Listening to this disc, I wished that I had no idea who Ron Block is or any of the things he’s done in his career. By any measure, he’s done a lot, most notably as a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station for twenty years. On his own, he’s released two collections prior to this one, and they—as this one—are populated by a lot of very high-powered musical friends. His previous releases were more overtly dedicated to his gospel writing, which can often come off as preachy and lacking much depth or dimension.
This disc, Walking Song, is the first of his albums that I’ve really loved, and there is a lot to love. The musicianship is really beyond compare, and the guests comprise a group of players that is simply hard to get enough of. The main ‘band’ throughout this project is Union Station, with Krauss and Dan Tyminski taking turns on backing vocals, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Barry Bales on bass. Other guests who appear here include Sierra Hull, Sam Bush, and Mike Compton on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. Also sharing vocals are Suzanne Cox and the stunning Kate Rusby. Like I said, there’s a lot to love, and all of it works brilliantly. Block isn’t a scintillating lead singer, perhaps, and his delivery can be flat, but the material and the settings make up for the shortfall. The material ranges from old-time (“Devil in a Strawstack”) to folk (“Summer’s Lullaby,” “Chase Me to the Ocean”) to traditional bluegrass (“Nickel Tree Line,” “Shortnin’ Bread”) to celtic (“The Fields of Aidlewinn”).
Throughout, it’s a lovely tour through some great ideas and sounds. The album is relaxed, free of some of the big ideas that he’s tried to present in the past, and the collection really benefits from the lighter approach. “Some of these songs are just fun,” says Block. ”They’re fun and they’re sweet and they’re just for a moment of relief or respite from the hum-drum everyday world. ‘Ivy’ is one of those, just a sweet little song. It’s not some grand philosophical idea; it’s a guy wanting to get back home.”
I wished that I didn’t know anything of his history because I wonder how it would be to come at this material absolutely fresh, with no baggage in terms of expectations, or all those thoughts that tend to crowd in. The reason is because this is an album that stands so beautifully, and brilliantly, on it’s own. If you had no idea of the background, you’d feel that you’d made a great discovery, and that in itself would be so exciting.
Anyway, it is what it is, which is easily one of the best albums released this year.