Acoustic musicians Norman and Nancy Blake are quiet giants in the bluegrass/old-timey revival scene. As a studio guitarist, Norman Blake was a popular sideman in the late 1960s and '70s, backing stars such as Joan Baez, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson, and appeared on the groundbreaking Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." The Blakes have been stalwarts of the folk-bluegrass revival, and have delved deep into the American folk tradition... Here's a quick look at some of their best work...
Norman Blake "Back Home In Sulphur Springs" (Rounder, 1972)
Norman Blake "The Fields Of November" (Flying Fish, 1974)
Norman Blake "Old And New" (Flying Fish, 1975) (LP)
Norman Blake/Various Artists "Norman Blake/Tut Taylor/Sam Bush/Butch Robins/Vassar Clements/David Holland/Jethro Burns" (Flying Fish, 1976) (LP)
Norman Blake "Whiskey Before Breakfast" (Rounder, 1976)
Acoustic guitar whiz Norman Blake started off as a bluegrass prodigy in the late 1950s, and flatpicked his way across numerous albums in the 1960s and '70s, particularly as a session guitarist on albums by Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez, and as frequent collaborator in John Hartford's various bands. This is one of his best-known solo records from the 'Seventies, a typically understated, flawless set of stripped-down, nostalgic old-timey acoustic numbers, with Blake playing solo and accompanied by a sympathetic secod guitar. There are plenty of Vaudeville and Southern-themed songs on here, including ditties such as "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane," "Arkansas Traveler" and "Old Gray Mare," music that the entertainment industry -- in all its areas -- had long since turned its back on. Blake breathes life back into these old standards, taking each song at his leisure while crooning in his thin, smooth old-mannish voice. For fans of great music, simply and elegantly performed, this is hard to beat. Plus, the guy's a world-class ace flatpicker -- folks who actually "get" what he's doing on guitar will be amazed.
Norman Blake "Live At McCabe's" (Takoma, 1976)
(Produced by Doug Decker)
A really sweet, unpretentious acoustic set, with Norman and Nancy playing at their simplest and most straightforward, in a gentle set of old-timey tunes, beautifully and authoritatively played onstage at McCabe's, a fabled Santa Monica, California folk club. Apparently this was the first gig that Blake did out on the West Coast: I bet he made quite an impression!
Norman Blake & Red Rector "Norman Blake And Red Rector" (Country, 1976) (LP)
Norman Blake "Blackberry Blossom" (Flying Fish, 1977)
Norman Blake "Directions" (Takoma, 1978) (LP)
Norman Blake "Rising Fawn String Ensemble" (Rounder, 1979) (LP)
Norman Blake "Full Moon On The Farm" (Rounder, 1981) (LP)
Norman Blake "Original Underground Music From The Mysterious South" (Rounder, 1982) (LP)
Norman Blake "Nashville Blues" (Rounder, 1984) (LP)
Norman Blake "Lighthouse On The Shore" (Rounder, 1985) (LP)
Norman Blake "The Norman & Nancy Blake Compact Disc" (Rounder, 1986)
Norman Blake "Natasha's Waltz" (Rounder, 1987)
Best known as a fantabulous guitar picker, Blake can also pluck a mean mandolin... and banjo, and mandocello, and saw away on the fiddle, too. All of which he does on this album, with Nancy Blake, Peter Oshtroushko and others backing him up. (By the way, the first half of this CD was previously issued in 1982 on an album by the Rising Fawn String Ensemble, entitled Original Music From The Mysterious South...) I have to say, though, that I'm not as wowed by this frenetic almost-all instrumental album as I am by most other Norman Blake albums; I think he's best on the slow stuff, and the pacing and tone of these tunes is a little on the monotonous side. Top-notch picking, though.
Norman Blake "Slow Train Through Georgia" (Rounder, 1987)
Norman Blake "Blake & Rice" (Rounder, 1987)
Norman Blake "Blind Dog" (Rounder, 1988)
Norman Blake "Norman Blake And Tony Rice II" (Rounder, 1990)
Norman Blake "The Fields Of November/Old and New" (Flying Fish, 1992)
Norman & Nancy Blake "Just Gimme Somethin' I'm Used To" (Shanachie, 1992)
Norman & Nancy Blake "While Passing Along This Way" (Shanachie, 1994)
Norman & Nancy Blake "The Hobo's Last Ride" (Shanachie, 1996)
Norman Blake "Far Away, Down On A Georgia Farm" (Shanachie, 1999)
A super-sweet album by one of the great masters of the '70s acoustic music scene. Blake has exactly the right balance of passion and understatement, immediacy and detachment. This is just him and his guitar, and an impressive mix of oldies and tradional-sounding originals, all built around the idea and feel of the quiet rural life. This is acoustic Americana in the truest sense of the word. Highly recommended!
Norman Blake & Rich O'Brien "Be Ready Boys -- Appalachia To Abilene" (Western Jubilee, 1999)
Norman Blake "Flower From The Fields Of Alabama" (Shanachie, 2001)
Another beautiful, flawless album by this acoustic guitar whiz. What can you say about Blake? He's such a delightfully understated, pure practitioner of his art, it's hard to find fault with practically anything he sets his sights on. So what sets this album apart from all his other mini-masterpieces? Well, personally, as a public radio DJ named Joe Sixpack, I'm drawn to "Radio Joe," an original ballad about a dissolute radio performer whose days are blighted with drinking and druggin'... Not that it's purely reflective of my life, mind you... I just like the sound of the chorus! As with other recent albums, this is a strong mix of traditional and original material... Highly recommended!
Norman Blake & Peter Oshtroushko "Meeting On Southern Soil" (Red House, 2002)
Likewise, this collaboration between these two veterans of the '70s acoustic revival is flat out fabulous. As with Blake's other releases, it's the understated mastery and pervasive love of the music that come through, and these two fellows have as much command of the material as anyone on the face of the planet. A really nice album -- quiet, evocative, full of great old songs, and a nice sense of give-and-take between the musicians. Recommended!
Norman & Nancy Blake "The Morning Glory Ramblers" (Western Jubilee/Dualtone, 2004)
Another sweet, understated set of quiet, old-timey tunes which slows the pace of life down and takes us back to simpler days. The Blakes are old hands at this kind of musical wizardry, and while this disc doesn't cut any paths for them, it's another fine example of their mastery of the style. This is a mostly gospel set, and if you want a mellow, nonconfrontational version of the country gospel, this is a pretty little disc.
Norman & Nancy Blake "Back Home In Sulphur Springs" (Dualtone, 2006)
It's an indication of the urgency and outrage that many contemporary folkies feel in regards to the Bush administration that even diehard old-timey artists like Norman and Nancy Blake feel compelled to come out against them. The Blakes' work is so deeply rooted in the past that it's unnerving to hear them record a contemporary political song like "Don't Be Afraid Of The Neo-Cons," a charming little ditty that's styled after the old-timey topical ballads that persisted in the popular culture into the early 1940s. The ascerbic political tune, which sandblasts the administration and its allies for their greed and incompetence, is buried as a bonus track at the end of this disc. The Blakes apparently thought better of this surreptitious approach once the album was actually out, leading the label to first add a sticker on the record highlighting the hidden track, and then to press up special CD singles just so we'd be sure to know it was out there in the aether. It's a fine tune, but all of the songs the Blakes record are fine; this album, like all the others before it, is a beautiful set of old-fashioned acoustic material, played and sung with a weary, worldly elan. If you're a fan already, this is another great record to add to the Blake section of your library -- if you haven't checked them out yet, this is an excellent place to start. Recommended!
Norman Blake/Nancy Blake/Tut Taylor "Shacktown Road" (Western Jubilee, 2007)
Norman Blake "Old Ties" (Rounder, 2002)
Hick Music Index