Norman Blake: An Appreciation

Norman Blake is my favorite guitar player, at least my favorite old time/bluegrass/country/and more guitar picker, and one of my favorite songwriters. This probably colors my view of his work and affects my objectivity, so bear it in mind when reading what follows. Although Norman Blake has made bluegrass recordings and is very highly regarded in bluegrass, his music defies categorization. My best description of his music is in the first sentence of this essay, but it doesn’t cover the range of Blake’s output. Like Doc Watson’s, Blake’s music is a style unto itself.

In addition to his guitar mastery, Blake had the good fortune, or perhaps made the good fortune, to be in the right place at the right time, at the center of some of the most ground breaking acoustic music from the later 1960s through the 1970s-80s. Consider: Nashville A-list studio session man whose credits include Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline,” member of Johnny Cash’s band on guitar and dobro, dobroist on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” three-LP recorded spectacular, member of John Hartford’s influential Aereo-Plain Band, recording artist whose own albums, including “The Fields Of November” and others with his wife Nancy, set a new standard of songwriting and instrumental excellence and introduced “southern chamber music” to the old-time country world, and his 1980s collaborations with fellow guitar virtuoso Tony Rice. Any one of these achievements would have made a reputation; together they give a sense of Blake’s extraordinary breadth and depth.

Norman Blake was born in 1938 in Chattanooga, Tennessee and grew up in Georgia. He has been a full time music professional since his teens, and during the 1950s was working with bands on radio. By 1960 he was touring with June Carter, and he subsequently toured and recorded with Johnny Cash. By the late 1960s his talents were recognized in Nashville, if not yet more widely. On one episode of Johnny Cash’s television show, Cash produced an index card from his pocket containing a question from a fan: “Who is that great guitar player sitting behind you?” After joking for a moment, Cash responded, “That’s Norman Blake!” By this time Blake had mastered not only guitar but also dobro, mandolin, and fiddle. In addition to Bob Dylan, Blake’s recording credits included Joan Baez (including her hit “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) and Kris Kristofferson.

In 1971, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a group of young musicians who then played a modern take on old time country music, arrived in Nashville to make an album with country music’s old guard, including such Opry stalwarts as Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, and Mother Maybelle Carter. The band had a huge hit earlier in 1971 with a Jerry Jeff Walker song, “Mr. Bojangles,” and that probably opened doors for them in Nashville. Most of the dobro on the resulting three record album, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” was played by Pete Kirby, a/k/a Bashful Brother Oswald, Acuff’s longtime banjo and dobro player. But Norman Blake, who played dobro in a more contemporary style, added his licks to several cuts, including a splendid solo on Earl Scruggs’s minor key banjo instrumental “Nashville Blues.” The “Circle” album was a hit (at least by bluegrass/old time country standards) and introduced many people to this music and to Norman Blake.

Norman Blake once said, “Some folks have said that Nashville in the early 70s was in a way like Paris in the 1920s, in the sense of artistic creations and exchange of ideas.” Blake was a key figure in this musical ferment. By the early 1970s he was playing with John Hartford, dobroist and mandolinist Tut Taylor, and Bill Monroe alumnus fiddler Vassar Clements in the Aereo-Plain Band (a/k/a Dobrolic Plectral Society). Hartford was an amazingly creative songwriter and musician, a fiddler steeped in old time music, and a banjo player whose style was quirky and innovative. In the late 1960’s he had written “Gentle On My Mind,” a hit for Glen Campbell that may be the most often recorded song in country music. Several songs from the band’s first recording, “Aereo-Plain,” including “Vamp In The Middle,” and “Steam Powered Aereo Plane,” became favorites in the genre that came to be called newgrass.

While all this was happening, Norman Blake began a prolific recording career of his own. In 1972, Rounder released “Back Home In Sulphur Springs,” titled after the Georgia town he grew up in. On this record, Blake established himself as not only one of acoustic music’s hottest guitar players (see his take on the old fiddle tune “Cattle In The Cane”), but also as a songwriter and singer whose work rivaled the best of his day (“Ginseng Sullivan” and “Orphan Annie”).

His recordings “The Fields of November” and “Old and New” featured Nancy Short, who married Blake, on cello and viola, instruments not commonly heard on acoustic country records of that time. Nancy Blake brought her classical training and elegant musicianship to Norman’s music, and the resulting tunes had a chamber music flavor. On “Greenleaf Fancy,” Norman plays fiddle, Nancy cello, and Charlie Collins guitar. “The Fields of November” also contained what is likely Blake’s best known song, “Last Train From Poor Valley,” about a poor coal miner’s wife who just can’t stay when the mine shuts down. “Old And New” features another Blake classic, “Billy Gray,” about a woman’s devotion to the memory of her young outlaw love. If you’ve got a heartstring, these songs will tug on it for sure. And Norman’s album “Whiskey Before Breakfast” included another classic Blake composition, “Church Street Blues,” which Tony Rice later recorded.

Although Norman Blake is one of the best guitarists of his era, he has been careful to use his superb technique to make the song better, rather than to call attention to his technical flash. One possible exception, and boy is it fun to listen to, is “Live At McCabe’s,” from the 1970s, which captures Blake’s friendly relaxed manner and simply stupendous flatpicking. Listen to “Nine Pound Hammer.” Maybe the energy from an adoring audience encouraged him to rear back and let the notes fly.

In the 1980s, Blake recorded two albums with Tony Rice, which featured the two guitar legends picking and singing together. Although their guitar styles are very different, their music blends seamlessly, as on “Texas Gales” and “Lost Indian” (the latter also features guitar legend Doc Watson).

More recently, in 2019, Norman Blake and mandolinist Mike Compton released “Gallop To Georgia,” a collection of instrumentals originally recorded by the legendary Mississippi fiddle and guitar duet Narmour & Smith in the late 1920s and early 30s. In keeping with the spirit of the originals, Norman declined Mike’s invitation to play some guitar leads, content to accompany Mike’s mandolin with his flawless rhythm guitar. For Norman Blake, the music always comes first.

View “Gallop To Georgia”

Finally, and just for fun, at 9:24 of the following video, Norman plays twin mandolins with Tut Taylor on the good old “Golden Slippers.” Attention mandolin players-even with the key change, this is a clear and easy twin arrangement to learn and play.

4 Responses

  • Thanks Andy , I like the way Norman Blake stays planted on a chord formation when streaming through a melody -he is one of my favorites too! I can recall in my younger days laboring to learn Whiskey Before Breakfast, no one does it like he does.

  • Andy! Joe Haney here. My little band lives on in the DC area (Nancy and I are in Alexandria, around Old Town and Del Ray.) You can check us out at Shedkickers.com; the recordings are from several years ago. The guitar player/singer Marty has since passed; Mark Whitney and I play with his sons. It’s crazy to read your piece because I’ve been listening to much Blake and Rice recently … and comparing their breaks. I hope you and your loved ones are doing well. I retired six years ago and have been traveling with Nancy and friends as much as possible to Mediterranean countries. Maybe Greek bouzouki is next for me. Check out the music of Mikis Theodorakis.

  • Andy it’s great that you shined a light on Norman and his music. He has just released yet another album, and he’s way up in his 80s and has recovered from a stroke several years ago that TEMPORARILY stole his ability to play — but he WORKED and got it back.

    Just this month I had a terrific shock when Tim O’Brien of Hot Rize Facebook Messaged me with a photo of the 1960 cast of the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree. There were plenty of recognizable bluegrassers in the shot like Jimmy Martin with JD Crowe and Paul Williams, and others. Who was lined up in the front row but Hylo Brown and the Timberliners, and one of his sidemen was NORMAN BLAKE in a short haircut (nearly-military, and he was in the Army about then). So your line about Norman “working in radio” is borne out by that photo!

    Norman’s work proves that a country/bluegrass guitar man doesn’t HAVE to play a big D Martin. In his later years he has come to prefer smaller bodied Martins like 0 and 00. He said he got so he didn’t like playing “a kitchen table” so much any more!

    I always hoped I could achieve as much with my poor voice as Norman did with his.

    I was introduced to Norman and his music by Herb Applin, who had gone completely ga-ga over Norman’s original flat-picking in the early 1970s.

    Nice article.

  • Thanks Bob, Joe and Dick. I appreciate all your comments. It’s good to hear from you. And thanks Dick for the Norman Blake updates, especially the good news that Norman has recovered and is still making great music.

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