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Norman Blake, A Multi-Instrumentalist Folk Music Master

By Edited May 5, 2016 0 4

Norman Blake
Credit: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=36

Norman Blake, A Folk and Bluegrass Musical Master

When it comes down to traditional American music, and especially in regards to Appalachian music, no one living is more a master of these forms of music than is Mr. Norman Blake.  Norman Blake is primarily known as an acoustic guitarist, and especially in the genre known as flatpicking; but Norman is much more than that.  He is an accomplished Dobro player, a fiddler, a mandolin player, and also a well versed musician on many another little known hybrid instrument; instruments such as the manjo(a mandolin-banjo), the mandocello(like a mandolin, but much larger), so forth, and so on.

While friend and fellow flatpicking great, Tony Rice, often plays up the neck of the guitar, and in complex jazz forms; Norman Blake more often plays in the first position, and employes quite a lot of open notes, while playing very strong melodies.  Norman has spent his entire life dedicated to the making of music on stringed instruments, he'd dropped out of school at 16 years of age to begin that career, and his career extends to this day, and will surely last until he is no longer living.  Rather un-like Tony Rice, Norman Blake isn't ever associated with one particular make or model of guitar, in fact, he's not even always associated with that instrument; the guitar is merely his primary instrument.  He's recorded with more makes and models of guitar than most anyone else there is, and how many records Norman has appeared on, probably Norman doesn't even know.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1938; Norman was raised in Georgia, and in Georgia he remains.  He's a devout preservationists of traditional American tunes, and besides that, he's penned himself some lyrics and music that will pass on into the cannon of traditional American music, songs the caliber of which will remain strong and loved, possibly after the author's name has passed beyond memory. Norman has written terrific songs about outlaws, Appalachian life, and even Canadian history.  He's always been specifically fond of trains, and has written a number of songs about them.  He's also composed a number of terrific instrumental tunes in the traditional style, and in both flatpicking styles and fingerpicking styles.  Maybe his two best known albums are Whiskey Before Breakfast, and Back Home In Sulphur Springs.

Norman Blake And Friends Perform "Randall Collins," and Some Bluegrass.

The Playing Style And Recording Artists To Feature Norman Blake

Originally there was Doc Watson, and he's only recently passed away.  After Doc Watson paved the way for playing fiddle tunes on the acoustic guitar, Norman Blake and Clarence White stepped up to the plate and joined in.  Clarence White died when a drunken driver ran over him, and then Tony Rice, and Dan Crary were there to pick up the torch, and keep the music going.

Norman's style is his own, and it's unlike any of the other pickers mentioned.  Norman uses a lot of partially strummed chords mixed in with his flatpicking, and the effect is that it's hard to tell really if he's not fingerpicking really quickly at times.  But if you are like me, and you can hear Norman's distinct style immidiately due to familiarity, then you know what he's up to.  He is a lot like the late Doc Watson in a way, as he does both sing, and fingerpick.

One thing that Norman Blake does that few others do, is he very often uses a guitar with twelve frets clear of the body.  This is different in that most acoustic guitars have fourteen frets on the neck totally clear of the body.  In recent years Norman has recorded some tremendously good music using a very old Gibson Nick Lucas Special guitar. Though I'm an acoustic guitar aficionado, it's still hard for me to describe, exactly, what the difference in tonal qualities are for a twelve frets clear of the body instrument; but the one word I can think of to us is, "punchy."  The notes seem to come at you with a bit more velocity.  Incidentally, when Norman Blake has used a fourteen frets clear of the body Martin dreadnought guitar, he's favored the Martin D-18, and with its mahogany back and sides, such an instrument deviates from his preferred tonal palate none at all.

What is Norman Blake's playing style?

Before Norman began putting out albums under his own name regularly, he'd been a studio musician in Nashville, Tennessee for years.  When someone is a studio musician, that means they are literally a hired gun, someone hired from outside of a band to perform a role that no member of whatever band is being recorded can play.  When Norman was doing that, he was playing not just guitar, but fiddle, Dobro (resophonic guitar), and even mandolin, along with whatever other instruments may have been required.  What this means is Norman Blake can play a number of different styles.  He's just a terrific, well rounded musician; and this is evidenced by the huge number of artists he's recorded with and for.

Artists that Norman has recorded with include Johnny Cash, Steve Earl, Kris Kristofferson, Ralph Stanley, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and in more recent years, the soundtrack to the Cohen Brothers' film, Oh Brother Where Art Though?; and the terrific collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krause.

At the time of this publication, Norman Blake is 75 years old, and still actively recording and performing.  Norman Blake is now the virtual "godfather" of flatpicking acoustic guitar, and a terrific song writer, and composer as well as preserver of traditional American music.  He is, my friends, an American musical treasure.  Thanks for reading.

Norman Blake, Tony Rice, and Doc Watson



Jun 9, 2013 11:51am
I don't even know what a Dobro is lol
He sounds quite talented.
Jun 10, 2013 10:22am
It's a resophonic guitar! :)

Jun 10, 2013 9:10am
Thanks for the insights into Norman Blake. I remember reading an article a few years ago about him in "Acoustic Guitar" magazine, but I never listened to him. I think I'm gonna go check him out!
Jun 10, 2013 10:25am
I might have the same issue of "Acoustic Guitar" that you have. I've got lots of them, but none of them are very recent. I've probably got most of the guitar magazines I've ever owned still.

"Whiskey Before Breakfast," or "Chattanooga Sugar Babe" would be my two favorite Norman Blake records....he's also really good on Steve Earl's "Train a' Comin'" album.
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