiment and joy. When musicians such as Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson are intent on sharing the stage with you, it would seem that you are doing something right. He has never played to trends or popularity; his music sounds like it was carved in stone, solid and immovable. But it also holds fast to a certain spontaneity, testing out a series of shifting perspectives that change with each song.
Blake was born in Chattanooga but spent much of his childhood in Sulphur Springs, Alabama. His musical upbringing consisted of listening to the Carter Family, Roy Acuff and the Monroe Brothers on an old radio haphazardly attached to a car battery. Fueled by his interest in these musicians, he picked up the guitar when he was around 11 or 12 and taught himself to play the mandolin, Dobro and fiddle in his later teen years. Feeling that he was getting more from music than he was from school, he dropped out when he was 16 and began playing music professionally.
His first few brushes with success came at the hands of a couple of bluegrass bands, including the Dixie Drifters and the Lonesome Travelers. He found himself performing across the South on various radio programs before being drafted into the Army in 1961, going on to serve as a radio operator in the Panama Canal. While stationed there, he formed The Fort Kobbe Mountaineers, a bluegrass band where he played fiddle and mandolin. Almost a year later, when he was on leave, he got back together with the Lonesome Travelers and recorded an album called “Twelve Shades of Bluegrass.”
After his official discharge, he decided to become a studio musician and began commuting to Nashville to record his sessions. He had the good fortune to eventually find himself performing in June Carter’s touring band, which led to a long personal and professional relationship with Johnny Cash. In 1969, he received an offer to join Cash’s house band for his television show and moved to Nashville after accepting. This led to his playing on “Nashville Skyline” by Bob Dylan that same year and set the stage for subsequent tours with Baez and Kristofferson. And in what would be a defining moment for his career, Blake played on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s iconic record “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in 1972.
Blake released his debut solo record, “Back Home in Sulphur Springs,” that same year and was immediately seen by those familiar with bluegrass and country music as a guardian of sorts for that old-school sound. Soon after his debut, he met Nancy Short (whose band, Natchez Trace, had opened for Blake on tour) and immediately developed a personal and musical rapport. They released a duet record, “The Fields of November,” in 1974 and married the following year. Blake released another album, “Old and New,” in 1975, which featured all the musicians from “The Fields of November.”
However, in 1976, he offered up “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” a magnificent collection of songs that would come to define him as an artist, both in terms of his insistence on utilizing traditional techniques and the proficiency with which he expressed this aesthetic. Songs such as “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane” and “Church Street Blues” are platforms to showcase the intricacy and weight of his complex string work. Besides the roaring virtuosity of his performances, there is a deep and emotional subtlety buried within the movements of his expeditious rhythms.
With only guitarist Charlie Collins at his side, Blake manages to imbue this record with a grace and weightlessness that defy categorization. He is still rummaging through the usual influences here but never has he sounded so sure of himself, so full of wonder at the possibilities of the acoustic guitar. Effortlessly breezing through songs such as “Six White Horses” and “Slow Train Through Georgia,” he reveals a mystery bound to these rustic melodies and tones, an unasked question that begs you to look deeper into its lineage for whatever answer you might be searching for.
“Whiskey Before Breakfast” is a revelation, even for those who aren’t really looking for one. It is the kind of record that is immediately inviting and shows you something new with each listen. With each pluck and strum, the bones in your body shake and shiver, riveted and completely aware of their closeness to something immeasurably grand. It is also a humble record, one that doesn’t impose itself or wear its importance like a millstone. There is no denying the force and power that lie within its vivid depths, and Blake is more than willing to guide you into the deepest parts of those acoustic waters.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.