The Circle Is Unbroken
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."
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.
Because of his connection with Cash, Blake was hired by another folk icon, Bob Dylan, who ventured to Music City in 1969 to record Nashville Skyline. (Blake played dobro and acoustic guitar on that one.) Dylan, he says, "was not very verbal. He never said very much. A very private person."
Zelig-like, Blake went on to play in Kris Kristofferson's road band, and he recorded and toured with Joan Baez in her "Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" period. He also played on John Hartford's legendary 1971 progressive bluegrass album, Aereo-Plain.
That year, just after Blake had returned to Nashville after a grueling road trip with Hartford's band, he got a call one day from William McEuen, the brother of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen, asking if he'd come play dobro on a session with the Dirt Band and Earl Scruggs.
"I didn't want to do it," Blake says. "I was about half sick, you know; I thought maybe I was catching the flu or something, just worn out." He turned down the gig and went to bed.
But McEuen kept calling, and finally Blake gave in. He took his dobro to the studio, where he began recording "You Are My Flower," an old Carter Family song, with Scruggs on guitar. McEuen, however, was hard to please. "He wanted me to play one lick over and over, repetitiously," Blake recalls. "He wanted the same lick done the same way." No matter what Blake did, he couldn't seem to satisfy McEuen. "He kept hounding me about doing it this way, and I wasn't feeling that well, so I took the earphones off and threw them up against the studio glass at him, and I told him to go to hell. Then I started packing up to leave. And Earl Scruggs said [to McEuen], 'Well, if you just leave him alone, he'll play something good.' And then he left me alone."
The resulting album, of course, was Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the O Brother of its day, an unlikely collaboration between a group of long-haired California musicians and some of Nashville's most venerated performers, including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson and Scruggs. Circle sold millions of copies and introduced a whole new generation of fans to the pleasures of traditional country music.
It's clear that Blake could have made a decent career for himself working as a session picker in Nashville. "But I didn't care for the studio world," he says. "I knew I didn't have a future in studio work. That's the way I felt. I didn't see that it was what I wanted to do at all."
What Blake wanted to do was play the music of rural Appalachia -- murder ballads, rags, fiddle tunes, devotionals and the like, the kind of songs that had once been recorded on '78s by Uncle Dave Macon and Dock Boggs and the Carter Family. When Rounder Records asked him to make a solo album, Blake unearthed some long-forgotten songs (and wrote a few old-sounding new ones), went into the studio with fellow dobroist Tut Taylor and came out with the now-classic Back Home in Sulphur Springs. Since then, he has stayed true to his calling, recording one gem after another, many of them with his wife, Nancy, a cellist. He's been nominated five times for Grammy awards.
He still does the occasional session job. In 1995, he was an integral part of Steve Earle's acclaimed comeback album Train a Comin'. More recently, he was reunited with June Carter and Johnny Cash, first on Carter's overlooked Press On disk and then on Cash's dark masterpiece American III: Solitary Man. "I worked a session with him just about a month ago," he says. Asked how Cash is faring these days, Blake replies, "Not well. He's up and down." Blake also appears on the late Charles Sawtelle's posthumously released solo album, Music From Rancho deVille.
"Old Charlie," Blake says of Sawtelle, who played guitar for the bluegrass band Hot Rize and died of leukemia in 1999 at the age of 52. Whenever Blake and his wife Nancy (who divorced in 1997 but have since remarried) came through Colorado, Sawtelle always invited them to stay at his house in Boulder.
"We'd park our camper at his house and hang out," he says. "Charlie was a great host. He was very freehearted, a wonderful person who always went out of his way to make you feel welcome."
For Rancho deVille, Sawtelle asked Blake, along with mandolinist David Grisman, to do three Carter Family songs: "The Storms Are on the Ocean," "Amber Tresses" and "Forsaken Love." Hearing Blake sing these musical gems -- perhaps he learned them from "Mother" Maybelle herself -- is a delight.
"There's no better material than the old Carter Family stuff," he says.
These days, Blake is relishing the attention he and his fellow old-time musicians are getting as a result of the O Brother soundtrack. "I think it's doing us all some good," he says. In June, Blake took part in a sold-out O Brother concert at Carnegie Hall, where he performed with Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Gillian Welch and others. (A similar show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville was filmed by famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, but Blake couldn't make that one.) He plans to participate in an O Brother tour that's scheduled for early next year.
Beyond that, Blake intends to keep on doing what he's done for the last thirty years: Play his vintage wooden instruments and sing the old songs in his exquisitely unadorned way.
"I don't know how to do anything else," he says. "It's that simple."
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