Just back from the road, Norman and Nancy Blake are sitting on a weathered wooden bench on the front porch of their home place in Rising Fawn, playing an old fiddle tune called “Prettiest Little Girl in the County.” It’s a stifling July afternoon, but the sound of the couple’s deft picking drifts above the humid air like a soft breeze.
“Cool, dude,” says Nancy, shooting Norman a goofy grin. “Play ‘Going Down In the Valley.’ I wanted to hear that in Colorado, and we never did get to it.”
Norman adjusts the capo on his guitar, peering down over his wire-rim glasses at Bascom, the family dog—a rambunctious terrier named for Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the North Carolina folklorist and songwriter, who wrote such classics as “Old Mountain Dew” and “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.”
“That dog is always on the wrong side of the door,” Norman says. “But I guess I’ve been on the wrong side of the door all my life.”
It’s a sly joke, told in a resonant Georgia drawl, altogether typical of the Blakes’ minimalist sensibility—a sort of oblique blend of folksy and hip, with strong strains of political and spiritual notions.
Norman and Nancy Blake may be the greatest living exponents of old time American folk and country music. And Norman is certainly a flatpicking guitar legend—a fact evidenced in wood and steel in the Norman Blake Signature Model that was released late last year by the C.F. Martin guitar company.
Mention the Blakes to most people, though, and more often than not the reaction is a blank stare.
“I’ve played on lots of different kinds of records,” Norman says, “And I’ve been a part of lots of different kinds of music as a working musician. But I never on my own ever really felt that I had the flair to do much else than what I do. Nancy has a favorite saying, ‘You’ve got to want it.’ And I guess I didn’t want it.”
Truth is, at 67, Norman Blake has been playing professionally for over 50 years. He’s been in bands backing the Carter Family, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. He was on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, recorded and toured with John Hartford and Joan Baez and was also part of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s influential album, Will the Circle be Unbroken. More recently, Norman appeared on the O Brother, Where Art Thou and Cold Mountain soundtracks, and with Nancy on the Down From the Mountain tour and June Carter Cash’s final album, Wildwood Flower.
Since they were married in 1975 (they parted for a time in the late ’90s), Norman and Nancy have released a long string of solo and duo recordings and garnered multiple Grammy nominations. Their new disc, Back Home In Sulphur Springs, harks back to Norman’s very first solo record, Home In Sulphur Springs.
Like most of their previous works, it’s a collection of traditional gems, rendered by the Blakes in a remarkably relaxed but intricate acoustic style. Norman plays guitar, dobro, fiddle and mandolin. Nancy plays guitar, cello and mandolin. And together, they sing in harmonies that call to mind another time.
Two tunes on Back Home In Sulphur Springs, the title track and “Seaboard Airline Rag,” were penned by Norman, and evoke the places in rural Northwest Georgia, near the confluence of the Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee lines, where his family has been for over 200 years.
“I’ve lived in Northwest Georgia all but the first 11 months of my life,” says Blake (who was born in Chattanooga). “My great, great grandfather, Thomas Kincaid Blake, was born in 1776 in Chester, South Carolina, and he’s buried here. My great grandfather was born in 1829 and is buried here. The whole tribe is here.”
Inside the wood-paneled country kitchen of the sprawling, three-story house the Blakes had built from a plan sketched by Nancy, there are inspirational Bible verses scrawled on a white message board; CNN flickers on a muted TV; and a pot of extra strong coffee perks on the stove.
“That coffee will rock your boat, if you want your boat rocked,” Norman allows. “You’ll have to cut it with whiskey, because water won’t be strong enough.”
As Nancy passes out glasses of ice water, the conversation rambles from R. Crumb and Ren and Stimpy cartoons to the 200-year-old oak on the property and the war in Iraq. As to what life in Rising Fawn is like most of time, “When I’m not working the road,” Nancy says, grinning again, “I’m keeping the estate.”
“It’s like every place else, I suppose,” Norman says. “There are certainly more people about, and more people coming. So it’s grown a little bit. But back where we live, there’s only so much land to be had. And it’s still fairly quiet for the most part. When I was a kid, we were raising corn and cotton. It seems like there are a lot more people raising cattle now.”
Behind the house, there’s a meadow where wild passion flowers grow, and deep woods with tall pines and hardwood trees. The Blakes’ land is bordered by the south end of Lookout Mountain, where several points are known by fanciful names such as Billy Goat Point and Johnson’s Crook. It seems like the ideal residence for a pair of musicians. And the Blakes say they plan to spend a lot more time here from now on.
“We’re not playing the road as much anymore,” says Norman. “And we’re thinking of playing it a lot less. We’re trying to retire off the road. I’ve done it for the last 40 years and I’m too old. I’ll be 68 next March and it hurts too much. We’ll always play music, but I’m getting very tired of the highway and the political situation in this country and the chaos that’s out there now. I just don’t consider it anything I want to be a part of – the whole atmosphere of the country, the leadership that we have and this excuse for a government that we have.”
If they’re depressed about the current state of the world, the Blakes do take some comfort from the latest revival of interest in bluegrass and old time music, spurred in part by O Brother. It’s a phenomenon Norman has seen before, when Will the Circle be Unbroken was first released.
“They try to keep it down,” he says, “But every once in a while it breaks through. There’s usually just some happening or incident that brings it to the fore. Then it gets a little boost and then it fades back, because it’s never a mainstream thing. The Circle record was just a big record. It had all those people on it. And, of course, O Brother had a movie to fuel it.”
But whether it’s popular at the moment or not, it’s the enduring strength of old time music that keeps Norman and Nancy Blake playing and singing the songs.
“It covers the things that a lot of other music is afraid to touch,” says Norman. “It’s raw, it’s emotional, it’s powerful – the writing and emotions cover everything that’s ever happened to anybody.”