Norman Blake,
Wood, Wire & Words
(Western Jubilee/Plectrafone, 2015)

Guitarist Norman Blake has been playing professionally since his teens in the 1950s. Over time he's amassed a staggering resume, too long and complicated for summary here. Suffice it to say its highlights include a years-long association with Johnny Cash and studio time with Bob Dylan (Nashville Skyline), John Hartford (Aereo Plain) and many more; he also played on Joan Baez's hit cover of The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." More recently, he had a song on the massively popular soundtrack O Brother, Where Art Thou? which inspired the latter-day roots revival among young performers.

But his greatest achievement is a series of albums, solo or accompanied on occasion by his wife Nancy Blake, James Bryan, Tony Rice, Peter Ostroushko, Rich O'Brien and even the Boys of the Lough, which carry on the practice of oldtime Southern picking, singing and song-making.

The first of these was the 1974 Rounder release Back Home in Sulphur Springs. An impressive number have followed (my own incomplete collection claims 15 of them, not counting the latest), featuring time-tested songs and tunes as well as Blake's in-the-tradition originals. Blake has always kept it simple, hardly ever bringing anything into the arrangements but basic acoustic instruments: guitars, fiddle, mandolin, cello. His latest, Word, Wire & Words, is just Blake and guitar. It's the fresh installment of what feels like one massive recording that commenced four decades ago.

What distinguishes it from Blake's previous release, Green Light on the Southern (2011), which concentrated on traditional material almost entirely, is that the current CD showcases nothing but new Blake compositions, a happy surprise. Blake, who's semi-retired (he turned 77 this year), has produced little self-composed music in a while. It's good to have him back, though it should be stressed that he is a superb interpreter of oldtime songs and instrumentals, too.

The songs won't disappoint those who love what Blake does (me, to underscore the obvious, among them). As always they look back at another time in America, when the nation was rural and life was experienced on a smaller scale. All kinds of sentimental goop has been dredged out of that well, none of it by Blake. His vision is clear and, if sympathetic, dry-eyed. "Grady Forester's Store & Cotton Gin" celebrates a real-life establishment from Blake's youth in Sulphur Springs, Georgia, without overdoing it. The several ballads, set to sometimes overlapping mid-tempo melodies, recall the violence that scarred America as it grew up. None of these rises to the level of (the fictional) "Billy Gray," a Blake masterpiece that could easily take its place among the grand outlaw ballads of tradition. Still, they're pretty good; who would expect otherwise? Perhaps curiously, Blake's ballad of the Mexican Revolution, "Farewell, Francisco Madero," makes no effort to recreate the spirit of a Mexican corrido (the revolution gave rise to countless of them), which may strike you as an odd artistic choice. Then again, it isn't sung in Spanish, either.

Three instrumentals, each a guitar rag ("Savannah Rag," "Blake's Rag" and "Chattanooga Rag"), afford undiluted pleasure. The tuneful "There's a One Way Road to Glory" (with Nancy joining on harmony), not quite the gospel affirmation an inattentive listening would lead you to think, turns out to be a vehicle for antiwar sentiments. "The New Dawning Day," which is not much like any other Blake song that comes to mind, reflects on mortality and the uncertain prospect of continuing existence after death. It's a superior piece of writing even by Blake's exacting standards.

Here and there, showing its age, Blake's voice is a tad scratchy, but not often and not enough to matter. The music's still in him, and we're all the better for it.

music review by
Jerome Clark

25 April 2015

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