Country blues singer-songwriter Rory Block knows how to play with pain.
A solo artist who prefers to pick the steel strings of her guitar bare-fingered, she's been known to perform entire shows at the starts of tours with blood dripping from her hands. Her calluses solidify as her time on the road lengthens, but they can never grow thick enough to protect her from the other hurt she's been dealt by fate. Neither can her music, but it can help: When her son Thiele died in an auto accident in 1986, Block worked through her sorrow by making House of Hearts, an album dedicated to him.
Block insists that she doesn't mind questions about this loss. "I appreciate being asked, because I'll never put it away," she says. "That would dishonor my son totally if I just sort of went past it. I feel like it honors him when people talk about him or ask me about him. It may make me sad, but then I needed to get sad. If he was not mentioned again, I would probably be sad about that. It's a part of our living experiences that people die, and to deny it would be unhealthy."
Now 44, Block has not had a cushy life. The mother of two children in addition to Thiele, she has spent the majority of the past decade-plus on the road. During that time she's also produced a series of nine albums for Rounder Records. Each of these discs, from 1981's High-Heeled Blues to this year's Angel of Mercy, highlights Block's splendid guitar work, her straight-shooting vocals and her insightful lyrics. While some of her songs celebrate the gritty side of life, others are so personal that listeners who share her anguish by proxy sometimes find them almost too much to bear. Block is known as a woman who doesn't hide her feelings, a quality that has endeared her to fans even as it has won her a reputation as temperamental and occasionally abrasive.
Admittedly, Block is demanding--for example, she refuses to be interviewed unless the conversation is recorded, because she so dislikes being misquoted. But she's also honest enough to discuss her difficult nature in public.
"I do have a lot of depression," she notes. "I don't have an excessive amount, where someone might say I was clinically depressed. But I have an intensity of moods. I'm aware of it, and I pretty much announce it. I have decided that the way to get through it is to write songs about a lot of it and to cling to some sort of a spiritual center. The most important thing is to have the core, this center that I can sort of retreat into and regenerate the feeling of value from within and try to recenter myself when I feel like that. Because a lot of it, I believe, comes from the fragmentation of the world around us."
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Block has been exploring these issues since her girlhood. Raised in Greenwich Village, where her father ran a leather shop, she began playing the blues on an acoustic guitar in her early teens, attracting the attention of Village figures such as Son House and Bob Dylan. At fifteen she ran away from home, and she's been on her own ever since, writing tunes powerful enough to touch a chord in anyone who hears them.
"I try to make sense out of what could otherwise be chaos," she explains. "All the pressure. Who are we supposed to be? What are our roles? How do our feelings fit into what our roles are supposed to be? Well, sometimes they just don't. Like, for instance, in my song `Mama's Blues,' it's not politically correct to say that sometimes you feel blue about how you look. You're supposed to always feel fine about whoever you are. You're supposed to be strong all the time. But we're only human. Sometimes we don't feel perfect. I like to be able to express that, but not in a way that says, `I'm a victim.' So maybe other people won't feel like a victim, either."
Of course, Block adds, her fans aren't the only ones who are enriched by her performances. "One aspect that I find fulfilling and beautiful, and that I get to enjoy about being a performer, is talking to people after shows and finding out how many people have benefited from the different songs," she says. "To feel the tremendous support and love from the audience. That is something very precious and very special that's sort of a gift that comes back to me. I feel really, really lucky about that."
And somehow that makes all of the pain easier to bear.
Rory Block. 9 p.m. Saturday, April 23, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $13.65, 290-TIXS or 447-0095; 9 p.m. Sunday, April 24, Herman's Hideaway, 1578 S. Broadway, $13, 290-TIXS or 778-9916; 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 26, Little Bear, 28075 Highway 74, Evergreen, $10, 290-TIXS or 674-9991.