The majority of Americans, including yours truly, now live in urban areas. We watch television during severe thunderstorms, are more accustomed to the fresh scent of laundry detergent than local wildflowers, and say stupid things like “metrosexual” and “speed-dating” for which there could hardly be an earlier equivalent. Oh brother. Where in the expanding corporate parks and mall-cities of the U.S. is there time or room for the subtle pleasures of old-time country music? O Brother. The music of Norman Blake got widespread exposure through the success of that movie and its soundtrack in 2000, though he and wife Nancy have been making invaluable contributions to the legacy of American music for decades. The Morning Glory Ramblers is their first full-length pairing on record in 8 years, and is the perfect testament to the enduring worth of old-time music.
Each of the 17 songs recorded for Morning Glory Ramblers has a history (Norman’s notes on their origins can be found through the label’s website), from hymns, mountain songs, and Carter Family staples to “Precious Memories”, written by the Blakes’ “silversmithing and songwriting friend”, Jerry Faires. But the album should not be received as a museum exhibit or embalming simply because it can teach you a thing or two about our musical past. It’s a joyful and engaging listen, and the songs have as much resonance and meaning today as when they were written.
For the uninitiated, an hour of traditional song structures might take some patience at first, but the rewards are well worth it. As old-timey songs rarely stray from the I, IV, and V chords, it makes the subtle variations in the melodic lines stand out, as well as stressing the importance of the individual lyrical themes and stories. The extra measures in the refrain of “We Are Climbing” add a tumbling, yet steady quality to the song’s own climbing pattern. “All the Good Times Are Over” lilts in waltz time, its beautiful guitar embellishments belying the rueful and nostalgic lyric. Nancy gets a chance to sing-speak on the album’s final track, Hank Williams Sr.‘s “Men with Broken Hearts” with Norman on dobro. Over time, each song distinguishes itself through one aspect or another.
Norman Blake is a legendary flat-picking guitar player who has aided and abetted albums by Johnny and June Carter Cash, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Sam Bush, John Hartford, and Doc Watson. The early country style combines rhythm and lead playing by emphasizing techniques including hammer-ons and melodic runs. His playing on Morning Glory Ramblers is clear and clean, impressive without ever overshadowing the song. Nancy’s no slouch either, an accomplished cellist who is also proficient on mandolin, fiddle, bass, and single row accordion. Her rhythm guitar here is sure-footed, anchoring each song in perfect time. “I Ain’t Got Time” emphasizes the guitar’s bass line against the higher pitched mandolin soloing.
The most truly revelatory aspect of the album, however, is the vocal interplay between Norman and Nancy. Their voices possess so much depth and character that the harmonies only magnify their strengths. “The Wayworn Traveler” is achingly beautiful, its chorus of “palms of victory” is inspirational in its simplicity. The sad and strident quality of the song is followed immediately by the fun and springy “Rise When the Rooster Crows”, noted by Blake as “the first country hit to come out of Nashville.” Nancy’s harmonies strengthen both songs not just for their complimentary pitches, but because the personalized quality she gives them. The songs are as much hers as they are Norman’s; it’s as if you’re hearing two stories at once.
Riding public transit on the raised rails of Chicago’s El system would seem incongruous with the songs on Morning Glory Ramblers, of which some are more than 150 years old. But they are very much alive and well in the hands of Norman and Nancy to have meaning in today’s world. The universality of the themes in old-timey music never fades, even if our roosters are now pigeons. If the recent spotlight on the genre due to the O Brother and Cold Mountain soundtracks sparks an interest in investigating its riches further, you would do well to begin with the treasures found here.