If you’re a regular visitor to No Depression, chances are that Norman Blake needs no introduction. Even if his name is unfamiliar at first glance, you’ve almost certainly spent hours listening to him play without even realizing it. As one of the venerable elders of North American roots music, Blake’s influence stretches back for well over a half century. In his tenure as house guitarist for Johnny Cash; multi-instrumentalist on Nashville Skyline; the countless sessions he’s sat in with Kris Kristofferson, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Steve Earle, Michelle Shocked, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; and as one of the guiding lights behind the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Blake has unobtrusively picked away in the background of some of the best music any of us have ever heard.
At 83, with nine Grammy nominations under his belt, Blake clearly has nothing to prove as he continues to play and record the music he loves for a dedicated audience who has followed his music for decades. Day by Day is the fifth album in the last decade released under his name on Smithsonian Folkways’ Plectrafone Records. Like the other albums in the series, Day by Day is built around unadorned vocal performances of traditional songs accompanied by Blake’s guitar and banjo. Recorded entirely as single takes on an afternoon near his rural home in Georgia, this is roots music at its most humble and intimate. Listen closely and you’ll hear Blake shift his weight on his back porch chair as his guitar strings vibrate between takes.
Even though Blake’s approach to the music is deceptively offhand, there’s nothing casual about his intent or the reverence he has for these songs. Like Willie Nelson’s time-worn voice, Blake’s vocals come across with a relaxed authority that communicates far more in a phrase than other singers can put in a whole song. No matter how many times you’ve heard “Dying Cowboy” or “My Home is Across the Blue Ridge Mountains,” the depth and mastery that Blake brings to his interpretations makes each syllable and note vibrate with life and quiet intensity. The two original songs, “Time” and the instrumental “Old Joe’s March” beautifully evoke and complement the mood and flow seamlessly with the standards that make up the rest of the album.
From a musical standpoint, the instrumentation on Day by Day is gorgeously simple, intuitive and warm. Blake has lost none of his melodic finesse on the guitar and banjo, and his distinctive picking and phrasing are still an unqualified joy to listen to.
To say that there won’t be many records like Day by Day coming out in the future is to overstate the obvious. Blake is one of the last remaining players of the generation who had the opportunity to reach back and hear the originators of these songs perform them. Along with Bob Dylan, Ralph Stanley, and a small handful of other artists, Blake has done an inestimable service to keeping the music of Old Weird American alive by continuing to record definitive versions of songs culled from the more obscure corners of the folk, country, and bluegrass pantheons.
Day by Day is music from a different world, guided by rules and sensibilities that have started to fade from our range of vision. It’s a record that time and fashion cannot touch.