Every time I pick up my guitar, I think of the players that have influenced me and helped me to create my own playing style: from the local musicians I grew up playing with in Ohio, to the guitarists who have pioneered the art. Although I love local musicians and what they represent, one of those influential pioneers stands out to me every time I play.
Norman Blake was known primarily as a studio and backup guitarist for larger names like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, among others. He was also the guitarist in the late John Hartford’s Aereo-Plane band.
In 1972, Blake released his own album titled “Back Home in Sulphur Springs.” The album was the beginning of a solo career that would define flatpicking guitar, the style of playing commonly used in bluegrass and old-time, in a new way. Guitarists from the legendary Tony Rice, who has been inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame and has released two records with Blake, to newer flatpickers such as Chris Eldridge and Molly Tuttle all show the influence of Blake’s simple sounding yet incredibly complex picking.
It is not just the greats who are influenced by Blake’s almost poetic left hand transitions up and down the neck and his loose right hand and wrist. There is something about his playing style that intrigues me and many other “local” players I know.
If you have ever played old-time or bluegrass with a flatpick, you know how accurate and precise your right hand has to be in order to hit the right string at the right time. Then you go a little faster, and then a little more until you can hardly take it anymore, and your arm is so tight it feels like it might shatter at the slightest touch.
After nearly 11 years of picking up and down the strings, running through scales, working through crosspicking patterns, loosening my right hand andworking on split second decision making while soloing over chord changes, I have made some progress. I have been able to pick my way through some breaks, learn a few of the old-time fiddle tunes, jam at some local festivals and play rhythm for some incredible local Ohio pickers.
But I am still not there. I ask myself repeatedly how Blake can get so much out of one guitar using only a flatpick.
It’s more than just playing, though. Norman Blake is able to speak through the wood and the strings in a way that few can. He tells stories of his home in songs like “Coming Down From Rising Fawn.” He shares memories of his childhood and the people he knew in “Ginseng Sullivan.” He shares his love and enthusiasm for the railroad in almost every album he has made. He shares his desire for something different, something simple in his famous “Church Street Blues,” a song that Tony Rice brought an incredible amount of attention to with his 1993 cover.
Norman Blake has created a journal of albums and songs that have lasted through many years and will last for years to come.
That is what music is about. It is about making yourself vulnerable and telling your stories to those who care to listen. It is about taking this vulnerability and making something much more beautiful than the inevitable fear that comes with this openness.
The best part is that you have to learn how to live with what you do make out of it. It becomes a part of you. Music is more than notes and chords and the occasoinal written word.
Norman Blake is not just a guitar player who strums and picks a little; he is a musician. He has mastered a life of vulnerability and storytelling through song. Music flows out of him like a fountain and, luckily for his listeners, he is one of the best musicians to ever pick up a guitar.