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The Circle Is Unbroken

O Brother's success revealed Norman Blake's genius to a wide audience. Bluegrass fans have seen it all along.

When Norman Blake performs at Swallow Hill on Saturday night, more than a few audience members will probably be there because they bought the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a wonderful collection of rootsy country music. On it, the 63-year-old Blake performs two numbers: "You Are My Sunshine" and an instrumental version of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," the movie's signature song. Nearly two million copies of the disc have sold, making it the year's best-selling country album so far. (Bona fide!) Considering that it's been virtually ignored by the aural wasteland known as country radio, that's an incredible feat. It's as if Webb Pierce, dressed in a Nudie suit, had crashed a garden party hosted by Faith Hill and Shania Twain.

Blake isn't surprised, though. To him, the success of O Brother is proof that there's a craving out there for the real deal -- simple, honest, soul-baring country music -- which isn't to be confused with the spineless, suburbanized drivel that comes out of Nashville these days. "I just wish they'd call it something besides country music," Blake says in a buttery drawl from his home in Rising Fawn, Georgia (population 4,000), "because I love country music, and I think it's an insult to call what they do country music. It has no relation to it at all."

The O Brother soundtrack, he continues, "just happened to be some old-fashioned country music that, through a fluke, got on a major label and got some press and some exposure through a movie. And people heard it. If people know about it, they like it! There is a market out there. But we are so excluded from mainstream radio; I don't think that record got on the radio at all. It's just as underground as one of my records as far as radio goes."

He makes us happy when skies are gray: Acoustic picker, mandolin and dobro player, singer and songwriter Norman Blake.
He makes us happy when skies are gray: Acoustic picker, mandolin and dobro player, singer and songwriter Norman Blake.

Details

303-777-1003

8 p.m. Saturday, August 4

$18

"Music From Rancho deVille: A Tribute to Charles Sawtelle," featuring Norman Blake, Nick Forster, David Grisman, Laurie Lewis, Tim O'Brien, Peter Rowan and Tom Rozum. 8 p.m. Monday, August 6, Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, $22-$27, 303-442-3282.

Swallow Hill, 71 East Yale Avenue, Denver

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Since 1972, when he released his first solo album, Back Home in Sulphur Springs, on Rounder Records, Blake has forged a highly regarded music career playing acoustic instruments -- guitar, mandolin and dobro -- and singing, in a soft, plaintive voice, old-time country songs, many of them culled from his collection of 78s. (The most frequent songwriting credit on his 25 or so albums appears to be "Traditional.") His own compositions sound as if they could have been written more than a century ago.

"I always just wanted to write something that I thought stood up as good as the old," he says. "The old is the yardstick that I judge my own work against."

The musical category "Americana" seems to have been invented solely to describe Blake's recordings. His latest album, Flower From the Fields of Alabama, on the New York-based Shanachie label, is a typical Blake offering -- an eclectic collection of such Southern harmonious delights as "Salty Dog," "Sitting on Top of the World" and "If We Never Meet Again (This Side of Heaven)." Accompanied by guitarist Bob Chuckrow, Blake plays a number of vintage instruments, all conveniently listed in the liner notes. (Blake has long been considered one of the best flatpickers around.) He prefers old Martins and Gibsons for their rich, honeylike tones. "I like that old sound and feel," he says. "There's something in those old instruments."

Indeed, Blake prefers the old to the new in just about everything. He dresses in Amish-style black-and-white garments, and his gray beard is long and scraggly. He hasn't flown since 1974. (He drives to gigs in an old pop-top camper.) He hates big cities and lives in a rambling farmhouse just three miles from where he was born. "I live in the country and prefer to stay there," he says. "I'm very uncomfortable with a lot of the modern world, always have been." These days, he says, Nashville, two hours' drive from Rising Fawn on Interstate 24, is full of "rude people -- and the pace is fast and furious."

It wasn't always so. When Blake first moved to Nashville, around 1960, it was a sleepy southern town, and the hottest thing going on a Saturday night was still the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. Blake performed there many times, first as half of a duet with a banjo-picker named Bob Johnson, and later as part of that era's incarnation of the Carter Family -- Maybelle Carter and her daughters June, Helen and Anita. In 1963, after a stint in the army, Blake returned to Nashville, where he continued to work with June Carter, who had fallen in love with Johnny Cash and joined the Man in Black's road show. (Carter and Cash would marry in 1968.)

One day, Blake got a call from his old friend Johnson, who asked if he wanted to come watch while he worked a recording session with Cash. "I said, 'Yes,' and we rode over," Blake recalls. "And June introduced me to Johnny and said, 'This is Norman Blake, and he plays the dobro.' John had never heard me play before. He told me that if I could get an instrument, he could use me the next day, which he did." Playing a dobro borrowed from Buck Graves, one of the Foggy Mountain Boys, Blake contributed some memorable licks to Cash's "Understand Your Man," and he ended up working for Cash for the next several years.

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