Most acoustic music fans know Norman Blake from his early days the late sixties and early seventies. He served as a regular on the Johnny Cash television show, recorded with Bob Dylan on his seminal country release Nashville Skyline, belonged to John Hartford’s revolutionary bluegrass band, and received a gold record for his participation on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s renowned, Will the Circle be Unbroken album. While Blake has released over three dozen records during the past five decades and contributed mightily to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, he’s an unknown hero. He is one of the few masters who have been able to recapture old style American roots music and make it sound fresh and vital.
Calling an album consisting of a dozen original songs traditional may seem strange, but Wood, Wire & Words surely is. Blake pens story songs about past events and composes instrumentals with roots in an earlier period. The music recalls a darker time. It may have been simpler technologically, but it was not always a bucolic paradise. Consider “Joseph Thompson Hare on the Old Natchez Trace”, which concerns a bold highwayman who “had a way with the ladies” but ends up hanged in the gallows for his thieving ways. And then there’s the outlaw “Black Bart”, who robs with dignity and behaves as a gentleman who would never hurt a lady. These were real life bandits whose criminal activities reveal that not everyone was happy in their place back in the day.
Blake sings in a conversational voice that has worn with age. This makes his old time music sound authentic without retro–style conventions. He’s an old guy singing about earlier times. Blake is 76 years of age, but the past he sings about is often long before his birth in 1938. He comes off as someone who has lived through previous eras. The imaginative effects he employs to convey this attest to his skill as an artist.
That’s especially evident on the instrumentals. He composed three rags for this disc that move at a steadfast pace without being rushed. His flatpickin’ acoustic guitar style recalls the finger work of past masters like Mississippi John Hurt. The rags move slowly without seeming slow and evoke a quieter pace of life. Blake understands the importance of being graceful. There’s something charming about the leisurely tempos that compel one to relax in the best meditative manner. That’s especially true of the last number on the disc, “Cloverdale Plantation March”, whose antebellum antecedents invite spiritual reflection.
The song with the most modern message ironically captures a theme that has been at the heart of civilization since the beginning. “There’s a One Way Road to Glory”, Blake sings, with the accompaniment of his wife Nancy, and that begins with laying down one’s arms and having war no more. It also means to share with others and not be greedy as there is enough for all. The religious sentiments convey a social truth. To get closer to god, one has to find love and friendship with other people. We are compelled to value each other in order to improve our collective lot. Blake may be intoning words of ancient wisdom, but they are just as true today no matter what belief system one has.