Trying to put words to what Norman Blake has meant to American music, one risks entering a maze of analogy and never finding a way out. He is to old-time string music what the Library of Congress is to history; he is to the acoustic guitar what Wassily Kandinsky is to color; he has brought to the tradition of American song what Frank Lloyd Wright brought to the building of homes: the endless possibilities of a clear vision. In every flat-picked note, he is the storyteller that modernity -- with its delight in fragmentation and isolation -- has tried, and failed, to do away with.
Save his stint as a radio operator in the Army, Blake has played traditional country music all his life. But even while stationed on the Panama Canal, he formed a bluegrass band, playing fiddle and mandolin for the troops. He remains an anomalous, almost archaic figure. Like Doc Watson or Tony Rice, the only flat-pickers who could accurately be called his peers, Blake has saved and renewed the beauty of old-time music because it's all he knows or cares to know.
Blake was born March 10, 1938, in Chattanooga, and the Tennessee-Georgia border remains his home. "I live in Rising Fawn, Ga., which is 25 miles south of Chattanooga," he says. "I grew up about three miles from where I live now. Rising Fawn is a very small wide place in the road, on Highway No. 11, the old Lee Highway that ran from New Orleans to the Canadian border. The railroad runs through it, but it's not much of a town, really, just a small country village. We don't even have a supermarket, just a couple of 7-Elevens, a truck stop, a hardware store and a few churches. The only time I haven't been in Dade County, Ga., was about six years when I lived in Nashville and my time during the Army. I don't know if there's any real reason. When you're from someplace and your family has been here a couple hundred years, you just sort of end up there. I'm not saying I'll be stuck here forever, but I imagine I will be."
That rural Southern experience, where time is measured by the changing light and dreams have the sound of a slow train that never stops in your town, suffuses Blake's music. He titled one album Original Underground Music from the Mysterious South, an indication that, for Blake, the sound of a guitar and mandolin winding their way through a tune of unknown history and origin somehow lies at the heart of the enigma that is rural America. And the more secret the tune, the better. "I get these songs from any source I can," he says. "I heard so much country music as a child, and I had snatches and remnants running around my head for years. I've pieced them together over the years. I've worked around to find the complete versions of songs I remember. I work out of old phonograph records, old hillbilly 78's. I like 78-rpm records, the prewar recordings. I still get out, as we refer to it, and junk some for records. They're artifacts of the 20th century."
Few acoustic-guitar players have been more highly regarded or more frequently requested for session work than Blake; along with Watson, he helped established the instrument as a melodic, rather than purely rhythmic, voice in country music. He appeared on Dylan's Nashville Skyline, as well as on seminal recordings by David Bromberg, John Hartford, Kris Kristofferson, Rice and Johnny Cash. "Those people were fairly radical in their thinking and sort of on the periphery themselves," Blake says. "They were looking for people to play music which was in a traditional mode in some ways but was also creative and exploratory. They were looking for new things, but within a traditional framework. Though I'm a very traditional musician, I've also been an experimental musician."
In a worldview dominated by a rock & roll perspective, tradition and experimentation have long been viewed as opposing tendencies. The formula is neat and pernicious: Traditionalists are conservative and unimaginative; experimentalists are progressive and visionary. And yet, without an understanding of musical history, experiments rarely result in more than passing fads; without innovation, a tradition could never exist. Because he works within traditional idioms, the imaginative freedom of his playing and the infinitesimal subtleties of his melodic vision are all the more striking.
Though Blake is best known for his guitar playing, he is skilled, and often riveting, on the mandolin, fiddle and banjo. But what's most often overlooked is his songwriting. His lyrical gifts reflect the same seamless marriage of tradition and individual talent he brings to his musicianship. If the credits to such songs as "Last Train from Poor Valley," "Church Street Blues" and, especially, "Billy Gray" did not bear his name, you would imagine his songs had been with us forever.
And written on a stone where the dusty winds have long blown
Eighteen words to a passing world say
"True love knows no season, no rhyme, nor no reason
Justice is cold as the Granger County clay"
"The songs are the ruminations of my own personal life at that point," he says. "I've always concentrated on the great body of traditional music; that's my first love. All I've ever tried to do is, if I write something, I want it to be as good as the old songs. I like parlor songs, the ones that found their way into the country tradition. I'm looking for things that have some personal connection, some sentiment and message, and that can be related to the melody. I think people are afraid of sentiment these days. They like it when someone else gets up there and expresses it, but they're afraid of it themselves."
Over the years, Blake has seen popular interest in old-time music come and go. He appeared on the most successful hippie-bluegrass album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and toured with Steve Earle when the country-rocker decided to go acoustic. Though he never expected to play on a million-selling album, he's not surprised by the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and film. "I think it certainly fills a void," he says. "People are very tired of what's passing for country music anymore. I think people like good old-time string music, if they get half a chance to hear it. They just never get a chance. One of the wildest things about this whole O Brother thing is not only the interest that it's stirred up in old-time music but the fact that so much of it is of a religious nature. When people are supposedly so blasé about spiritualism, it's amazing how people have responded. They said that radio stations have been playing my recorded version of 'You Are My Sunshine' every morning during the traffic in New York City. They've been blasting New York with it!"
Even after 50 years of playing old-time country, Blake hasn't exhausted the pleasures he finds there, and he has never given a thought to playing anything else or to complicating the simple grace of his sound. "I'm not one of these musicians who makes a statement to prove that I could go off in another direction," he says. "I only play what I know how to play, what I enjoy the most, what's from my heart the most, at that time. When I sit in front of a recording microphone, or sit on the stage, I play what's on my mind right then. I don't try to see how complicated I can make things. Some of those old country musicians weren't great guitar players, but they did a beautiful job. I'm very conscious of trying to be a singer and guitar player who can do a song that's not fancy but which can be complete. That's what I'm striving for."