Norman Blake has built his well-deserved reputation as a guitarist extraordinaire over the last 35 years, touring with Joan Baez, recording with Bob Dylan, and participating with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken project. Blake has received multiple Grammy nominations over the course of his career. Besides stints with John Hartford and Johnny Cash, Blake has recorded multiple solo and group albums for Rounder and Shanachie Records. "Blake maintains a stolidly original approach to traditional music," wrote Scott Nygaard in Acoustic Guitar, "and is well-recognized by the mainstream music world for the integrity of his vision."
Blake was born on March 10, 1938, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but his family soon moved to Georgia and he grew up in Sulphur Springs and Rising Fawn. Like many rural dwellers, he listened to country radio programs like the Grand Ole Opry on WSM out of Nashville, and was influenced by artists like the Monroe Brothers, Roy Acuff, and the Carter Family. At age eleven, Blake started playing the guitar and eventually learned to play the dobro, fiddle, and mandolin, making the young musician a one-man band. At age 16 he dropped out of school and joined the Dixie Drifters. The Dixie Drifters debuted in 1954 on Tennessee Barn Dance, a Knoxville radio program, and over the next two years also performed on WDOD radio and WROM-TV in Rome, Georgia. Blake left the group in 1956 and joined the Lonesome Travelers, and in the late 1950s the band recorded two albums with Walter Forbes for Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Although Blake left the band to join Hylo Brown and the Timberliners, he continued to perform with the Lonesome Travelers' banjo player, Bob Johnson, and together, they made several guest appearances on the Grand Ole Opry.
Blake was drafted into the United States Army in 1961 as a radio operator and was stationed in the Panama Canal for the next two years. He continued his musical development during this time, forming the Fort Kobbe Mountaineers, a bluegrass band that was voted the Best Instrumental Group of the Caribbean Command. On leave in 1962, Blake recorded 12 Shades of Bluegrass with the Lonesome Travelers, and in 1963 he returned to civilian life. Blake began giving guitar lessons at a music store in Chattanooga in the mid-1960s, teaching as many as 150 students per week. He also played fiddle at country and western dances several days a week. It was a lucky coincidence that he also learned about a blind guitarist named Doc Watson while working at the store. After listening to Watson's Vanguard albums, he began to develop his flatpicking skills. Blake told Nygaard, "I thought to myself, 'Good Lord, if this is what people like, hell, I could do this. I've been doing this off and on and nobody took it seriously.' So I started taking it more seriously."
In the mid-1960s Blake made a number of excursions to Nashville, recording with the Carter Family and traveling with June Carter's road group. He also befriended country music legend Johnny Cash, and when Blake moved to Nashville in 1969 he became part of the "Man in Black's" band on the summer TV program The Johnny Cash Show. Blake became a much-soughtafter session player, and performed on Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline. He toured and recorded as part of singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson's first band—Silver Tongue Devil—and played mandolin on Joan Baez's 1971 hit, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
Although Blake achieved both respect and fame in Nashville, he grew tired of new country-rock and longed to return to his traditional roots. In 1971 he joined John Hartford's band and contributed to the old-time music classic Aereo-Plain, an album that became a touchstone for young players like Sam Bush and John Cowan. The "Aereo-Plain" band soon fell apart, but Blake toured with Hartford for a year and a half and played guitar and dobro on his 1972 album Morning Bugle. He then sharpened his bluegrass skills for nine months in Red, White and Blue (grass), and received a gold record for his work on Will the Circle Be Unbroken in 1972.
The success of these projects helped Blake launch his solo career the same year with the release of Back Home in Sulfur Springs on Rounder Records. "Although he only got better over time," wrote Jim Smith in All Music Guide, "this record is among Blake's best."Back Home in Sulfur Springs was listed as one of Acoustic Guitar magazine's top ten Bluegrass and Country recordings. He also recorded Whiskey Before Breakfast with Charlie Collins in 1976 and Blake and Rice with guitarist Tony Rice in 1987.
In 1972 Blake met Nancy Short when her band, Natchez Trace, opened for him at the Exit-In in Nashville. The two married, and in 1974 began a 20-plus-year musical partnership. The Blakes recorded a series of four albums together: Blind Dog (1988), Just Gimme Somethin' I'm Used To (1992), While Passing Along This Way (1994), and The Hobo's Last Ride (1996). Each was nominated for a Grammy, along with Blake's solo effort, Chattanooga Sugar Babe (1998). In 1998 National Public Radio celebrated Blake's 60th birthday by interviewing the guitarist on All Things Considered. Never one to take the familiar path, Blake joined forces with Rich O'Brien for Be Ready Boys: Appalachia to Abilene in 1999, and participated on Johnny Cash's American III: Solitary Man in 2000.
Blake found himself cast into the spotlight in 2000, when he recorded "You Are My Sunshine" and an instrumental version of "The Man of Constant Sorrow" for the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The movie's soundtrack, much like Will the Circle Be Unbroken in the early 1970s, found a large audience by returning to country music's roots. "I think people are tired of music that comes out of Nashville," Blake told Seth Rogovoy on the Rogovoy Report website. "They appreciate old-fashioned string music if they have the chance to hear it." Blake also won his first Grammy and a Country Music Association award for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Despite multiple awards and a dedicated following, Blake retains a rare modesty concerning his accomplishments. "I never felt like I was technically brilliant," he told Nygaard. "I don't make records with that in mind. I try to make real music."
For the Record . . .
Born on March 10, 1938, in Chattanooga, TN; married Nancy Short.
Joined the Dixie Drifters, 1954, and the Lonesome Travelers, 1956; worked for Hylo Brown and the Tim berliners, 1959; hired for The Johnny Cash Show, 1969; worked as a session musician on Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline, 1969; joined John Hartford, 1971; initiated solo career, 1972; participated on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, 1972; performed two songs for the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000.
Awards: Grammy Award, Album of the Year for O Brother, Where Art Thou? (with others), 2001; Country Music Association Award, Album of the Year for O Brother, Where Art Thou? (with others), 2001.
Addresses: Record company— Shanachie Records, 37 East Clinton St., Newton, NJ 07860, website: http://www.shanachie.com.
Back Home in Sulphur Springs, Rounder, 1972.
The Fields of November, Flying Fish, 1974.
Going Places, Flying Fish, 1974.
Live at McCabe's, Takoma, 1976.
Blackberry Blossom, Flying Fish, 1977.
Whiskey Before Breakfast, Rounder, 1976.
Rising Fawn String Ensemble, Rounder, 1979.
Full Moon on the Farm, Rounder, 1981.
Original Underground Music, Rounder, 1982.
Nashville Blues, Rounder, 1984.
Lighthouse on the Shore, Rounder, 1985.
Blake and Rice, Rounder, 1987.
Chattanooga Sugar Babe, Shanachie, 1998.
Far Away, Down on a Georgia Farm, Shanachie, 1999.
Flower From the Fields of Alabama, Shanachie, 2001.
(Contributor) Will the Circle Be Unbroken, United Artist, 1972.
(With Nancy Blake) Blind Dog, Rounder, 1988.
(With Nancy Blake) Just Gimme Something I'm Used To, Shanachie, 1992.
(With Nancy Blake) While Passing Along This Way, Shanachie, 1994.
(With Nancy Blake) The Hobo's Last Ride, Shanachie, 1996.
(With Rich O'Brien) Be Ready Boys: Appalachian to Abilene, Shanachie, 1999.
(Contributor) O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Mercury, 2000.
(With Peter Ostroushko) Meeting on Southern Soil, Red House, 2002.
Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martin's, 1983.
Acoustic Guitar, October 1999.
"For Norman Blake, Old-Time Music Is Always Just There," Rogovoy Report, http://www.rogovoy.com/ (January 26, 2004).
"Norman Blake," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (February 2, 2004).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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