Appeared in: Volume 11, Number 2 Published on October 10, 2015
That Rural Sound
A conversation with Norman Blake, direct from Sulfur Springs, Georgia, somewhatly about American acoustic guitar music.
Norman Blake is one of the greatest living American folk-style musicians, known primarily for his guitar playing, but he also has recorded on mandolin, fiddle, and other stringed things. He has made many albums under his own name and, with his wife Nancy and others, under the imprimatur of the Rising Fawn String Ensemble. Although Norman is a legend among acoustic folk musicians and music connoisseurs from a large range of styles, most Americans have never heard of him. That’s because he has eschewed the commercial side of the industry, staying true and close to the roots of American music; he still lives in Sulfur Springs, the small town in north Georgia where he grew up. He is also a collector and student of that root music—and of the instruments it is played on—and a skilled composer of new music in traditional styles.
But even if they don’t recognize his name, more Americans have heard Norman Blake play than think they have. That’s because aside from his own albums, Norman has recorded and performed with (among others) Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, June Carter, Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, John Hartford, Chet Atkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe, Robert Plant, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Reese Witherspoon, Kris Kristofferson, and many others. He has also played on several noteworthy movie soundtracks, including O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Cold Mountain, Walk the Line, and Inside Llewyn Davis.
This year, at age 77, Norman released Wood, Wire, and Words, his first album of only self-composed music in thirty years, and his first album containing self-composed ballads in forty years. The tunes on this album speak of a simpler time. The instrumentals, which Blake calls country rags, sound a century old. The ballads, stories like “Incident at Congress Switch”, “Along the Old Natchez Trace”, and outlaw tales like “Black Bart” and “Joseph Thompson Hare”, capture the past so vividly that it’s hard to believe Norman wrote them anew for the album.
I spoke with Norman some weeks ago about guitars and the new album, as well as Norman’s philosophy of musical life, for want of a better phrase. We didn’t rehearse, and it came out something like this.
Peter Goldenthal: You’re very well known as a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and composer of country music. Fewer people, I think, know about your vast knowledge of guitars, especially Martin guitars, so I’d like to begin by asking you about that. I know of two Norman Blake Martin Signature Models: the 000-28 (triple O) and the 000-28B. Is that correct?
Norman Blake: Those guitars are not in production. I don’t think Martin is doing any signature guitars at the moment. What we had was a 000-28B, which was Brazilian Rosewood; that’s what the “B” stood for. Then we had the 000-28, which was Indian Rosewood. There weren’t many of the Brazilian Rosewood models made. I’m not sure about it, but I want to say fifty some odd maybe got made, and the Indian Rosewood models went up into, I don’t know, two or three hundred, I think. And then there was a 000-18 also. So there was really three models at one point.
PG: The 000-18 would be mahogany, then?
NB: Yes, it would. And of course it would be a cheaper guitar.
PG: Is the 000 your favorite size?
NB: Not necessarily. I seem to gravitate a lot to them, but it just happens to be the next step down from a D model. I also like, I favor probably, really if you want to get down to brass and tacks, my favorite Martins probably—and what I always considered the most consistently really good guitars that they made—were the 00 (double-oh) size, the 12 fret 00.
PG: The slot head?
NB: Yeah, the 12 fret 00 with slot head, 12 fret neck. Most all 00s are just really consistently good guitars.
PG: I’ve read that you once owned a very early modified Hawaiian guitar, was it a ’35?
NB. A long time ago. I think what you’re referring to there it was a nineteen and thirty-four D-18H, which was converted. Right: I owned that guitar and played it for a number of years.
PG: Is that the guitar on the cover of Wood, Wire, and Words?
NB: That’s a 1928 00-45, and I used a 000-28B signature model on two cuts. But the bulk of that album is a 1928 00-45 Martin.
PG: Does the particular instrument make a difference to your playing?
NB: Yeah, yeah: They’re all different.
PG: They’re different in the emotion you’re able to convey through them?
MP: Somewhatly, I think. Yeah; they affect what you do. Partly it’s because of the particular sound, the intonation, but also the playability. Playability means an awful lot to me. I’ve never liked to fight guitars like some folks seem to do.
PG: What do you believe contributes the most to the playability and intonation you’re looking for?
NB: There’s no set rule you could put your finger on. Some just turn out better than others where intonation is concerned. And the playability—you could have two guitars set up exactly the same way and they’re still not going to have the same feel. Different instruments have different string tensions and things like that; it’s just part of their innate quality, and that governs how they respond and how they feel.
PG: I’ve read that you have a preference for bar frets.
NB: A long time ago I swore by them, but I haven’t used them in years. Used to be that when I was playing really fast and on a big guitar I found I could get around in a real staccato fashion on them; they were high, and they had a feel. But they have their drawbacks. Sliding on them, no matter how well they’re worked and everything, particularly backward, down slides, you get hung up on them and they just don’t play. They’re zither frets is what they are, and you get hung up on them. One reason I got away from the bar fret was that I found I was sort of letting them dictate to me what and how I played certain things. I would start to play something and I would rethink it as I was starting to play it because I knew I couldn’t do it like I wanted to on those frets, and I said: “Well that’s not right, to have to sort of edit yourself as you go due to the instrument.” So I started going away from them and using more modern frets. But I still like high frets; I want them to be up there in the 46 thousandths at least range, 46 to fifty thousandths high.
PG: Let’s move now to the new album, which by one count is at least is your 39th. The ballads on Wood, Wire and Words sound to me like they’ve been around forever, that you must have learned them from your grandfather. But I know you wrote them recently. How do you do that?
NB: I’ve said for many years that all I’ve ever tried to do when I was writing is to have a total respect for the old music, for the old stuff. And I just hope that I can write something that’s as good, or on a parallel or a par, with some of the old things that I know. So that’s my goal, to write and operate within that world of tradition. I’m grounded in that, so it comes out that way. I just try to write something as good as the old stuff.
PG: Well, a lot of people seem to think you’ve done that.
NB: They’ve accused me of that. [laughs]
PG: The ballads are based on true stories?
NB: Yeah, they are. “Congress Switch” happened over across the river in Tennessee, about 35 miles from where I live. I read that scenario in a railroad history book of the area. I like railroad books and things. I had never heard that story before, and I don’t think many other people ever have. I came across it in a fairly obscure little railroad publication. And “Joseph Thompson Hare” is just another figure in the outlaw thing that’s in the local literature. That one is taken from factual accounts of his life and career as an outlaw, as is “Black Bart”, the same sort of thing.
So these are factual historic accounts of these people. I do that sometimes. I write from just the historical accounts. If something moves me, something just will grab me that you can write a song about, and nobody’s done it for these obscure people that nobody knows. I always feel like they deserve a ballad as much as Jesse James or somebody that’s more well known.
PG: I’d like to talk with you about one of your earlier songs, from an album called “Blackberry Blossom” that was released in 1977—a song called “Highland Light”
NB: It’s been a long time since I sang that one.
PG: It starts “All up and down the Blue Ridge Mountain chain—”
NB: “—they’re strippin’ coal,/ Sellin’ it across the sea to Japan, so I’m told./ See the mighty wheels of progress turn and the lanes of commerce run./ A cornucopia of junk it flows from the land of the rising sun.”
PG: Right, and it continues: “All across this mighty country, friend, the oak trees turn to gold—”
NB: “But we can’t afford our timber; we cannot buy our coal,/ ‘Cause the foreigners want houses, lifestyles like ours they see,/ So we trade our own resources for transistorized TVs.” It’s about all the crap they were selling—transistors and stuff, radios, and TVs.
PG: What about the oak trees turning to gold?
NB: We’re shipping so much of it out, it’s driving the prices up, it’s making it more scarce here because of the overseas markets. And it still goes on today. Lumber is like solid gold.
PG: That song makes a pretty strong political statement. Does it reflect your political ideas today?
NB: My view of the current situation?
NB: We’re very antiwar. We’re leftists I guess you might say. We’re Democrats. Nancy wants Bernie Sanders. We don’t believe in guns or in war. We’re concerned about the environment and endangered species.
PG: Isn’t that unusual in the rural South?
NB: There’s like-minded people everywhere. There’s plenty of people like us. We’re just outnumbered.
PG: I’d like to ask you a bit more about the song. It continues, “So get on board—”
NB: “—the Highland Light, train of my fantasy,/ And ride to hell or glory makes no never mind to me./ This train she’s not crowded and the ticket there is free,/ But it’s a long hot dusty ride backwards to 1933.”
PG: What’s the significance of 1933?
NB: Well, ’33 was just some mystical year somehow, particularly in the instrument world. There was a lot of guitars made in ’33. As to the political situation of the times or the historic things—well, I don’t know that I had any real meaning other than just being obscurely poetic, shall we say. There’s a lot of fantasy in that song too. But the train itself, the Highland Light, that was a real locomotive. It was a classic American type locomotive, what they called a 4-4-0, with four leading trucks, four drive wheels and no trailing wheels. It was a William Mason, I believe, made in Massachusetts.
PG: But you sing, “train of my fantasy.”
NB: Yeah, because riding on that train would have been a fantasy in 1933, seeing as how that locomotive was built in the 19th century. So I’m just stringing that together for whatever poetic reason that made sense to me at the time. I guess there isn’t a real hard core meaning there, just a vehicle to write a chorus or whatever.
PG: Any fantasies about living back then?
NB: Well, I do relate to the ’20s and ’30s pretty hard. I like those times. They certainly had their drawbacks, but I came up in a rural environment, raised by older people; there were grandparents in the house along with my parents and, I don’t know, the era of the Dust Bowl and all that. The Woody Guthrie-type songwriting thing, and those times and the upbringing that I had, like I say, was in a rural environment, and all that just somehow feels like a magical thing for me.
PG: So that upbringing is behind your songwriting, too?
NB: Somewhatly, somewhatly.
PG: The Blake family genealogy I found says that Thomas Kincaid Blake was born in South Carolina on November 24, 1776, and lists somebody even earlier than that.
NB: Thomas Kincaid Blake born in 1776, Chester, South Carolina. That’s correct. Who have you got earlier?
PG: The source I found says that William Blake, his father, was born in 1740.
NB: Okay. That I don’t know about.
PG: Are there stories of these people you grew up on?
NB: No, not so much that. That came down in later years. Y’know that William Blake’s son, or one of his sons, was Rufus Independence Greene Blake, who was my paternal great-grandfather. I certainly heard about him growing up with his son, my grandfather Larkin Blake.
Thomas Kincaid Blake also came in through the genealogy-type information, and all about him—and I know where he is interred and everything, not far from here, in fact within four miles from here. The cemetery is virtually nonexistent; somebody ran a bulldozer through there about 35 years ago and destroyed what little evidence there was. It was an old cemetery in the woods. But he’s there, and his wife, and I know they were in Roan County, Tennessee, prior to that, and Roan County was like a territory more, you know it wasn’t just a county; it encompassed a good bit of land, as some territories did in those days. And he came down here to Georgia and Alabama with his second wife.
And Rig Blake is down here, too; his grave is in Alabama at this cemetery about four miles from here. And Thomas Kincaid Blake had more than one son, and my understanding is that he also had the name Independence since he was born in ’76, and two or three of his sons after him did, too. They called my great-grandfather Rig, short for Rufus Independence Green Blake; yeah, so his nickname was Rig. And then his son, my grandfather, was Larkin Servetis Blake. I named one of my sons Larkin, Carnes Larkin—Carnes being a family name on my grandmother’s side.
PG: Are any of your children musicians?
NB: No, they’re not. They could have been, I think. One of them, Corance Larkin, could have been. He has the disposition of a rock ’n’ roller, so it’s kind of rough if you have that kind of disposition and don’t play. We certainly never tried to force that on them. I would never try to force it on anyone.
PG: Do you have any thoughts about the current use of the term “country music?” It doesn’t seem to be the same as the music you’re talking about.
NB: Oh, you mean so-called country music today? No, they’re not talking about what I’m talking about, not at all. Real country music is rural music, a lot of it old music that’s gone before, and people who are still playing rural music. I include myself in that. I play rural music. Many people play things today they call country music but that’s really a form of rock and roll in the commercial world. There’s nothing country about it. It’s an insult for them to call it that. Urban music, studio rock and roll, those kinds of things, that’s not country music just because there’s a fiddle or a pedal steel stuck on the track.
PG: I read somewhere—and I was surprised by this—that you learned to play guitar from Mother Maybelle Carter.
NB: I didn’t learn from her. I was around her. I was exposed to her some in my working with Johnny Cash. And I was friends with her, but I didn’t learn from her. I mean, I learned from hearing her on records, but not directly because by the time I got to know her she had physical limitations with her age, and it didn’t permit her to play much.
PG: On Wood, Wire, and Words, the ballads and the instrumentals convey very different emotions.
NB: They’re just in different styles. The instrumentals are in a ragtime style, and that’s a genre all its own. And it’s something I like, and it’s different than the other stuff on the record, different than the flat pick stuff, certainly.
PG: They’re upbeat, and the ballads are all kind of sad.
NB: The instrumentals, the ragtime-type instrumentals that I’ve made, are what I would refer to as country rags. They’re not like Joplin rags. They’re like stuff people out in the country might play. Particularly in years gone by, we had a lot of African-American guitarists that played in those kinds of styles, so I’m thinking more in that vein. I always say one of my favorites was Mississippi John Hurt. There were so many good blues guitarists around that played in that style. I’d say it’s just another tip of the hat to older music, but to a little different style than country.
The other side is more country, where the songs are more serious and sadder. I’ve always had a like for sadder music. Country music always told a story of some kind and sometimes happy stories are not as easy to write or not as prevalent as incidents where things don’t go right.
PG: Tragedy makes for a good story, I guess.
NB: Yeah, tragedy—and sometimes the comical–tragical, as the Shakespeareans say.
PG: Can you name some other blues musicians besides Mississippi John Hurt who’ve influenced you?
NB: Well, I’m certainly not comparing myself or putting myself into his league, but there’s one great guitarist back there: Blind Blake. Blind Blake was an incredible guitarist who makes us all want to lay down the guitar. Reverend Gary Davis is one that was around in later years, and there’s just a lot of other old folks out in the country. Some of ‘em didn’t make records or even have names people knew. I had a cousin that taught me to play. He played the fiddle, but he could also play that kind of guitar. A lot of folks could kinda do that back in the sticks here. Whether they was black or white.
PG: And you are still performing, but only locally?
NB: Mostly locally, yeah. My wife Nancy and I quit the road in 2007. We had had enough, and we wanted to come back home to our place here in Georgia. We were just out there too much, and it was too hard on us. We were getting older, and we just did it all on the ground; we didn’t fly anywhere. We were just getting to where we could not stand any more looking down the highway. And then I’ve had some health problems the last few years, so we just don’t do anything if we can’t get back home to our own bed at night.
PG: It sounds like it’s a wonderful place to live, too, where you are.
NB: Yeah, we were talking about that today in fact, she and I were. We were looking at the television and they were showing some places where we had been through the years—out West and such. Just beautiful places and we both kinda felt like, well yeah, that was a beautiful place to be, but the feeling that we got out of it was that we could think it was beautiful and we’d been there, but if we were there the feeling that would overwhelm us, then and now, is thinking how far it was from home. We get that homesick feeling we used to get, even if we just see it on the TV.
PG: That feeling comes across in your music: It’s about home, but home is a time as well as a place, isn’t it?
NB: Yeah, I think that there’s a nostalgia thing that’s indirect in some of the things I do, I suppose. That vibe gets in it. I have some kind of a thing about that which I don’t fully understand myself; but I can certainly see it in my writing and things when it’s on paper.
PG: I think when people listen to your music they imagine you sitting on your porch, or they imagine themselves sitting on a porch.
NB: Well yeah, I’ve heard that. I’ve seen that in print and things.
PG: Do you ever do that? Just sit on the porch and play?
NB: I play a great deal just for myself. Yeah, we play, and we play with our friends. When we do work now, Nancy and I had the group The Rising Fawn String Ensemble, which was a trio with James Bryan, the fiddler that’s in the area here, and we’ve been playing together over forty years. Then we have another fella now that’s a friend of mine, a younger fella that’s playing some with us, Joel McCormick. So we’re just playing kind of with people we know or that we’ve known for so many years and friends and things like that. Even when we go out and do a little show of some kind, that’s basically what it is.
PG: Do you have any advice for young musicians who are playing bluegrass music?
NB: I would hesitate to say, not knowing the people and not knowing what they sound like and what they do. And bluegrass is such a broad term nowadays, too. What anyone’s concept of bluegrass is, and what he wants to play, and where his head is, all that’s an unknown factor to me. I’d have to hear them to know if they want to play the old stuff or if they play what folks call bluegrass these days—since bluegrass has gotten to be sort of a fad music that lots of folks play, and they call it by that name.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that the new stuff is not good. There’s some of the greatest musicians in the world, young people, playing today. They’re trying to make a living, just like I did. I mean my favorite band right now of the young people is The Punch Brothers. I think that’s a wonderful group. Chris Thile is a genius and so is everyone in that band, but they don’t get out there and say, “we’re playing bluegrass.” They’re playing what they play, and they play it damn well. Nobody plays it better. But there’s a lot of things masquerading as bluegrass, under the influence of commercialism, that are getting credit for being bluegrass—and some of that I don’t get in line with quite as hard. It’s just hard for me to like it. I’m too traditionally oriented, I guess.
PG: How did you manage not to be drawn in by the commercial world?
NB: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve tried to not go over into that. I’ve had to do it to make a living sometimes. I’ve had to work with people in commercial environments. But when I did my own music, I tried to move into what I felt was honest and what was me. When I was making recordings, no matter how good or bad they may be, any of them, I was just searching for some kind of truth when the red light came on, is what I always liked to say. I just did not want to be putting on an act. It was just how I sounded that day. I always felt that making records was like that: Every day is different. You play different every day and you go in the studio and that’s how you sound that day.
PG: Listening to your music, it’s clear that you know what you love and are doing what you love.
NB: Yeah. I couldn’t put on an act. I have to do what I like, or it wouldn’t work for me. Some people have the gift to cross over that line and go right on down any kind of a commercial avenue with their music, but it never worked for me. People have said that I stuck by what I was doing or whatnot, but one reason I’ve done that is I felt I couldn’t do anything else. I was just not the vocalist or the musician or the songwriter to cross into that world of writing songs that were obviously commercial or playing music that was obviously slanted to a broader audience. I had to stick a little closer to the whatever there, if you know what I mean.
PG: I think I do, Norman. Just one more question: If a person wanted to hear you perform, would they have to come here to Sulfur Springs?
NB: Well, not exactly. We just played the Boxcar Pinion Memorial Bluegrass Festival Thursday night, for example, and we played the Gordon County Fiddlers’ Convention in Calhoun, Georgia—that’s not Sulfur Springs. We’ll be in Rome, Georgia soon. All those places are all within 65 miles of home or less, true—but they’re not Sulfur Springs.
I ventured out further last year. The longest trip I took last year was about 135, 140 miles, all the way to Athens, Georgia to play the North Georgia Folk Festival. That’s the longest trip that I’ve made other than to go to Nashville. We went to Nashville and made some sessions there. We were involved in a remake of Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears album. I think I might be the only person left alive that was on the original session. Listen to the Wind, or something like that, is the title of it. It’s on Sony. They had a lot of people there to make that: Kris Kristofferson, Emmy Lou Harris, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, the Milk Carton Kids—it was quite a project there. Nancy did a track and I did a track.
Let me inject one other thing, too, where Nancy’s concerned. I don’t know if you know, not a lot of people know it: She’s in that current movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, with a little part. She plays the traditional folksinger that comes up from Arkansas and gets insulted by Llewyn Davis at the Gaslight in 1961. And she’s on the soundtrack, also. I am, too, playing behind her. Yeah, she’s got a song on the soundtrack album of that movie, too, a Carter Family song.
PG: Thanks again, Norman. It’s been a pleasure.
NB: Happy to talk to you. Thanks for coming down.