For Brushwood: Songs & Stories, Norman Blake took a time-honored approach to capturing his voice and guitar. “I sang all that stuff in one take. I’ve always felt the old bluesmen had the right approach to that. You sing off the guitar, and you play off the singing.” Photo by Christi Carroll
In that song, and “How the Weary World Wears Away,” I sense almost a resignation that humans are going to screw this world up and we just need to make the best of things while we can. Do you feel that’s accurate? Do you have hope for the future?
I always have hope for the future. I am an optimist that things have to get better. I think we were going in a much better direction. It has to get better—the old saying, “This too shall pass.” But it’s a dark time, definitely a dark moment in our history. I hope I live long enough to see it pass. That’s for sure.
I notice trains figure prominently in a lot of your songs, whether it’s “The Fate of Oliver Curtis Perry,” “The Wreck of the Western & Atlantic,” or the story “The Lantern Thru the Fog.” Why is that?
I was raised way down in the sticks here, in Dade County, Georgia, right next to the Alabama line. We had nothing but dirt roads where we lived, and the railroad. We lived very close to the railroad tracks, the Southern Railroad. The trains were the big thing. When I was a child, 22 of them a day ran through here, all steam. We didn’t have a lot of excitement, so the trains figured pretty heavy in it. It’s something I treasure very dearly, those memories.
Is “Cripple Charlie Clark” based on a real person?
Yeah. He had an influence on me. And the first time I ever saw him he was sitting under a tree at the Baptist church, as it says in the song. He was crippled. He had to lean back in a straight chair and stretch his feet out, and he laid the guitar on his knee, the butt-end of the guitar, and the peghead went over his left shoulder, and he strummed it with his right hand, and noted in the usual way with his left hand. He’d make runs up and down the neck, even with his knuckles—he was really messed up physically. He had a sound, and he sang gospel songs.
Did you do some shows with him?
Yeah, and he’d give me money. I was just a kid. I remember one time, I had an old Gibson guitar, a J-45 or something. I had a silver dollar stuck up between the tuning keys on the front of the peghead, just under the strings. We were going to play at a church and he says, “You take that silver dollar off of there. They see that, they won’t give us any money.”
I noticed you included a couple of ragtime instrumentals on the album.
Yeah, I like rags. I’ve gotten to where I play them without any picks. You can do so much more [with your fingertips] than you can with fingerpicks, too.
I’m not using any picks, just bare fingers.
Are you using your nails at all, or just skin?
Mostly the skin. When I’m flatpicking, I use my nails on two fingers to pull harmony notes. When I’m fingerpicking, I suppose I may be getting a little off of the nails, but not like a classical guitar player would.
When recording Brushwood, did you sing and play guitar at the same time?
Yes, and I sang all that stuff in one take. If you’re gonna perform with just a guitar, I’ve always felt the old bluesmen had the right approach to that. You sing off the guitar, and you play off the singing. It all gets to be one thing.
You’re a big fan of 12-fret guitars. Why?
To me they have a more open tone with a little more separation between the strings. I’ve always been kind of clumsy, and a wider neck can be advantageous on the fretboard. It can be not advantageous as far as reaching around the neck.
The 12-fret guitar joins the body at the octave, and I’ve always maintained, though I’ve never heard anyone else say it, that helps create harmonic things. When you have two more frets sticking out there, you haven’t got that octave right on the body. I think there’s some kind of juju that happens when the octave does sit there.
What flatpicks do you use?
I like a 1.5 mm [D’Andrea] Pro Plec. And I use Dunlop some. Sometimes I use the teardrop, and sometimes I use the three-cornered ones. For those, I usually round off a corner. I use the rounded edge of a teardrop pick more than I do its point, but you don’t get as much projection on a microphone. I tend to use a sharper pick when playing on microphones than I would use just sitting around.
Why use the rounded edge?
It just moves through the strings a little easier for me, and it’s a warmer sound, too.You do that on a mandolin a lot, use the back edge. I played mandolin too over the years, and you’re always looking for a warmer tone.
What was your experience like working on Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
I was playing with John Hartford and we’d been off on a tour, and we came into Nashville on a red-eye flight, and I was sick. I had the flu. I went to bed at home, and they called wanting me to come over and maybe play some Dobro, and I said, “I just don’t feel like it.” I said, “Get Tut Taylor,” who was playing Dobro with John and me in the band. So Tut went over there. And they weren’t into what he did or something, so they called me again. By that time I’d gotten waked up pretty good, and so I went on over there. It was with Earl Scruggs that they were going to use me.
Bill McEuen was producing it and in the control room, and kept telling me how to play a certain thing. I couldn’t ever please him, either. He kept wanting something that I wasn’t doing. I got pissed off because I had gone over there and I didn’t feel like it anyway. So I threw the earphones up against the control room glass and told him to go to hell. Earl Scruggs stepped in and told Bill—Earl had that real shaky voice—he says, “Well, if you leave him alone, he’ll play something good.”
So that was how it went down. It was not as much of a fun thing at the time. I’m glad for the experience in the long run. It probably didn’t hurt my career at all.
You did some music for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Apparently T Bone Burnett is a big fan of yours.
He’s been very kind, some of the things he’s said about me. And he used me there. I appreciate him. In artistic ways and financially it’s been good. O Brother was a good thing for us.
I almost didn’t do that. I was living down here where I am now, 140 miles from Nashville. I said, “I don’t want to go over there for a session.” I figured it was just a three- or four-hundred-dollar session, like most of them are. And they finally called me back with a real good figure—“We’ll give you so-and-so to come over here and play”—and I said, “Well, I’ll be there.”
Gillian Welch was helping him out a lot at the time, and I think she might have been responsible for me getting as much out of that as I did. Cuts on the record and all that. I don’t know that for a fact, but I think she was definitely in my corner.
In this 1980 performance clip, the Rising Fawn Ensemble—featuring Norman Blake, his wife Nancy on cello, and fiddler James Bryan—performs Blake’s composition “Randall Collins” and the traditional fiddle tune “Done Gone.” As he accompanies his own singing on “Randall Collins,” notice how his strumming hand and arm stay loose and relaxed. But when he picks a fast single-note passage (see 4:30 for an example), his right forearm barely moves and all the action comes from the wrist.