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O Norman, Where Aren't Thou? 

Flat-picking legend Norman Blake rides the wave of old-timey music

Norman Blake has been here before. Pick your decade. For that matter, pick your era. If there's been a revival of old-time music, Blake has been riding high on the wave's crest, lending his sensitive ear, his intuitive fingers and his seasoned sense for the heart of American roots music to projects ranging from the fringe to the monumental.

Most recently, Blake contributed two tracks to the double-platinum soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Further back, he's collaborated with everyone from Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, John Hartford and Kris Kristofferson to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Steve Earle and Michelle Shocked. He was featured on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's original Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, and his bluegrass classic "Ginseng Sullivan" has been performed by everyone from New Grass Revival to Phish. He had six straight Grammy-nominated albums in the '90s, and this summer he released a new solo album, Flower from the Fields of Alabama, to be followed by a fall release of Meeting on Southern Soil, a duet album with Peter Ostrushko. And aside from playing a Colorado Springs gig and performing in a star-studded bluegrass extravaganza in Boulder honoring Charles Sawtelle, he's contributing his chops to two albums currently under production in town at the Western Jubilee Recording Company studio, featuring Peter Rowan, Don Edwards and Tony Rice.

"There were days back in Nashville, in the early days, when I was doing more session work and things and there was a lot of different irons in the fire," Blake told the Indy from his home in Georgia last week, "but I don't think there's really ever been a time quite like this."

No one anticipated the impact O Brother would have on traditional music, least of all Blake, widely considered one of the genre's greatest walking archives, trailing old-time tunes wherever he unpacks his six-string guitar and his mandolin. "I'm not sure that we might not just be seeing the very beginning of some of this," Blake said of the O Brother phenomenon. "It may just be cranking up in some ways."

He already took part in some serious cranking at Carnegie Hall earlier this summer, with a live performance featuring all the artists from the album. Blake played four songs, including one with Nancy Blake, his wife and collaborator of over 25 years, and a couple songs with Ralph Stanley. "I'd have to say it was one of the high points of my career," Blake reported, and he is enthusiastic about a tentatively scheduled month-long tour to take the album on the road in January and February, 2002.

The sudden attention hasn't affected him, however. He's still playing mostly solo shows, but after remarrying Nancy last fall, she has been accompanying him on the road and making surprise appearances on stage. "It's not something we're doing as a regular part of the act," Blake said of their professional revival. "We've been at it off and on for 25 years or better. We enjoy it when we do it, but we're just kind of doing what we want to do. I think it's better that way."

Norman and Nancy appeared in the studio together after a lengthy hiatus in the process of recording Blake's album with Ostrushko. The album is mostly old-timey duets, but Ostrushko wrote four original instrumentals that Blake describes as "quite noteworthy." Nancy joined them on cello on the four original instrumentals, marking the first time she'd been back in the studio in years.

His newest album is mostly solo, featuring a baker's dozen of traditional tunes including "Salty Dog," a beautiful recasting of "Sitting on Top of the World," and the tender title song along with three new Blake originals. Blake says these songs "are just ones that keep falling out of your head for no reason, and you keep doing them. These are the ones that are speaking to me."

Blake also found his good friend Charles Sawtelle speaking to him with a handful of Carter Family songs for Music from Rancho deVille, an album Sawtelle worked on up until his death two years ago. "He'd been doing stuff with people over a long period of time with the idea that he wanted to make an album," Blake said. "His friends were passing through [Boulder] and visiting him, and he was just taking advantage of who was willing to get in there and roll some tape with him." Blake laid down a few songs with Sawtelle and David Grisman, who was passing through at the same time.

Still more friends are calling him to the recording studio this week in Colorado Springs. After inaugurating the "Appalachia to Abilene" series two years go with Be Ready Boys, his duet album with Rich O'Brien, Blake plans to be on hand for Volumes 2 and 3 in the series as Edwards and Rowan make a High Lonesome Cowboy album together and Edwards works with Blake as a special guest on Crying for Daylight.

"It's an interesting concept," Blake said of the "Appalachia to Abilene" series. "A lot of your old-time recording artists, and lot of your cowboys, were Southern people. Texas is in the South, for that matter. There was a migration back and forth, and a lot of the early cowboy singing, for example, was really just like hillbilly performers that might have been anywhere singing those same songs."

Though Edwards and Rowan have clear ideas of what they're after in the studio, Blake is happy to roll with the punches. "I think the spontaneity of nobody knowing what's going on, that's an ingredient that sometimes is good. If people are in a creative mode, sometimes good things come out of those situations."

With a fall date on Prairie Home Companion pending, it's hard to imagine there's anything left on Blake's "to do" list, but he has one goal in mind: "To go somewhere and sit and write songs," he said, noting that he rarely sets aside time to do anything. "I just do it, and it just comes out what it comes out."

"I think we're just on the crest of that wave," Blake said when asked for his final thoughts on the future of the old-timey music. "I don't think we know where that one's going to break yet. All I can say is that it's certainly been a shot in the arm for the art form.

"A lot of times we felt like our audiences were getting old with us," he continued. "But right now there's certainly a wave of younger people. This O Brother record has crossed a lot of lines. I don't even understand exactly why." Blake mentions Chris Thiele and Gillian Welch among the younger artists poised to take on the mantle of traditional music, but confides that he doesn't keep up enough with the hot new players on the scene.

"I'm pretty well way down in my own little pot of stew here," Blake concluded. "I just do what I do. Just pick and sing old-time songs."

  • Flat-picking legend Norman Blake rides the wave of old-timey music.

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