Personnel: Norman Blake (guitar); Norman Blake, Nancy Blake (guitar).
Recording information: Cook Sound Studios, Fort Payne, AL; Songbird Recording Studio, Gaylesville, AL.
Photographer: Gary Hamilton.
In 2004, Norman Blake concluded an interview with CMT by saying, "Long ago, I decided I had no future trying to be a guitar gun. I never did like it in the first place...I always liked music more than technique." That's saying a lot for a man who has been playing professionally since the '50s with Mother Maybelle, June Carter Cash, and Anita & Helen Carter, among others, and he's played on iconic records by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and John Hartford, to name just three. On Wood, Wire & Words, his first recording of all-original pieces since 1974's Fields of November, Blake makes plain the statement above. This set is solo save for one track: the fine country-gospel number "There's a One Way Road to Glory," co-written with his wife Nancy Blake, who also sings harmony on it. He plays his signature Martin 000-28B and a 1928 Martin 000-45. Blake's singing voice is slightly weathered but still expressive and soulful in its trademark understatement. His guitar playing, as usual, is unassailable and deliberately slower; it effortlessly fits these well-crafted songs that are rooted deeply in the Southern soil. There are two tracks he cut previously: "Savannah Rag" is played in a fingerpicked style this time around, and "Chattanooga Rag," previously recorded on a six-string banjo, is played with bare fingers. But it's his story songs that resonate most. "Keeper of the Government Light on the River" is about a man who could support a family for $15 a month. "The Incident at Condra's Switch," a tale about a train robbery, is one of several excellent outlaw ballads on the record. It tells of an older, wilder, and more easily understood America. Outlaw ballad "Black Bart" unfolds gradually. The first-person narrative is replete with scenic imagery, personas, archetypes, and an outlook that ironically bridges the nation's from past to present. Another one, "Joseph Thompson Hare on the Old Natchez Trace," is about a gunslinger who traveled from the Northeast to the Deep South only to find himself at the end of a hangman's noose in Baltimore. The set's most compelling cut, however, is one from the time of the Mexican Revolution. "Farewell Francisco Madero," with its lilting mariachi intro, gets transposed it into a more conventional, minor-key folk ballad, but Blake's lyrics are riveting; his delivery is haunted and beguiling, making the distance between place and time melt into the ether: all that's left is now. "Grady Forester's Store and Cotton Gin" is autobiographical. Again, Blake's words erase the intervening years and take the listener directly back to that period and the inside of his experience. For Blake's fans, Wood, Wire & Words sounds like the album he's wanted to make for decades. For those who love American folk music but are unfamiliar with his work, there has never been a better argument for making this a starting place and moving backward. ~ Thom Jurek