Norman & Nancy Blake – The old-fashioned way
Outside the Sheldon Concert Hall in downtown St. Louis, someone steals a van parked next to Norman and Nancy Blake’s camper. Inside the hall, the couple have finished a two-hour concert and are packing up to head to Lexington, Kentucky, before returning to their home in Rising Fawn, Georgia. They try to take the commotion in stride, but for them it’s another sign that it’s time to say goodbye to the road.
St. Louis was the site of Norman Blake’s first solo concert, at Washington University’s Graham Chapel — 1972 as he recalls, the same year he released Back Home In Sulphur Springs, his first solo album. For Blake, this most recent return to St. Louis was a nostalgic evening. He plays the first song he ever learned, from his grandmother at age 11: “Spanish Fandango”, in open G tuning on the dobro. He learned it in a rudimentary form, then recorded it on that first album, rewriting it with a master’s signature.
In 2005, the Blakes played only a dozen or so dates. “Every hour on the stage, that’s a happy hour,” Nancy says. “You can’t get that at home. But for that hour, we might have driven a week, and we’re old and it hurts too much and takes away from the pleasure. We’ve lived a very transient lifestyle. Norman said this morning over coffee that it might take us the rest of our lives to settle down.”
Due out January 31 on the small imprint Plectrafone (with distribution by Dualtone), the Blakes’ new album is, like Norman’s debut, called Back Home In Sulphur Springs. It’s a collection of rare and familiar old-time tunes, some original, most derived from the prewar golden age of hillbilly music. It marks the 30th year of a musical marriage with gentle parlor duets shared by two people who genuinely thrive on each other’s company and who, if they’re going to spend the rest of their lives settling down, know exactly how to do it.
Norman Blake was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but was brought to Sulphur Springs before he was a year old. Save for a few years as session musician in Nashville and a stint in the army, he has always made his home in this borderland of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.
“It’s mountainous,” he describes, “the last 50 or 60 miles of the Smokies, Cumberlands, whatever you want to call them. The weather is fairly mild, and we’re far enough from the coast not to get the brunt of the storms we’ve been having. The mountains kinda block off things. It probably is a little isolated. If you’re following the Atlanta corridor, Interstate 75 down to Florida, you’re in a whole different world. It’s a little more quiet on this side of the mountains. There’s still a lot of railroad action, just freight haulers, but when I was a child there were passenger trains mixed in. I probably spent half of my young life going out to see them. It was the biggest thing around here.”
The second-biggest thing was the radio, and after that, the old 78s for which Blake still goes junking. Mostly the old songs are stored up inside him. They’re not exactly memories; they’re more like working thoughts, an ongoing conversation with the past. When it comes time to make a record, the Blakes simply put those thoughts down as they occur to them.
“We’ve never totally planned a set of tunes on a record,” Norman says. “I usually just have a working set of stuff; some of it is recorded, some of it is not. I might have twenty tunes that we would want to do. We don’t have a set list. It’s like being onstage; you have something to start with, and one thing just leads to another.”
Although he’s clearly known as a guitarist — a quietly influential flatpicker whose distilled and graceful style has accompanied everyone from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan, Steve Earle to Joan Baez — Norman is also proficient on mandolin, fiddle and dobro. His instrumental style, you could say, is about capturing a whole range of nuances in old-time music.
“When I heard the old records and people on the radio, I wasn’t thinking about guitar licks,” he says. “It was just the music in general. I heard the Carter Family, the Skillet Lickers, the Monroe Brothers and Roy Acuff.”
In another sense, Blake is very much a product of the ’60s, both as a songwriter with an individual voice and as a guitarist. “I became more aware of [the flatpicking style] in the 1960s,” he acknowledges, “when the folk scare, as it’s called, was going on, when the LP world came into being. The whole thing changed. Up till then it was the old world, what I heard on the radio and old records. But then in the ’60s you got the folk recordings, and that’s when I got interested in it in terms of guitar playing. Prior to that I had not heard Doc Watson.
“I played with a thumb and finger pick in my early days, backing up in bluegrass bands, playing more like Maybelle Carter and Lester Flatt. I knew how to use a flat pick because I played mandolin nearly as long as guitar. From time to time I’d pick on the guitar with a flat pick, but I thought it was kind of a novelty. When I heard Doc, I thought, well I can do that! I just never took it seriously.
“Lots of people ask me if I’d heard Clarence White, and no I hadn’t at that time. The main flatpick guitarist I heard on record was Don Reno, playing gospel songs. There were some local guitar players, Eddie Smith from off of Sand Mountain, who played with a flat pick, kind of an old-time Riley Puckett-type guitar player who was real good with a flat pick, and I got inspired by him.”
Part of what distinguishes Blake’s flatpick style has always been his thoughtful, unhurried pacing. Despite the number of notes he can ring from a given chord progression, he lingers over the tones, letting individual notes flow together and accumulate with a slow, steady pressure.