Norman & Nancy Blake,
Back Home in Sulphur Springs
(Dualtone, 2005)

Norman Blake's voice has a genuinely timeless quality about it. Dry, musical, full of knowledge and wisdom, it is Americana itself. Coupled with a most sensitive ability on guitar (as well as fiddle, mandolin and dobro), it is clear to hear why Blake has become such an institution. Having played with everybody from Dylan to Kristofferson, Blake's talents can be heard in most people's record collections, whether they are aware of it or not.

The huge success of the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers's marvelous O Brother, Where Art Thou? brought Blake -- and old-time country music -- to a whole new generation.

His most recent release is Back Home in Sulphur Springs, a collaboration between Norman and his wife, Nancy. Nancy (nee Short) plays cello, guitar and mandolin, possesses a crystalline voice and is adept at harmonizing. Her presence on this album is vital.

Norman's debut album was titled Home in Sulphur Springs, released in 1972. Now 30-odd years later he has decided to record a follow-up of sorts. Back Home is a collection of 14 tracks, mostly traditional, but featuring a number of compositions by Blake himself.

The entire album is sonically beautiful. The arrangements are spot on, not overdone, but sufficiently decorated to give a comfortable feel. The interplay and harmonies between Blake and Blake have the kind of intimacy and solidity that can only be achieved by sharing life together.

"We Parted By the Riverside" is a tour de force, with Blake's voice at its very best shaping the sounds and the ageless melody. Intoxicating. Of the original compositions, the title track is sublime. Laidback as one imagines the town to be, the track is a wonderful microcosm of not just this album, but life for the Blakes. The instrumental "Star Spangled Banner" is a treat, and a master class in pace. Nancy's mandolin is a perfect example of the less-is-more school of finger pickin'.

Other gems include "The Empress of Ireland," "He's Coming to Us Dead" and the cautionary "More Good Women Gone Wrong."

Back Home in Sulphur Springs is timeless music, magical, mystical, mythic and mighty. Sheer class comes of every aspect of it.

by Sean Walsh
11 November 2006

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