Ron Block has been a guiding presence in the world of bluegrass for nearly 30 years, first as a founding member of the Weary Hearts in the 1980s and later as the banjoist for Alison Krauss & Union Station. As both sideman and songwriter, he has worked with an array of musicians, including Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Rhonda Vincent and Chris Thile.
However, the Grammy-winning musician has now found an ideal collaborator well outside the bluegrass community. Block co-wrote his third solo album, Walking Song, with Rebecca Reynolds, an award-winning poet and educator based in East Tennessee.
CMT Edge: How did you meet Rebecca Reynolds?
Block: I’ve been writing for a site call the Rabbit Room for a few years now. Sometimes the discussions get fairly spirited, but there’s no discourtesy allowed. You can’t call people names. I would write these posts and Rebecca was one of the commenters. I would notice that she would always ask very clear questions and was very intelligent, so we ended up talking more in depth about some of the subjects I write about. She asked me if I wanted to try to write songs together. That started the process. She sent me some lyrics, and I put some music to them and it just went on from there.
Was writing together via Skype difficult? A bad connection could mess up a song.
It gets a little frustrating especially since I’m in the country here. There have been moments of frustration. iChat goes down. Skype goes down. But generally the dynamic has felt like we were sitting there together. There’s a little bit of a delay sometimes, but you have to learn that that’s part of it.
How does her background in poetry inform the songwriting?
Poetry is much more dense than lyrics. I liken poetry to a good port. You sip port. You don’t guzzle it like you would a Coors Light. You sip it. And you let it explode. That’s what poetry does. But with lyrics you have to have one central image and then go off of that.
One of the early songs we wrote was “Let There Be Beauty,” which is a fairly dense song and requires a lot of thought on the part of the listener. But there are other songs where we learned to strip the complexity out of poetry and go with these simpler images. “Ivy,” for instance, has a very simple image, but she goes off the word play of the name of the girl in the song: “Ivy, wind your love around the love I bring to you.”
My songs tend to be less about images and more about ideas. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize it’s better to show people something than to tell them. And that’s what Rebecca’s images do.
Did this collaboration change your approach to writing music?
When I write songs by myself, I tend to go with patterns that I had established: certain lengths of lines, certain rhythms and certain feelings. In a way, that’s just playing it safe. One of the best things about collaborating with Rebecca was that she doesn’t stick with one pattern when she writes. She’s always looking for new ways, new rhythms and new lengths of lines. That’s why these songs all sound so different. On at least half of them, she wrote the lyrics first and then I wrote the melodies, so that forced me to a form that I was not used to.
You tracked the guitar and banjo separately on this record. Is that something new for you?
No, that’s the way I used to do it. When I grew up, my dad had a music store. When I was 11 or 12, I got my first guitar. At 12 or 13, I got my first banjo. By the time I was 15, I had a four-track cassette recorder. That was early technology in the early ‘80s. So I’ve always recorded on my own and lots of time splayed the different instruments together.
I think the main thing is not to try to be perfect. That’s the mistake I made in the past. When you try to make everything perfect with the click, you’re no longer feeling what the song is about. There are several songs on here, like “Ivy,” where I didn’t play with a click track. I just sat and played guitar until I got a take that felt really good, then I added another guitar to it.
There have been exactly six years between each of your records. With this new burst of creativity, will we see another Ron Block record before 2019?
Here’s the thing: I really think Rebecca could be a creativity counselor. I would get stuck, and she would just help me through it. For instance, if I’m trying to write a great song, I’m not going to be able to write a song at all, because I’m not thinking about the thing itself. I’m thinking about critiquing everything I’m doing to make it good.
But the time for editing is later. Let the flow happen. My trouble is basically that I was trying to edit before stuff had even flowed, but Rebecca taught me to really let go and not worry about it. Sometimes that means the song is not really that great, but what happened was the output of my songwriting increased exponentially.
Within a year we had written 50 songs. For me that’s astounding. My approach was always to pick up a guitar when I’m inspired. That means I pick up a guitar twice a year. But when you sit down and honor that calling — when you work at it with the expectation that great things are going to come of it eventually — it changes the whole perspective.
It’s the same deal with the verses in the Bible about trusting God to provide for you. You can sit on the couch and say God’s going to provide for you, but you’re not going to get the opportunities. Instead, you start looking for a job. You start getting creative. You step out in faith. It’s the same with writing a song. You don’t want till it comes to you. You have to step out in faith.