Rory Block: |
singing her country blues
An interview by Pamela Dow,
When it comes to traditional acoustic country blues, Rory Block is truly a national treasure, the most quintessential artist of our time. With the exception of the masters themselves, she's become a leading authority of the genre itself, earning the title of legendary blueswoman. Rory is an artist of integrity, a loving and gentle soul who's down to earth with everyone she meets. She's highly respected amongst her peers and throughout the music industry itself, for her continuous dedication in representing traditional Delta blues and its rich history. Her personal dedication to the human spirit and genuine desire to make a difference are widely admired and deeply appreciated by a multitude of blues enthusiasts worldwide.
Rory took time from her tour to talk with me about the creative process, the blues and her new CD, Last Fair Deal. It was a great honor for me, this being the very first time Rory ever played her guitar during an interview. My sincere thanks to Rory for such a memorable gift. We talked together like two old friends catching up with one another. Neither of us aware of the time, our conversation lasted well over two hours. After discussing the mutual love we share for our dogs, we finally got down to business.
PD: Last Fair Deal is an impressive CD, a brilliant recording. Can you tell me a little about the process when starting a recording like this?
RB: I'm a person who loves having a project, I love my live shows, cause they're a project unto themselves. I love having a recording date, having something that someone has asked me to write for them, it really gets me all excited, you know, I get inspired. So, when I realized I was gonna be making a record for Telarc, or even when making one of my many albums in the past for Rounder, I get all focused on it. I begin getting a sort of heightened level of creative energy.
PD: I can't imagine anyone telling you that.
RB: That's not so much the issue. What I really feel is that I needed to go further, I wanted to go further. I knew Michael Hedges on a tour before he passed away; he gave me tremendous confidence as did a number of others. But specifically, he did by telling me some extremely supportive things about my guitar playing. Everybody was supposed to do a solo and a group song together or two or three, at the end of our guitar summit tour, featuring four different guitar players; he was one and I was one. He said, "You can do it." I said, "I can't, I don't know how to solo." Then he said, "You're the reason I came on this tour, I know what you can do." I thought to myself, "Wow, Michael Hedges thinks I'm a good guitar player." These things began to sink in, and I thought, "I need to get beyond this feeling of anxiety. I need to conquer that feeling, I need to push past it." ... Then I began trying to master the slide, which took me forever. Now I feel I have a handle on it.
PD: I'm still working on that one myself.
RB: It's really a Zen thing, you know, where you find the way to make it just get into the pocket. But for five years, I couldn't get it, and then all of a sudden, I found a way.
PD: Choosing the original material for Last Fair Deal, did you begin with a specific theme or begin with specific tunings, and harmonies?
RB: I'm definitely an experimentation type of artist, where I get an idea, sometimes playing, or practicing these days. Then I go, "Oh, I'm gonna record this, this sounds very nice!" So, Rob will record that for me and I'll leave it there. Then he'll give me a little CD of it and I'll drive around and listen to it. That's often how I do it, I listen and say, that goes somewhere, let me see if I can continue that. I'll get little snippets of inspiration often times, other times I'll sit there and start figuring out an entire concept for a song. I have to record that fast so I don't forget it. Either way I'm sort of at the mercy of whatever recording capability is nearby because I will forget it. Since I don't write music, I'm not gonna be able to write a chart out, write the timing and the chords, you know, so I have to record it soon. That's why it's always good the computer is right nearby so as not to lose the idea.
PD: Did you know which Robert Johnson and Son House songs you wanted?
RB: It's all very last-minute, because I really am a person who tends to be spontaneous and last-minute about a lot of things. What I do is go, OK, there's this project coming up, and I start playing the guitar. I get some ideas and say, great, let's record this, then listen to some old Robert Johnson CDs, some old blues stuff and see if something strikes me. It's that last-minute thing where I go, oh, this one's the one, this sounds right, this is one I haven't done before, I'd love to do this one. So, right away we go and start working on it. I don't have a long list of material I'd like to do. ... I've done that in the past, put together lists of collected material ready to use. Now, it's getting more and more where I can decide to do it on the spur of the moment because of the setup and the recording capability being right there. These days I'm thinking I'm just gonna create this new record, one song at a time, as I feel in the mood.
PD: In the liner notes of "Cry Out Loud," you mentioned you were looking for a specific song, and came across this one. Do you have a sizable collection of original material to tap into?
RB: I wouldn't say sizable, maybe there's 10 songs sitting there I've already written and haven't yet put on albums. In any given project, if I'm writing and recording, I used to put everything onto a Sony Walkman. You don't get a chance to do them all, you might have maybe two songs left over per project, you would have done if you had the time, the space or the money. You know, you ran out of budget, you ran out of time, but you ended up having enough songs. There's always a couple I leave off and save somewhere, maybe not in a very organized way, maybe it's in a drawer of cassettes and I lose track of where it is. There could be new songs that I unexpectedly write at the last minute and add to the project -- that happens all the time. So, I do have this backlog of what could be my own interesting material, for me. It could be stuff that I would later say, hey this is worthy, and wonder why I didn't do that one.
PD: Did you eventually find the initial song you were looking for?
RB: No ... and that's something I'm thinking a lot about right now. I'm thinking I've got to locate that, because I want to do it on the next record.
PD: "Gone Again" is a fantastic tune. Did this become an absolute opening track for you?
RB: You know ... I was just playing that, I was making sure that I could do these things live. I'm just gonna do a tiny bit of the intro for you, OK, just for fun? (Rory plays a piece of the intro for me, and laughs.) It's so much fun! ... You know, 'cause first I did it as an instrumental, and I had the whole song sounding very nice. I was very excited about the different rhythms and the hard-driving precision of the notes, it all came together for me in a nice way. Then I thought, you know, I have enough CDs out there where the beginning is some kind of an improv. I need to take this away from an instrumental opening, like my last three albums, let's just say. "Gone Woman Blues" was an instrumental opening, "I'm Every Woman" had an instrumental opening, I thought we need to do something different. So, I decided to add the Harley stuff on top, which seemed to work. I was really worried when I played it for the record company, who had heard it without anything but guitar. Worried they would hate it and say, "What have you done? You've destroyed this song!" But they didn't say any of that, they loved it.
PD: There are so many different layers to "Amazing Grace," will this be a difficult song to perform on tour?
RB: It would be, if I wanted to do everything exactly the same, but I've done it for awhile now in my live shows. It has an element of newness and spontaneity each time. In other words, I gave up the idea of trying to recreate the exact sequence of notes that's on the record. This is the first interview where I've had the guitar in my hands, I'm tempted to go to the right tuning and give you an example. Let me play you a tiny little bit here, right now. I'll give you an example of why it can be different every time, and still sound like the same concept. (Rory plays a section of "Amazing Grace," using her slide.) See, that was totally different than what I did on the record, but it still has the same energy.
PD: Any songs from Last Fair Deal you find more challenging during a live performance?
RB: Yes, I wanted to be sure I was able to represent each one live. Otherwise, it just doesn't equal the energy of the record, if you can't then take it and do it live. There are certain records that I've done, where I leave certain songs alone, and I have a reason. Let's say, a song is just so emotionally intense that it's something I tend to avoid. Because of the large volume of emotionally intense songs with emotionally intense subjects I do write about, I can't really avoid these songs. So, that's something I've sort of had to deal with. In terms of something lets say, where I tune to a wild tuning, then later on, can't figure out what it was, that was the case with "Awesome Love." I just don't know what tuning that was in, it was so spontaneous we're gonna leave that one alone. Every other tune, I have a real motivation now to be able to do each and every one live. "Gone Again" I've never done live, but I can, I have it prepared. "Sookie Sookie" is a real tough one, and I'm working on it all the time. I think I've gotten it to where I can pull it off. The reason it's so tough is, I started with layer number one, which was, here on the guitar. You are the one and only person I've ever done this with, it's one way to explain the detail with "Sookie Sookie."
PD: Rory, wow, this is quite an honor. Thank you so much!
RB: (chuckles) I started out with this little bass line idea, I went like this. (Rory plays the bass line of "Sookie Sookie.") I just did that for the whole song, just that bass line, then I came along with another part, another tuning capoed at another position. I added a texture and then I came along and did ... (plays another section of the song) ... I did those things, so now, I have to put those things into one part, that's the challenge. With "Sookie Sookie," it was harder, as was "Last Fair Deal," but I'm getting it and that's the exciting part. Every morning I come down and leave my guitar out. If I don't leave it out by the kitchen table, I won't remember to play it. So, it's sitting out in its stand, the same stand we use on stage, right there by my plate. I pick it up and try to combine those two parts like this... (plays the bass line and fingerpicks the melody of "Sookie Sookie"). I try to combine it, the lead and the rhythm together, that's what I'm working on. I feel excited about the fact that it seems to be coming together.
PD: I was at your show back in March, and loved your performance of "Two Places at a Table." It was very moving. I tell everyone, "You can't appreciate this woman enough, until you go and see her in person."
RB: See, that's exactly how I would want it to be, I would rather be better in live performance then someone expects me to be. With a live show, the set up is the same at every venue, so nothing is distracting me anymore. It used to be in the past, the unknowns of each different venue would be variable and be distracting sometimes. You'd get a sound system that was so unfamiliar you just wouldn't be able to hear yourself correctly. That's been eliminated by Rob, who has put together a sound system we now carry with us. It's really very freeing for me now that I have the same monitors every night. Rob takes care of everything so I have my familiar set-up, I don't have to worry about distractions. I really find myself able to apply my energy to the show more.
PD: I imagine it's a great feeling, having the freedom to focus all your energy on what you're trying to accomplish at each performance.
RB: Yes, well ... let me reveal something extremely personal. I've only said it one or two times ever in an interview and I may not have said it in the same way that I'll say it now. We truly are on a mission, which doesn't mean we're like these crazy people. It just means, before we go on stage every night, we just focus together on wanting to help somebody. It's not about anything outward, it's about touching another human being. You know, in a way where they might go home with a ray of hope, that they're not alone.
PD: I see it as mutual sharing, a hopeful, uplifting thread that runs between you and your audience. You're not someone who's distant as a performer -- in fact, quite the opposite. There's this universal understanding out there, people know you're genuine, down to earth and just like the rest of us.
RB: Oh good, because it's not at all about me. I want people to believe I'm just like everyone else. Sometimes without stories, without words even, a song like say "Amazing Grace," the guitar playing, the music itself, has the ability to touch, heal and comfort people. That's one of the things I feel strongly about, why I want my guitar playing to grow. Listening to the music, the harmony, all those good things, even without words, just the harmonic quality of music has that ability. The more my guitar playing does what I want, the more I can reach out with the harmonics of the music itself. I feel it's also a part of how this all comes together, the harmonic beauty of music. So, I'm trying to tap into that higher level, you know, the harmonic healing capability of music.
PD: There was a definite gospel influence to Last Fair Deal. Are you leaning more towards the gospel side of blues?
RB: I think I am. I think it just took the right place in this record, it settled in without fighting anything. Everything is sort of related, the energy and the message overall, is very compatible with this record. This is the most gospel I've done on one CD, in the past it was say, only one per CD. I've been doing that for years, you know, enough where I could collect everything, all the different gospel tunes on the Rounder CDs, and make a nice gospel compilation or collection at some point. With this one, I don't know how many, maybe three or four, it automatically took a larger portion of the overall presentation then it ever has before. I don't know what the next record will be like, but I do sometimes think, well, why don't I do just a straight-out gospel record? Then I think, yeah, but it's so interesting to connect the dots of the different styles of music, in particular blues.
PD: The gospel selections blended together beautifully on Last Fair Deal, a very positive and uplifting feeling throughout the CD.
RB: Thank you, already the pressure is on. The record company is excited about the next record, including the production company that initially approached me to sign with them. They're a really good company who keeps their ear to the ground, watches what's going on and approaches artists if they like them. That's how this whole deal with Telarc came about, through this other production company called Deluge Entertainment. They're talking with me about the new record and so there's obviously a high expectation. I can't just do something less interesting, and I can't do something as interesting, I have to do something "more" interesting (chuckles) so, I feel like it better be good.
PD: I'm Every Woman was certainly a pleasant surprise. Like coloring outside of the lines, the focus being R&B. Any thoughts about recording more R&B in the future?
RB: I would love to, but I think my fans right now, are really excited about the acoustic stuff. Believe me, I would love to do a whole record of Motown, but in an unusual way of course, I'd probably put slide on every song. I love to sing those songs, like totally love to do them. Someday I will when there's an opportunity or I decide to do that. I think the energy for what people want to hear right now is truly focused on what I'm gonna do with my largely acoustic approach.
PD: On I'm Every Woman, it sounded like you were having a blast. You know, just having fun singing with the other artists.
RB: Oh, I was, it was exciting, I was having the time of my life.
PD: It must feel great being able to kick back, without all the expectations you're dealing with now.
RB: Actually there was some pressure behind the scenes, because Rounder wanted me to make an all-duet album. I sort of fought them a little for the first time in the history of my long and wonderful friendship with Rounder, I love them so much. They were saying "let's make a duet CD," 'cause they knew duet CDs have a sort of hitch to them. People like them, it's a catch that might get it to sell. But in my rebellious nature, I decided I couldn't just do something that was advisable for me to do. I had to give it a real twist, I just couldn't have it be the expected. So I sort of crawled off into my own space and handed them this record that was 50 percent of what they asked for and the other 50 percent were surprises. You know they loved it, but at the same time, I am a rebellious spirit and have to do things in my own way.
PD: You stayed true to yourself and the style of music you love. You didn't waiver or allow the industry to change or mold you into someone your not. Traditional country blues is something that's in your blood and fit you like a glove from the very beginning.
RB: I want to do unusual stuff. I want it to be as absolutely creative and as high quality as I can possibly make it. I want to bring everything I've been given to bear on everything I do, to the best of my ability.
PD: You play with such intensity, besides breaking a string now and then, how does the instrument hold up? Is there a shelf-life, so to speak, with your guitar while out on tour?
RB: (Laughs) It is a problem. I wear my frets down. So, when I need it reworked, I'll go down to Martin Guitars every chance I can get to them, they're wonderful, and I love them so much. They just take it and fix it, do it while I'm there lots of times. They send it to their best guitar doctor, he'll do things like reset the action, re-install frets for me sometimes, 'cause I whack the daylights out of them.
PD: You have a wonderful vocal range. Do you practice any vocal exercises?
RB: No, that I never do, I'm sure it wouldn't be a bad thing if I did it, I've just never have. The way the set works, there's enough mellow tunes back to back with hard-driving vocal approaches, so my voice gets its own natural warm-up. The only thing that really does damage my voice is cigarette smoke. It only takes the slightest amount, I'm amazed every time there happens to be someone smoking in a hallway far away from the venue. By the time an atom or a molecule drifts into the room, it really affects me -- which is rare, since most of the venues I play are non-smoking. But if I play in a place where there's smoking allowed before the show, then it's no smoking during the show, that's enough to ruin my voice.
PD: What are your thoughts about the future for traditional country blues?
RB: That's an interesting question, I wouldn't really know how to speculate on that. I think it's going to continue to grow. Maybe get to a point eventually where, I hope, the Grammys will encompass a traditional acoustic blues category, because they don't have it now. For the Grammys still, acoustic blues doesn't really exist on its own, and it should. It shouldn't be absorbed into a category like contemporary blues. It's done in today's contemporary world, to that extent, but it's a style that should be acknowledged in a separate category as traditional acoustic country blues. It should have a distinct category.
PD: There are so many people very interested and excited about your music.
RB: It certainly seems that way. As I say in my life story, who knew that this wonderful thing would come to pass, or grow, or would ever get this much interest. It's really wonderful, a true blessing, that's how I see it.
PD: Are there any new artists out there who you believe could carry the torch for the future of acoustic country blues?
RB: I have some students that I have complete faith in, (who are) at this time totally unknown, without record deals. Lisa Rich, she's a student right now and she plays at open mics. This woman has a real desire to do the same material I do, both country blues and original material as well, which is very nice. During a lesson, she stomped her foot so hard, playing with such a hard-driving style, I actually had to tell her to go easy on the floorboards. This is a woman with real fire and real talent.
PD: Rory, thank you so much for your time today, especially playing your guitar and sharing so much with me.
RB: You're very welcome, I thank you for the work you do as well.