Norman Blake

REVIEW: Norman Blake “Day By Day”


Norman Blake — Day By Day
(Smithsonian Folkways)

During an interview to promote his 32nd release from 2015, Wood, Wire & Words, Norman Blake admitted that he was done, having suffered a TIA back in 2012. While this medical setback had impacted his singing and playing skills significantly, Blake – a lifelong musician – fought to get it all back, taking more than a year to return-to-form. Celebrating his recovery with this all-original, mostly one-man release, he’s gone on to make additional records and the recent launch of Day By Day can only be cherished as yet another gift from this true flatpicking legend, who turns 84 in March.

Long favoring the music over technique, Blake leans towards the evangelical side of spreading good news through his ‘story songs’ but this, too, has been an evolution from where it all began.
Picking up the guitar at age 12, this guitar/ master earned his way as a first-call session player across country, bluegrass and folk lines. Some may recall his work as a member of John Hartford’s brilliant Aereo-Plain Band – the ’71 release, itself, a forerunner of Newgrass. However, like Hartford, Blake has long devoted his career to preserving and reworking traditional music, without being entirely tethered by its rules. Heavily influenced by Mother Maybelle Carter (Carter Family), Riley Puckett (Skillet Lickers), and Roy Acuff, Blake’s extreme abilities as a flatpicking guitar player, mandolin expert (who is also skilled on the fiddle, banjo and dobro) earned him positions alongside Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ralph Stanley and Kris Kristofferson.

As musical fashions changed, progressing in different directions, Blake dug in his heels to further develop the music he loves most, eschewing commercial success for intense personal satisfaction. Years later, getting the nod from T-Bone Burnett, Blake found a refreshed audience from his work on the Grammy-winning Oh, Brother soundtrack – and enough money to continue doing what he most loves to do, as represented on this monumental release. Note that many of his string of well-respected albums were made in tandem with his beloved wife and musical partner, Nancy Blake (née Short), adding cello and heartfelt harmonies to their work.

“When The Roses Bloom” was originally written by George “Honey Boy” Evans back in 1913 and, while the song has gone through many lyrical changes, it remains a from-the-heart love song. As always, his guitarwork has a haunting quality while his vocals, rough-hewn and fragile-sounding, seem to break in all the right places, lending a strong sense of time gone by. “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me” originating in the Tin Pan Alley days of minstrels and medicine shows, was originally recorded in 1895. Here, Blake reconstructs it, adding his inimitable storytelling charm to it in a single take.

Mac & Bob’s 1927 composition of “I’m Free Again” features a slight lyrical rebuild and reordering by Blake, adding his indelible, old-home stamp. The instrumental “Old Joe’s March” is a five-string banjo original with the power to conjure the past and a simpler way of life. As Blake suggests through an earlier album title – Just Gimme Something I’m Used To – Blake’s innate ability to paint a modern-day composition with multiple coats of the past makes for a seamless entry. With an uncanny ability to possess the characters in each story, “Montcalm and Wolfe” shines in his care. Despite its birth after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, this historic ballad encompasses both bravery and sadness, if not the overall futility of war.

James McGuire’s “Three Leaves Of Shamrock” (1889) tells a tale of Irish emigration and, despite earlier versions by Charlie Poole and Mac & Bob, Blake crafts the lyrics around an alternate melody. Blake’s original, “Time”, could easily have been written 100 years ago but herein lies another of Blake’s trump cards – as the unofficial gatekeeper of a portal between days gone by and modern times, he has captured the spirit of man’s relationship to music, impervious to the ravages of progress or any calendar. Perhaps one of the most impactful songs on the album is “The Dying Cowboy” – a song dating back to the 18th Century, with countless variations across the continents over the years.

Joined by Nancy (cello), James Bryan (fiddle) and Joel McCormick (guitar) – known as the Rising Fawn String Ensemble. Originally the tale of a young soldier’s death, the sadness heard in Blake’s soft vocal is driven home by Bryan’s fiddle and the band’s fuller sound. “My Home’s Across The Blue Ridge Mountains” may be familiar to some, being covered by the Carter Family, the Carolina Tar Heels and Doc Watson, Blake (with full Ensemble) has altered the lyrics and harnessed additional vocals to create a rousing composition that’s as buoyant and proud as it is bittersweet.

When you think of master musicians, you quickly realize that it took them many years to achieve this status. Yet, when they play, they have the uncanny ability to make it all look so easy. In Blake’s case, he’s always been dedicated to a song’s melody and in developing its rhythmic precision rather than aiming for flashy embellishments or fast, dazzling technique, his vocals capable of rolling back the years.

As a result, he’s attained a warm intimacy to every performance that has, while it may distance itself from more commercial territory, the power to stop you in your tracks, allowing you to savor a much simpler time and a time when playing music was all about taking pleasure in the process. You’ll find no better escape from the pressures of today.

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