Thirty-some-odd years ago, a simple but dazzling LP record album called Home In Sulphur Springs announced the arrival of Norman Blake as a solo artist. The bearded and spectacled face that loomed close-up on the cover suggested a 19th century poet or painter. But the sound and the songs, the starchy drawl, and the exquisite guitar technique made it clear that Blake’s art was music of the most elemental sort, a lusty embrace of tradition that transcended technological change and the tides of pop culture.
One of many who fell in love with that album was Nancy Short of Independence, MO, then living in Nashville, TN. “Ï spent a lot of time cross legged on the floor before I met Norman, listening to Home in Sulphur Springs,” she says. “Ï was just so entranced by everything on it. I started out as a rocker, so when that came across my ears I thought, wow, this is a relief.”
Just about a year later, Nancy, a cellist with new found folk music leanings, was part of an opening act for Norman’s group at the Exit/In in Nashville. Their meeting that night became the basis for a life-long relationship in marriage and music that has taken them around the world and garnered multiple Grammy nominations and overwhelming critical acclaim. Together and in collaboration with others, they’ve forged a sound unlike anything else in bluegrass or old-time music – an elegant and complex weave of stringed instruments and honest, open-hearted voices. Norman and Nancy Blake’s unique musical chemistry has provided its own kind of answer for many thousands of music fans seeking timeless integrity in an increasingly, accelerated world.
Norman has never stayed away long from his own home in Sulphur Springs. He’s toured and traveled, adventured and gallivanted, but he always comes back to his home in north Georgia. For 30 years, he and Nancy have lived in the same large farm house just down the country road from where he grew up and went to grade school. He was born in March of 1938 in nearby Chattanooga but grew up in Sulphur Springs near the Alabama/Georgia state line. The biggest deal there was the train depot, which has loomed large in many of Norman’s songs, like Slow Train Through Georgia and Green Light on the Southern. “This was pretty far back down in the country,” he says, “And the railroad running through there all during my growing up years was just the biggest happening around. The railroad was the main thing we had to relate to. There was a lot of colorful railroad action on the AGS Railroad – the steam and the green and gold locomotives; it was quite a scene. It certainly stirred the blood.”
Blake left home, quitting school at age 16, to play mandolin in his first band. The Dixie Drifters, on the WNOX ‘radio barn dance’ out of Knoxville, then on TV in Rome, GA. In 1956 he hooked up with banjo player, Bob Johnson, with whom he made some recordings and had several guest spots on the Grand Ole Opry. Norman was drafted, and while stationed as a radio operator in the Panama Canal, he formed a bluegrass band. Once home, Norman taught guitar and commuted to Nashville to play sessions. He found a place in June Carter’s road band which led to recording sessions with Johnny Cash which began a 45 year friendship and musical relationship. Then, in 1969, an offer to be in the house band for Johnny Cash‘s television show moved Blake to Nashville. That’s when his talents really became valued by country-folk royalty: he played guitar and dobro on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album, he toured and recorded with Kris Kristofferson and then Joan Baez, he teamed up with John Hartford, Tut Taylor and Vassar Clements to make the progressive and influential Aereo Plain album. About the same time, he was invited to take part in perhaps the most important summit of country, folk and bluegrass music of the era, 1973’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken featuring the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Norman and Nancy began touring together in 1974 and were married a year later. An early recording, Live At McCabe’s, showcased Norman at his virtuoso best and Nancy as a sensitive musical collaborator. The album, issued on CD in 1999, took on the stature of a cult classic. With fiddler James Bryan, they formed the Rising Fawn String Ensemble, a finely balanced old-time group whose subtleties and complexities inspired critics to dub their music ‘chamber-folk.’ In the 1990’s, the Blakes’ recordings spawned a string of consecutive Grammy nominations.
Music producer T-Bone Burnett invited Norman to be a ground floor participant in creating and recording the music for the 2000 Coen Brothers motion picture, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. As a result, the critically acclaimed soundtrack includes two selections featuring Norman, You Are My Sunshine and the instrumental version of Man of Constant Sorrow. The multi-platinum recording arguably became the largest impact soundtrack recording for old-time country and bluegrass music of all time. Norman and Nancy subsequently participated in all three of the major national tours which featured select artists from this recording phenomenon. The Blakes also lent their talents to two additional T-Bone Burnett soundtracks; Cold Mountain and Walk the Line. The November 2006 issue of Acoustic Guitar Magazine quoted Burnett on Blake, “Norman is a true hero. He’s one of a handful of the best acoustic guitar players in the world. He’s learned hundreds of country songs, including rags, instrumental tunes, and fiddle numbers, knowing the influences and nuances of every one. He should be an absolutely revered musician. I will continue to champion Norman Blake to the end of my days.”
The duo’s 2005 recording, Back Home In Sulphur Springs didn’t depart radically from previous albums by the Blakes. Like its Grammy nominated predecessor, The Morning Glory Ramblers, Back Home was recorded at the Western Jubilee Warehouse in Colorado Springs, which Nancy describes as their ‘home away from home.’ Like their music, the sessions were somewhat spontaneous. “Sometimes it’s just what you feel like that day,” Norman says, “In fact, this new one is very much that way, it’s very unscripted. Of course I’ve done that on shows a lot of times. A great deal of the time you just play a number in front of people and that dictates what you play next. And if you have a big backlog of stuff to draw on, that helps, of course.”
That backlog is one of the enviable repertoires in American music, a vast catalog of songs from the famous to the obscure that allows the Blakes to pick tunes the painters pick colors. Plectrafone Records’ 2007 release, Shacktown Road, was a full circle project reuniting Norman and Nancy with old friend and dobro legend, Tut Taylor. It had been 35 years since Norman and Tut last recorded together on Aereo Plain. Tut stated, “I have dreamed of doing one more project with my friend and hero – guitar player, Norman Blake.” With the addition of Nancy’s magical colors on cello, mandola, mandolin, and guitar, the painting was complete. 2007 also found the Martin Guitar Company introduced a second Norman Blake Signature Edition 000-18 guitar. This, along with Blake’s 2004, 000-28 Signature Edition, is being offered by Martin on a non-limited, ongoing basis. Plectrafone Records 2009 release of Rising Fawn Gathering was recorded at the Blake’s farm in Georgia. The result of a 30 year vision, this collaboration of
Boys of the Lough who traveled from Edinburgh, Scotland, James and Rachel Bryan from Alabama and Norman and Nancy Blake recorded a brilliant fusion of traditions. “Not just another Celtic Hillbilly Record.”
As they have for decades, with 37 recordings and countless collaborations, the Blakes continue to show us that old songs and old musical values have a great deal to tell us and teach us about our contemporary lives. Technology is changing music more radically than it has since the radio and phonograph mixed up America’s regional music into a vast creative smelting forge. But in Norman and Nancy’s hands, the rawest ingredients of voices, stringed instruments and sturdy songs demonstrate that purity is still possible and truth is still the brightest, strongest metal of all. Some artists of Norman’s generation have breathed life into their careers by collaborating with jam bands and other young musicians. But Norman has chosen to look inward instead. “It’s the music that I want to make,” he says, “I don’t have those kind of career aspirations. I enjoy playing music with Nancy. When we can do something good that’s an accomplishment to me.” And Nancy is content with carrying the music back home to the porch and the living room, where, symbolically and literally, it was born.
Norman and Nancy are Grammy Award Winning Artists, who are archived in the Library of Congress as National Treasures. They will be performing a benefit concert for the April 27th Tornado victims of Dade County, GA, in which they live. The concert will be November 19, 2011 at 7 PM EST at the Dade County High School Auditorium located in Trenton, GA. There will be limited seating and the price of admission will be $15.00. For more information and directions, please call Dade Organization Acting in Disaster at 706-657-3233 ext. 364. This event is sponsored by the Dade County Sheriff Department.