Guitarist Norman Blake Unifies Wood, Wire and Words

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Norman Blake‘s Wood, Wire & Words backs sharp narratives (“The Incident at Condra’s Switch”) with deft instrumentals (“Blake’s Rag”). Seamless guitar work guides the entire journey.

“There are about 10 guys in the world at any given time who are just perfect guitar players,” says Steve Earle, whose 1995 string-band record Train A-Comin’ features the gentle Georgia resident’s work. “You know it’s them when you hear one note. Norman’s one of those guys.”

The legendary instrumentalist spoke with CMT Edge about his first collection of all original songs in three decades.

CMT Edge: Describe what I’m looking at in the liner notes — a photo of Grady Forester’s Store and Cotton Gin.

Well, that’s an old store that was in my childhood. I lived about, oh, less than half a mile down the railroad track from that. When you look past the gin there on the right, that’s the railroad track parallel with the mountain. I was born in 1938, and I would walk down there when I was a little kid and walk down the track. I’d go there to the post office and get the mail every day.

Of course, we didn’t get electricity until I was probably 11 or 12 years old. You’ll note there are no wires in that picture. There was no telephone. The only thing we had was a battery-powered radio that ran on a power battery because regular batteries were too expensive and didn’t last long. So, my father rigged it up where you could run it on an automobile battery and charge the battery.

How many people lived in that area?

Not many. I wouldn’t hazard a guess. I mean, there was no such thing as any indication of population. It was a water stop on the Southern Railway. Down at the end of town, we had a water tank and a depot and a big side track where the trains could pass. There were three or four section houses a little farther up the track where people lived who maintained the track, but it was pretty sparsely settled.

Explain how living in that area that shaped you as a songwriter.

(laughs) It was pretty isolated to say the least. We only had a handful of records, and I had a cousin who played the fiddle down the railroad there. When I got my first guitar when I was 10 or 11 years old, I’d go down the railroad to his house. He could play the guitar and the banjo, too, so he would teach me how to follow the fiddle-playing. That was some of the first instruction I got. We had the usual Skillet Lickers records and Bill Monroe and the Carter Family and Roy Acuff. Roy Acuff was probably the most formative thing for me.

What about his music stood out?

I just liked the plainness of his music and the Dobro. I didn’t know what a Dobro was at the time, but I liked the sound. We’d play those records on a windup machine, and they sounded real good.

Did you know at that age that you would pursue music for a living?

Oh, no. No. We listened to it on the radio. There was still a good deal of live music on the radio at that point. We’d hear local area musicians from various places, not big names. Of course, we had the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night. Me and some boys around there just thought it would be a fine thing to do. We wondered about the lives of these people, wondered where they went after they went off the air.

Describe the key to understanding the guitar.

(laughs) I haven’t figured that out myself! I think just sticking with it and playing it all the time, every day. Fool with it. If you fool with it like I do, I pick it up and find something that I haven’t seen before or something that’s related to something you’ve done that you can use. I gradually just keep piecing things together. Every time I pick it up, there’s some little something will come up that you haven’t done. You say, “Oh, that will work here.” I call it “time behind the box.”

Have you mastered the instrument?

Oh, heavens, no. Heavens, no. No. I feel very amateurish on the guitar.

Do you ever use a capo?

Oh, yes, I do. I use a capo quite a bit. When you’re using open chords, it enables you to play things. I can play in certain keys that are harder to play in with a capo. Sometimes you don’t get that certain sound on the open strings unless you are using a capo. It’s more for effect than anything. A lot of people call capos crutches, but it’s just getting a sound. Some of the greatest guitarists in the world — Andrés Segovia, to name one — use capos all the time.

Tell the story behind writing “The Incident at Condra’s Switch.”

OK. That happened over here across the river about 35 miles from where I live. I got that out of a railroad book. It was an incident that happened Jan. 2, 1925, I believe. I had never heard about it before I read about it, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much knowledge about it, either. I asked people in that area, and nobody seems to know anything about it. It just happened and got written down in the railroad book.

How did you and Nancy come up with “There’s a One Way Road to Glory”?

Well, we hate war. We’re both pretty appalled with the state of humanity in many ways these days, the amount of violence and guns and killing, the corporate greed. Some people are more put off than others. Some are numb to it. We just feel very strongly against these things, and it led us to write that.

Describe Nancy’s best quality as a songwriter.

She’s got a lot of great qualities, and it’d be difficult to zero down on one thing. She’s a totally musical person. She’s not always been known as the super hottest picker or whatever in the world, but she has more music in her head than most of us can even imagine. She has twice as much music in her head than I could ever get out. If I could have half what she has in her head in my fingers, I’d be doing well.

You were both on the Down from the Mountain tour.

Oh, golly, the whole thing in general was a real fantastic trip, a traveling road show. You had all those performers on one show playing every night. It was a big family affair by the time it was over. Of course, we knew some of the people anyway. I think we stayed out two months at one time, and it gets to be pretty close-knit.

Do you keep in touch with those folks?

No, no, not at all. Some of them, I don’t know where they are. Some I’ve known for years. We’ve known the Whites – Buck White and his daughters – for years. The Nashville Bluegrass Band we’ve known for years, but some of those people were not in our immediate scope of operation. I don’t know where those guys have gone, but I wonder sometimes.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? really brought folk music back to the mainstream.

I think it came at a good time, right on the heels of 9/11, and I think the country was pretty warped by what had happened. It focused a lot of attention on folk music, string music, bluegrass — call it what you will, as Carter Stanley used to say. I think people were more ready for something that had a little more substance like that.

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