Norman & Nancy Blake,
The Morning Glory Ramblers
(Dualtone, 2004)

The promotional literature identifies this as the "31st recorded work of Norman and/or Nancy," presumably meaning albums in which the Blakes were more than session players. It has been eight years since they last entered the studio together -- an ultimately unsuccessful divorce disrupted their musical and personal relationship for a time -- but it has been more than worth the wait. The Morning Glory Ramblers is a splendid recording.

But then you thought it could be otherwise? Since the 1970s Norman Blake -- the duo didn't come along until a little later -- has been at work on what might be thought of as one gigantic album of old-time Southern folk music, augmented by his own in-the-tradition compositions (e.g., "Last Train from Poor Valley," "Billy Gray," "Church Street Blues," "Chattanooga Sugar Babe" and other classics). His "Fields of November" has been collected as a traditional fiddle tune of unknown authorship, so you might say that Norman Blake is no longer just a reviver of tradition but a part of it. The albums don't vary much. Sometimes he records with Nancy, sometimes not, and sometimes he adds another musician or two. He mixes songs and instrumentals. He doesn't like electric instruments and drums.

What makes Morning Glory a little out of the ordinary is that -- if I am not mistaken -- it is the Blakes' first all-song record. Perhaps that could have been predicted; it's been quite a while since Norman had much interest in the flashy guitar instrumental showpieces of his early records. His mature focus is on setting the music in spare, effective arrangements and respecting it enough to let message and emotion take center stage. He and Nancy do that here with particular taste and skill. Though the songs, ballads and hymns will be generally familiar to those immersed in Southern vernacular music, none is so familiar as to breed contempt -- or boredom. In one instance Norman adds some of his own composed verses to "All the Good Times Are Over," transforming this lyric folk song and early bluegrass standard into a haunting, noirish musical short story. To me, it's the standout cut on an album already crowded with first-rate material.

One genuine surprise is "Men With Broken Hearts." One doesn't associate the Blakes with Hank Williams -- not because the Blakes dislike his music (I'm sure they appreciate it as much as the rest of us), but because Williams came along a decade or more after the pioneering hillbilly artists who most inspired them. The phrase "honkytonk" just doesn't come to mind when one thinks of the Blakes' music. "Men," however, is one of those antique-sounding recitations Hank would do in his Luke the Drifter persona. Hank's music was often scary, but "Men" is downright terrifying. Nancy's reading doesn't sound quite so much like a communique from hell, but it comes with at least a whiff of brimstone.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 4 September 2004

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