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Norman Blake, Master of Folk and Bluegrass Guitar

Updated on September 3, 2019
Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.

Who Is Norman Blake? He's a Stringed Instrument Master, and the Voice of Previous Generations

For my entire life, and well before I was born, Norman Blake has been a master of stringed instruments and the playing of Bluegrass, and any other form of traditional folk music one could name. I personally learned about Norman at some point in my teenage years, and have been enamored of him and his music ever since.

In the realm of traditional music, Norman Blake is an artist of the highest degree. Norman himself will tell you he's never considered himself an entertainer, as he has nothing to offer persons seeking the most popular music of the day. What Norman has to offer is water from a much deeper well than what typically makes the Billboard charts.

Norman Blake is much more than a singer or a songwriter, though he is both of those things. Norman is also more than a guitarist, though he certainly is that, and he is even more than a musician, for Norman Blake is a bard.

The great Doc Watson had once said he sometimes feels as though his memories go back to before his own lifetime. Doc didn't know it, but today we do know genetic memory is a very real thing. Norman Blake is in every way the same.

Norman's songs express sorrows and traumas which he likely has not experienced in his own life, and yet he feels them just the same, and he relates them to us through his music. Take a listen to Norman's rendition of Jimmy Brown the Newsboy, and I think you will understand what I mean.

Norman and Nancy Blake

Norman Blake was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the year of 1938. He grew up, however, in Sulphur Springs, Alabama. Those two towns are featured in the titles of two of Norman's greatest albums, Chattanooga Sugar Babe, and Back Home in Sulphur Springs.

So far as I can find out, Norman and his wife Nancy now live in Rising Fawn, Georgia. All I can think is how fantastic it would be to live nearby. Living next door to something of a national treasure would be something to take terrific pride in. One would wish to jealously guard and protect such a treasure, and probably knock on the door, hoping to visit and hear something special, be it story or song.

Story and song, Norman is the master of both of these things, and he combines them together. He does this often, and well. You hear Norman's tale of Ol' Bill Miner (The Gentleman Bandit), and you realize this type of Americana is outside the confines of mainstream culture for its being so superior to it.

Bill Miner had been a career train robber. Norman Blake, besides being a master musician of many stringed instruments, and a story telling singer songwriter, is a man fascinated by trains. Growing up in an isolated mountainous area, the trains were the biggest thing to see for Norman's childhood.

So who's the woman in Norman's music videos? That's his wife, Nancy Blake. They met in 1972, which was the year Norman would release his first solo album. Nancy Short was in a folk band opening for Norman. She was from Independence, Missouri, and was trained in piano, violin, and cello. She was also versed in jazz music. Some folks refer to Norman and Nancy's music together as "hillbilly baroque."

Norman Blake - "Ol' Bill Miner (The Gentleman Bandit)" Audio Only

Norman Blake, Studio Musician, and Guitarist for Johnny Cash

Norman's musical journey began at around eleven or twelve years of age. He's recorded playing dobro, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and many lesser known stringed instruments too. The first song he learned was Spanish Fandango, and this was on the dobro.

Norman hadn't considered becoming a guitarist specifically, he was very much into music in the general sense, meaning he was laser focused on all of it, not just any one instrument. His early influences were the Carter Family, the Skillet Lickers, Bill and Charlie Monroe, Don Reno, and Roy Acuff.

At sixteen years of age Norman was sure of what he was going to do with his life. He'd drop out of school to become a professional musician. None of these things meant much to the United States Army, and when he was drafted in 1960, Norman would become a radio operator down in the Panama Canal Zone.

Norman didn't let the army slow his musical ambitions at all. He formed a band while in the army, and when on leave would record Twelve Shades of Bluegrass with the Lonesome Travellers.

Upon being discharged from the Army, Norman, being beyond competent in many stringed instruments, would move to where the action was. In Nashville, Tennessee he would become a studio musician. The hired gun. You need a hot part played, and no one in your own band can do it? You called Norman Blake.

Norman was soon offered a much more stable sort of job, and this by what could only be thought of a as a country music superstar, Johnny Cash. For ten years Norman was the guitarist for The Man in Black, and then for the next thirty more years, Norman would sometimes play with his old friend, Johnny Cash.

Norman Blake, at far left, and seated, on stage with Johnny Cash.
Norman Blake, at far left, and seated, on stage with Johnny Cash. | Source

Norman Blake, Master Collaborator

Being the guitarist for superstar Johnny Cash was no small thing, but for Norman Blake, it was really just another job where he was playing music with his friends. Norman has always been someone who the best musicians in the business knew about, but Norman has never been famous.

Bob Dylan has always been a big deal. Maybe Bob is no bigger than Johnny Cash, but that's not the point, the point is when someone needs the most authentic folk guitarist available, they'd call Norman Blake, and Norman would record with Bob Dylan on Dylan's Nashville Skyline record.

Kris Kristofferson was one of the few people in the world on the same level, as a songwriter, as Bob Dylan. Who did Kris want to tour with him? Oh, just Norman Blake. Then Joan Baez came calling, and Norman would record with her on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

This stuff is all great, but you want to know my opinion, and I'm going to give it to you. The greatest collaboration Norman has ever been a part of was one of the greatest folk and Bluegrass collaborations which has ever taken place. It was the very first of the three Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will The Circle Be Unbroken albums, and Norman would humbly take a backseat on guitar, leaving that to Doc Watson, and provide dobro throughout the double disc.

You want an education in folk and bluegrass? There's nothing better to start with than the first Will The Circle Be Unbroken album, featuring Norman Blake, Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, and others. Every song is a classic, and the enjoyment I get from the thing is never ending.

Another of the great collaborations involving Norman Blake came when Steve Earle got out of prison, and decided he'd like to be more of an acoustic folk musician. Train a Comin' was nominated for a Grammy. You get to hear Norman cut lose with some pretty vicious guitar solos on songs like Tom Ames Prayer, but Norman's signature sound is present on other fantastic tracks as well.

Steve Earle standing at far left, with Norman Blake, seated at far right, at the North Carolina Merlefest festival in the late 1990s.
Steve Earle standing at far left, with Norman Blake, seated at far right, at the North Carolina Merlefest festival in the late 1990s. | Source

Hillbilly Baroque

Do you happen to remember the fantastic Cohen Brothers film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? George Clooney starred in it, as did John Goodman, and others. It was a comedic masterpiece, something I've watched time and again. There are a thousand one liners in the film, kinda like The Big Lebowski, where you can find conversations to throw them out in, and everyone will laugh.

The film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? did quite well, but what also set off a storm of purchases was the soundtrack to the film, and Norman Blake was literally all over the thing. There was a Grammy award for that. What do Jimmy Page and Norman Blake have in common? One wouldn't think a whole lot, but Blake performed with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their Raising Sand album, and that won five Grammy awards.

Norman Blake does more than fantastic collaborations with other great artists, and he does more than cover traditional music from long ago. He's also a fine songwriter, and some of his original tunes are so well loved, they've become folk and bluegrass festival standards, destined to last countless years into the future.

So how would we describe Norman's music, besides hillbilly baroque? How about neo-traditionalist Americana? It's roots music, country music, blues music, folk music, and bluegrass music. Among his most well loved originals is Ginseng Sullivan.

Norman Blake, Flatpicker

Despite the fact Norman can play many stringed instruments as well as anyone on the planet, and despite the fact he can fingerpick the guitar as well as flatpick it, Norman is almost surely to always be thought of as one of the great flatpickers. This brings to the fore a valid question: What is flatpicking, anyway?

Flatpicking is using a plectrum to strike the notes of the guitar. Why do this when you could use a combination of thumb and fingers, and get more stuff going on at the same time? You use a plectrum because by striking notes with one, you can get something out of the guitar you simply can not get in any other way.

Flatpicking is a term used almost exclusively to describe guitarist playing American Appalachian music on a steel string acoustic guitar. For the most part, this music is what is thought of as bluegrass music, and this was something which developed, in part, when in the 1930s folks started playing Scots-Irish and Appalachian fiddle tunes on the steel string acoustic guitar.

Flatpicking is difficult, for the flatpicker often uses medium gauge strings for increased volume, and persons unused to such strings may well find them rather painful to deal with. The flatpicking guitarist generally plays at a rapid pace, as the songs played were originally meant for fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, instruments which one can play up tempo more easily. Crosspicking, slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs and strumming, all at a furious pace, are common elements for Norman Blake's style.

It’s a two-edged sword. There’s many things you can’t do with a flat pick that you can do the other way. My playing slowed down after playing with a flat pick. It isn’t stretched out, linearly speaking. What I do is based in the arpeggios of chords, doing cross rolls to get those arpeggio effects. You can’t do that at the same pace you can play single notes up and down on a string, which is more the approach most guys use..

Norman Blake, Guitars and Playing Style

Norman Blake is different from the typical guitarist of any style in that he's never been especially noted for playing any one model of instrument. You think of just about any guitarist, and you can usually whittle their collection of instruments down to at least four major models of guitar they favor. This isn't the case with Norman Blake.

Yes Norman has a preference for the two biggest and oldest of steel string acoustic guitar makes, Martin and Gibson guitars. Earlier in Norman's career he would most often play big dreadnought models with fourteen frets clear of the body, and such guitars are the standard for flatpickers. As the years went on, however, more and more Norman would prefer smaller body guitars, and often those with just twelve frets clear of the body.

For a somewhat vague list, Norman is fond of Martin 00 models, 000 models, OM models, and did a turn where he brought back from obscurity the Gibson Nick Lucas guitar. He's also recorded and performed playing both Martin D-18s and D-28s. Because Norman is a hero to virtually everyone who loves to play flatpicking style guitar, I should take a short time to tell a small tale.

Whiskey Before Breakfast is maybe the most notable of all Norman Blake flatpicking guitar albums. Anyone who hears this masterpiece will be in awe of the fantastic sound Norman gets from a very old Martin D-18, and I, myself, once spent well over three thousand dollars for a Martin D-18GE, and I did this entirely because I wanted to sound like Norman Blake.

Having spent a lot of time with many different Martin D-18 guitars, I can assure you that were you to fall in love with Norman's sound the way I did, then the D-18 is absolutely the way to go. I'm sure you will find, as I did, that getting the Norman Blake sound is doable, but getting his licks right, well, that's much more difficult. Hand Me Down My Walking Cane is something I've never got tired of hearing, and never will till my sins have overtaken me.

End of the Road

In 1997 Norman and Nancy Blake would divorce. Nancy was sick of the road. The divorce, however, was not to last. They'd get remarried three years later. You find your true love, and you can't stay away, it seems.

Maybe Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are the two who are best suited to take up the torch passed by Norman and Nancy Blake. It was Gillian Welch, the stories say, who got Norman on the Oh Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and that's the eight million copies selling thing which set Norman and Nancy to where they could plan for retirement.

Norman used to be pretty apolitical, but he's preaching fire and brimstone some in his later years. Just not in the Biblical sense. He wants his story songs to have some morals to them, and they do. Norman just isn't a fan of the Koch brothers, and he's outlived one of them. He's not a fan of Donald Trump either, and I'll forgive him for that. He's always meant so much to me, and to American music.

Norman's 2017 offering, Brushwood Songs & Stories, was literally him trying to say goodbye. He's now 81 years old and should he record no more, well, he's earned the right for certain. Norman still plays every day, all the time, he says. Oh to only be his neighbor. Thanks for reading.

Norman and Nancy Blake

© 2019 Wesman Todd Shaw

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    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      7 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

      I don't see a conflict. If I get rolling with music any particular day. I mean where I'm probably drinking a bit, and just really getting into music that day, then I may well hear some Slayer or the Beatles from one hour to the next, and then listen to my bluegrass stuff as well.

      I guess I would consider Norman Blake as classic bluegress. For sure. Something like ...oh I don't know (insert British Invasion classic rock band) is to classic rock.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      7 weeks ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Maybe I'm a rare bird. I'm one who grew up on "classic rock" but learned to love country, folk and bluegrass.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      7 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Thanks Sherry. I think people react to folk/bluegrass music kind of like they react to sushi. You either like it or you just don't.

      One of my uncles met Norman many years ago at one of the folk/bluegrass festivals They both had the exact same model of guitar, and so they sat and checked out the other's.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      7 weeks ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      That's some great music there. Thanks for highlighting this under recognized artist.

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