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What are some specific techniques you picked up from watching them play?
I had heard Son House making percussive sounds on records, and had always wondered about the techniques he was using. Watching him in person, I saw him deliver his music with unbelievable passion—he’d roll his eyes, throw his head back and slam his hands on the guitar. So I understood that the snapping and popping was sort of a byproduct of playing with great feeling, and I sort of absorbed that into my playing. I don’t think too much about it, but I know from looking at my photos and videos that I have similar mannerisms when I play.
Your recent records have been tributes to blues legends.
Yes—I first did a tribute to Robert Johnson [The Lady and Mr. Johnson, 2006] and then a tribute to Son House [Blues Walkin’ Like a Man: A Tribute to Son House, 2008]. After that, it seemed only natural to do a tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell. I’d love to eventually have a five-album box set of the project and call it The Mentor Series, after the masters I learned the most from.
How would you compare the approach on your latest tribute record to that you took on the previous two?
When I did the Robert Johnson record, I stayed pretty faithful to his original arrangements and tunings. But with the Son House record, I switched things up a bit. Unlike Robert Johnson, Son House played a lot of duets with players like Willie Brown, so I decided to layer things a bit. I would play each basic track much in the same way Son House did, but then take things in a new direction by layering on tracks in different tunings. I took the same approach on this record, recording the basic tracks in Fred McDowell’s tunings—mostly open G and open E—and style, then adding my own tracks in whatever tunings suited my fancy. I don’t read music and can’t tell you what notes were in the tunings, but I can say if the original arrangement had a lot of open-position work, then I might use a random tuning and place a capo high up the neck to avoid too many overlapping frequencies. It was as if I were having a conversation with McDowell in the music.
Block performs at Iduna in Drachten, The Netherlands in May 2009. Photo by Oscar Anjewierden
The album includes a mix of Fred McDowell’s best known tunes and your originals. What is your songwriting process like?
I’ve always admired songwriters who wake up and have coffee, write music for three hours, then have lunch. When I’ve tried to write in a structured way like that, nothing comes out of me, so I’ve adopted some freer and easier methods. When I’m just working on the music, I’ll generally come up with a guitar part pretty quickly and record it in Pro Tools—an indispensable tool for recording on the fly. Then, I’ll often transfer it in onto a CD and listen to it in my office or car. Words come to me a lot of times when I’m driving around and hearing things in a fresh way. When inspiration strikes, I’ll pull over to write things down—sometimes I feel like people are staring at me when I’m on the side of the road scribbling madly.
Lyrics occasionally also come to me in dreams. I write the words down and store them along with a wealth of other materials, like letters and poems that I sometimes consult in songwriting. And there’s something about recording that inspires me to write. Just like I did with the Son House and Fred McDowell records, I’ll start with a basic guitar part and layer on parts I compose on the spot in different tunings. That’s what I love about the birthing process in the studio—if I don’t have a set plan, I’ll just let the process of overdubbing take the music wherever it wants to go.
Rory Block’s Gearbox
Martin OM-28V, Martin OM-40 signature model
Fishman Gold Plus
14mm deep-well socket