Norman Blake - Biography
BY J Poet
Norman Blake is a master of the guitar, mandolin, 6-string banjo, fiddle, dobro and banjo. He’s made more than 35 albums under his own name in as many years, both alone and with his wife Nancy, but he’s just as famous for his work as a sideman as he is for his own considerable contributions to bluegrass, country, and other acoustic genres. He’s been nominated for seven Grammys and finally won his first for Record of the Year for his contribution to the Oh Brother! Where Art Thou Soundtrack (2000 Lost Highway).
Blake was born Tennessee, but grew up in rural Georgia, listening to the Grand Ole Opry and the records of the Monroe Brothers, Roy Acuff, and the Carter Family. Blake started playing the guitar before he was a teenager, as well as dobro, fiddle, and mandolin. He dropped out of high school to join the Dixie Drifters, a band with a regular spot on the Tennessee Barn Dance radio program. In 1956 he started the Lonesome Travelers. They made two albums for RCA before Blake left.
Blake was drafted in 1961. While in the service he put together the Fort Kobbe Mountaineers, voted the Best Instrumental Group of the Caribbean Command. After his discharge, he played country dances nights, taught guitar by day and traveled to often Nashville to play sessions. He became part of June Carter’s road band, which led to a steady gig in the house band of The Johnny Cash Show.
Blake played on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (1969 Columbia), toured and recorded with Kris Kristofferson and played mandolin on Joan Baez’s hit, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” He joined John Hartford’s band in 1971 and was one of the major players on Aereo-Plain (1971 Rounder) the first newgrass album. He also played on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972 United Artists) and took home a gold record for his efforts.
Blake’s career was already going strong when he released his solo debut Home in Sulphur Springs (1972 Rounder) which featured Tut Taylor from Hartford’s Aereo-plain Band on dobro. Its combination of traditional tunes and Blake compositions showed of his solid low-key virtuosity and is considered a classic for old time/bluegrass music. It’s listed as one of Acoustic Guitar magazine's top ten Bluegrass and Country recordings. Blake followed it with Going Places (1974 Flying Fish) and The Fields of November (1974 Flying Fish). Norman Blake/Tut Taylor/Sam Bush/Butch Robins/Vassar Clements/David Holland (1975 Flying Fish) had an unwieldy title, but it was a dazzling blend of jazz, swing, folk and bluegrass, another newgrass progenitor. His blend of traditional tunes and originals written in the old time style continued on Norman Blake and Red Rector (1976 County), a collaboration with mandolin master Red Rector, Whiskey Before Breakfast (1976 Rounder), Blackberry Blossom (1977 Flying Fish) and Directions (1978 Takoma).
He met and married Nancy Short Blake, another top-notch old time bluegrass player, in 1974. Over the years they’ve recorded many memorable albums including Rising Fawn String Ensemble (1979 Rounder) a band credited with inventing a mix of classical and traditional music dubbed chamber-folk, and the duo albums Blind Dog (1988 Rounder), Just Gimme Somethin' I'm Used To (1992 Shanachie), While Passing Along This Way (1994 Shanachie), and The Hobo's Last Ride (1996 Shanachie). Their duo albums were all nominated for Best Traditional Bluegrass Album Grammys. Blake also continued making splendid acoustic albums like Full Moon on the Farm (1980 Rounder), Original Underground Music (1982 Rounder), Nashville Blues (1984 Rounder), Lighthouse on the Shore (1985 Rounder), Slow Train through Georgia ( 1987 Rounder), and two duo albums with Tony Rice, Blake & Rice ( 1987 Rounder) and Norman Blake and Tony Rice 2 ( 1990 Rounder).
Blake only made three albums in the 90s, but they’re all keepers - Chattanooga Sugar Babe (Shanachie, 1998), Be Ready Boys: Appalachia to Abilene (Shanachie, 1999) with guitarist and singer Rich O’Brien, a celebration of folk styles with Blake playing guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and viola, and Far Away, Down on a Georgia Farm (Shanachie, 1999) another understated classic.
In 2000, T Bone Burnett asked Blake to help out with the Oh Brother! Where Art Thou Soundtrack (2000 Lost Highway). The album won a Record of the Year Grammy, Blake’s first after a lifetime of making fine records. Blake participated in the Down from the Mountain tour with other artists from the Oh Brother soundtrack, introducing him to thousands of new listeners. Burnett also brought black on board for another high profile old time music soundtrack Cold Mountain (2003 DMZ/Columbia).
The new century finds Blake still making old time music, but solo and with like minded collaborators. Flower From the Fields of Alabama (2001 Shanachie, 2001) which got him another Grammy nomination, Old Ties (2002 Rounder), Meeting on Southern Soil (Red House, 2002) an amazing performance of traditional tunes with Peter Ostroushko on fiddle, mandolin and mandola and Nancy Blake adding cello accents, and two more duo albums with his wife Nancy The Morning Glory Ramblers (Dualtone, 2004) and Back Home in Sulphur Springs (Dualtone, 2006). Shacktown Road (2007 Dualtone) reunites Norman and Nancy with their old pal Tut Taylor for more breathtaking picking and singing. In 2009 he released Rising Fawn Gathering, followed by Sleepy Eyed Joe that same year, and Green Light On The Southern in 2010.