“It’s kind of a downer if you listen to the words,” says Norman Blake about his new album, Wood, Wire and Words. He’s having a bit of fun—he laughed as he said that—and when pressed he admits that it’s just that, throughout his career, he’s been less interested in artifice and more interested in telling stories, in shining a light on a more intimate history of American life. He writes about the small struggles, joys, and doubts, and troubles that, while they may not have affected the life of the nation, have nevertheless shaped the context of his life. As in “The Incident at Condra Switch” where Blake tells a story of a murder along the railroad. The reason it caught his eye is as much because of where it happened as why.
“I came to that through a railroad history type book. That happened close to home, about 35 miles from here, though it’s not common knowledge. I hardly found anyone who knows anything about it. It was written down in some railroad history.” Of all the stories he could tell, why that one? “It’s close to home.”
Certainly “home” is the thing that has long attracted his attention and informed his writing. Home, of course, is Sulphur Springs, Georgia, a rural community near Chattanooga where Blake has lived his entire life. Calling him there is a bit like calling Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon, or John Updike in Brewer, Pennsylvania, the exception being that Blake writes about himself and he writes about a real place. His first album was titled Home in Sulphur Springs, a concept he reprised in 2006 with Back Home in Sulphur Springs. This latest recording takes up the same theme, again turning our attention to the small, intimate details of life in small town America.
The irony, perhaps, is that it is from the close intimacy of Sulphur Springs that he set out to participate (if famously reluctantly) in some of the moments that have defined and redefined roots and Americana music. He was there at the recording of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. He played on Nashville Skyline, that great outlier in the Bob Dylan catalogue. He played on John Hartford’s positively seismic recording, Aereoplane, which created the space and the inspiration for what we now think of as newgrass. He was a fixture on Johnny Cash’s television show, one that renewed interest in the music of the Carter family, and unabashedly provided a venue for a number of musicians who, at the time, were all but banned from prime time television. In 2000 he recorded for the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. In 2007 he took part in Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ recording, Raising Sand.
If all of that is impressive—and certainly it is—any sense of awe is entirely lost on Blake. “I don’t think about any of that,” he says. “You know, I was really not trying to be on [the Circle recording]. I wasn’t feeling good—I was ill after a road trip with [John] Hartford, and I kinda got roped into that and I ended up being on it. I’m glad at this point that I was, but, you know, it was not something I was trying to do. I was trying to get out of doing it.”
“And I almost didn’t do O Brother.” That’s putting it mildly. He somewhat aggressively tried to get out of it. “I’ve never been able to see these things; hindsight is twenty-twenty or whatever they say. But the album with John, Aereoplane, you know, we were just trying to make a living at that point, but I guess I was just in the right place at the right time on some of these things.”
In speaking with him, it becomes obvious that he’d much rather talk about trains, or murder ballads, or hoop cheese, which he mentions in “Grady Forester’s Store.” The store is real, and a photograph of it is included in the liner notes. “I was going there when I was a little boy to get the mail and stuff. That picture was made in ’43, and I was born in ’38, so I was going down there then. There was no electricity or nothing down there along the railroad.”
“In the old days cheese came in wooden hoops”—in his accent it rhymes with ‘hooks’—“like a banjo ring. It was about four inches thick usually. You had this wooden ring, and the cheese was in that. A circle of cheese. And you’d go to a store, like that song’s about, and they would cut you some and sell it to you. But it laid around unrefrigerated for quite a time.”
In the song there are cats sleeping on the flour sacks, the crackers are stale, and by the third verse the dog, Prince, is run over and killed by the ice truck. “That’s all true! There is some humour there. It’s tainted I guess. But all of that really happened just like in the song. … You know, this particular place had its drawbacks. We were living in a very rural part of the country, down on the dirt road so to speak. It was the good old days, but it was pretty rough shod as well.”
His guitar playing has been rightly celebrated for decades, and it remains as strong, comfortable, and honest as ever, seen best in the instrumentals included on the new album, a standout perhaps being “Blake’s Rag.” He’s not out to impress us with licks, but to capture a feeling. “I don’t care for a lot of hype about things, especially when it’s concerned with something that I do … It’s whatever comes out. I try to more than just accompany a song. Every tune has a particular individuality, and you can find something that fits with it.”
He’s retired now, or at least retired from the road, and he realizes that the songs on this album are not of a kind that will attract the attention of radio DJs. He made it because he wants to tell us about hoop cheese, the railroad, and the lights on the river. He’s always maintained that his music has never been just his job, it’s also part of his life. Thankfully, he’s allowed it to be part of ours as well.