Norman Blake was reluctant to record an old familiar song for a movie he’d never heard of, but nobody ever predicted that the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album would eventually sell more than 7 million copies.
His involvement in the film soundtrack proved to be another milestone in a career that includes historic sessions with Bob Dylan, John Hartford and Johnny and June Carter Cash. His session work also includes Joan Baez’s Blessed Are … (containing her hit version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) and the first volume of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken. He played in one of Kris Kristofferson’s early road bands, and the jam band Phish recorded his original composition, “Ginseng Sullivan,” on one of their live albums.
As an artist, Blake has recorded more than two dozen albums, including many with his wife, Nancy. Their latest, The Morning Glory Ramblers, was recently released by the independent Plectraphone/Dualtone imprint.
As for his initial instinct to decline record producer T Bone Burnett’s invitation to contribute a track to the O Brother soundtrack, Blake said he simply didn’t want to drive to Nashville from his home near the Tennessee-Georgia border.
“I almost didn’t do it,” he told CMT.com. “They called me up and explained the premise of the movie. I said, ‘I don’t care anything about going to Nashville to do that. You know, I live 135 miles away.’ But they said they’d pay me pretty good, so that was the enticement to come over. I enjoyed T Bone once I got there and liked the take of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ I played on the record.”
Blake recorded the track quickly with Mike Compton on mandolin, Curtis Burch on guitar and Union Station member Barry Bales on bass.
“I just thought it was a rundown tape,” Blake recalled. “Then T Bone comes around and says, ‘Well, I like it if you do.’ I listened to it and it felt all right. I said, ‘We’d do it different if we did it again. We might screw up somewhere else. But if you like it, I’m happy.’ Not knowing, hell, that this is a record that’s going to sell.”
The acclaim led to a slot on the Down From the Mountain tour that included several acts featured on the O Brother soundtrack. More recently, the Blakes toured with Ralph Stanley and Alison Krauss on the Great High Mountain tour. And although he plays fiddle and mandolin, his status as a guitarist led the C.F. Martin company to issue a Norman Blake signature 000-28 guitar. The list price is around $10,000 for the Brazilian rosewood model — or a mere $5,000 for the Indian rosewood version.
Despite his formidable achievements as an artist, Blake remains gracious when the conversation turns to his work with Johnny and June Carter Cash, his stellar playing on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and his involvement in John Hartford’s groundbreaking Aereo Plain album.
Based in Chattanooga, Tenn., during the late ’50s, Blake performed at local shows with Maybelle Carter and her daughters June, Anita and Helen. A two-year stint in the Army delayed his career, but he found himself in Nashville in 1963 when one of his collaborators, banjo player Bob Johnson, was called to work on a Johnny Cash recording session. At the studio, June Carter recognized him and introduced him to her future husband.
“He never heard me play,” Blake said, “but he says, ‘If you can get a Dobro, I’ll use you tomorrow. I’ve been wanting to use the Dobro with mariachi trumpets.'”
Borrowing a Dobro from Josh Graves, a member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Blake arrived the next day to back Cash on “Understand Your Man” and “Bad News.” Blake would work with the Cashes off and on for many years, contributing to Johnny’s American III: Solitary Man in 2000 and both of June’s solo albums, including 2003’s Wildwood Flower.
In 1969, Blake was working on Johnny Cash’s ABC-TV series at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium when he first met Dylan — an introduction that led to an appearance on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline project.
“People have asked me more about that session than anything I’ve ever been asked about,” Blake said. “‘What’s Bob Dylan like?’ is the big question. All I’ve been able to truthfully say is that he’s extremely non-verbal, non-committal. I was in a room with him for 20 or 30 minutes down at the Ryman when we were doing the shows. I could never draw much out of him. He never would talk much. He was very quiet. He didn’t talk to anyone, so I don’t think I should feel singled out.”
Blake played a spectacular acoustic guitar solo on Nashville Skyline‘s famous title track. “I’ve gotten a lot of credit,” he said, modestly. “A lot of people know I did the flatpicking. Bob came in and played the chord changes fingerstyle, blowing his harmonica. We just filled in and took those breaks.”
Blake never aspired to become a full-time studio musician. “I just worked specialty stuff,” he said. “I never did feel like I was one of the session boys because they play anything. I always said I was the token folkie.”
Blake has always gravitated to interesting projects, including Hartford’s Aereo Plain album. With an innovative approach on musical interplay and lyrical content, the album largely inspired the “newgrass” music movement in the early ’70s. After recording a series of albums for RCA, Hartford moved to Warner Bros. — at the time, predominantly a rock label — for Aereo Plain. The band consisted of Hartford on banjo, Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on Dobro and Vassar Clements on fiddle. With at least one open reference to marijuana use, Aereo Plain wasn’t exactly embraced by the old guard of traditional bluegrass music, although younger musicians were intrigued by the unorthodox songs and arrangements. Unfortunately, the record label didn’t quite understand Hartford’s musical vision.
“John had made the shift to the counterculture at that point,” Blake said. “Warners then wakes up and sees the cover of John with the aviator hat and everything. The first thing they said when they heard the record was, ‘Where’s the drums?'” Despite the critical acclaim, Aereo Plain was not a huge commercial success. As Blake explained, “So we never made it out of phase one.”
Nancy Blake was playing cello in an experimental band in Nashville when she met her future husband in 1972. The friendship led to romance and a long-term musical collaboration. While Norman’s early solo albums were guitar-oriented, their work as a duo found him also playing fiddle and mandolin. And with her classical training, her cello work brought an added elegance to the sound.
“My big idea back then was to take the cello and make it like a big fiddle and just play along with the fiddle tunes,” she said. “Somebody said it was horribly out of synch with the times, but it was that sort of folk-rock thing that was going on in Nashville where we were mixing acoustic and electric instruments. It was like Paris in the ’20s. Everybody said that, and it’s true.
“One of those groups I was in had nine people in it. Woody Paul [Riders in the Sky’s fiddler] was in it. It was just people getting together to try different sounds. It was a very creative atmosphere. We didn’t care if it sold or not. We were just interested in making something new.”
Norman laughed, “That was the attitude of all toward our music at that period of time. We didn’t know you were supposed to sell records. We just knew you were supposed to put ’em out.”
Their latest CD, The Morning Glory Ramblers, was recorded live in Colorado Springs, Colo., in the listening room of a warehouse owned by their agent, Scott O’Malley. “We just stood up on the stage with no audience,” Blake said. “It’s a great environment. It has a sound.”
Seventeen tracks were chosen from 43 songs recorded for the project. With a selection of somewhat obscure material from the first half of the 20th century, including “Short Life of Trouble” and “Elijah’s God,” the album leans toward religious themes.
“Some of the songs I’ve heard all my life,” he said. “There’s stuff that was pertinent to us. Our lives have gone through a lot of transitions — deaths, growing older.”
She added, “The overview of the recording projects through the years has been like chapters of a book. Each one is relevant, but it’s taken in the context of the overall.”
At age 66, Norman Blake continues to make music while downplaying his reputation as one of the world’s premier acoustic guitar stylists.
“Long ago, I decided I had no future trying to be a guitar gun,” he said. “I never did like it in the first place. It absolutely wore my head out thinking that way. I always liked music more than technique.
“I always loved stringed instruments and old records. That sort of fed my whole interest. What I’ve done has been incidental to that.”