Norman Blake and his exquisite guitar playing have for many years been beloved of roots music connoisseurs. And yet, despite his pivotal role in the bluegrass revival, his widely acknowledged influence on his peers and beyond, and the fact that his playing has been heard on many high-profile movie soundtracks including O Brother Where Art Thou?, Cold Mountain and Inside Llewyn Davis, his name is not all that widely known. Over the course of over 35 albums since the early-70s, and countless stage appearances and sessions in the company of some of the States’ finest bluegrass, country and old-time musicians, he’s pursued an uncompromising personal vision of roots music. His very latest album – Brushwood Songs And Stories – may well (he says) be his swansong to recording. For almost its entire length it deliberately and unashamedly strips roots music down to its most basic, fundamental incarnation: a single performer delivering vocals and playing an acoustic guitar. Just one track (Waitin’ For The Mail And Social Security) features (his own) fiddle, and a small handful of songs feature his wife Nancy’s wonderful harmony or backing vocals, but the rest is just Norman and a guitar, intimately recorded.
In all, this well-filled disc contains 15 songs, two gently virtuosic guitar ragtime instrumentals and two spoken stories. All tracks are Norman’s own compositions, and carry the ring of total authenticity of American roots tradition. There’s a fair number of narrative songs recounting or chronicling a character or event from history (Cripple Charlie Clark; Oliver Curtis Perry – Empire State Train Robber; The Wreck On The Western \& Atlantic; Bunk Johnson; The Countess Lola Montez), while others provide powerful reflections on a concern or issue of universal importance (eg. The Target Shooter), or redoubtable political commentary (The Truth Will Stand). And then there’s the gorgeously affecting Look Away, So Far Away, which has all the feel of an A.P. Carter classic; an earworm that I couldn’t resist stacking up on repeat play.
Hey now, this kind of music-making is the real deal, and absolutely beyond criticism. Enchanting, totally lovely, totally genuine and totally committed to the mission. You really couldn’t ask for more.
|Quercus: Nightfall||Jemima James: At Longview Farm/When You Get Old|
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