Norman Blake,
Old Ties
(Rounder, 2002)

When it comes to old-time music, Norman Blake's guitar playing is second to none. He's recently received some notoriety from his connection with O Brother Where Art Thou, but this collection selected from over 30 years of recording is a more comprehensive way of looking at Blake's musical talents, which are prodigious.

The proceedings get off to a simple, lovely and low-key start with "Spanish Fandango," with Blake on solo guitar. Charlie Collins's guitar joins him on "Church St. Blues," a dandy hard-times song to which Blake also lends his rough and ready vocal talents. Blake came into his own as a flat-picker early on, as may be heard in 1976's "Sleepy Eyed Joe/Indian Creek," a technical marvel. Blake is like Doc Watson in the sense that both men eschew pyrotechnics in favor of a relaxed feel to their playing. They make it all sound so easy that it's easy for the listener to underestimate them. But when you hone in and really listen to what's going on, you realize that you're listening to the best. "O'Malley's Tune" is the only previously unreleased track on the album, and it makes you wish for more. It's a Blake original, fun and quirky, with unpredictable chord changes and a tempo that increases until Blake is blazing (albeit in relaxed manner) by the end.

Blake has recorded at length with his wife Nancy, and she makes several welcome appearances here. In the first, "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room," she provides solid rhythm guitar underneath Blake's stylish flatpicking, and their vocal blend is a joy to hear. We go from A.P. Carter to a Jimmie Rodgers-influenced original, "Down Home Summertime Blues," complete with slide guitar and yodels.

Guitars are set down for "Blind Dog," a fiddle and cello duet with Nancy. It's a spectacular interweaving of melody and harmony that sounds like a string quartet, thanks to all the double stops. The instrumental wonders continue on "Lost Indian," with three extraordinary guitarists, Blake, Tony Rice and Doc Watson, all playing at once. It's a crash course in flatpicking, and great fun, with Doc shouting his approval to the "kids." "Billy Gray" is a fine outlaw ballad by Blake, with a wondrous overdubbed cello duet by Nancy that adds a dense and rich texture to the sound. Equally lovely is "The Fields of November," another Blake original. It's slow, evocative and moving. Blake sings harmony with Tony Rice on "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar," reminiscent of the old brother duets, and the CD closes with a medley of two Blake originals, "Randall Collins," an old-timey, modal ballad, and "Done Gone."

There's much more on the CD, 19 tracks totaling over 70 minutes of terrific old-time music. Joe Weisberger's liner notes essay is a sharply observed overview of Blake's career, and the tracks are all well annotated. This CD is one of the "Rounder Heritage Essential" series, and you'd better believe it. It's a must for any fan of old-time and bluegrass music.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 22 October 2002

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