Mountain Melodies: Taking It All in Stride

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Grammy nominations are just another day at the office for respected guitar picker Norman Blake.

By STEVEN STIEFEL

In December, the National Academy of Arts and Sciences announced Norman Blake’s album “Wood, Wire & Words,” his first recording of all-original songs in more than 30 years, was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of Best Folk Album.

Chattanooga-born Blake is a nine-time nominee, having won once.

While humbled by the honor, he approached the latest nomination with the sort of nonchalance one would expect to find from someone who treasures his small town roots more than the glitz of fame.

“I finally won the eighth time, but it’s been a spell between then and now,” Blake says. “I don’t expect to win because it’s largely political. It’s about how big your label is to some extent.”

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]He did not plan to attend the 58th Annual Grammy Awards on February 15 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

“I’ve never been to the Grammy’s, and I never will,” he says. “It’s a big wing-ding party, but it costs a lot of money to get out there, and they don’t announce the winner of my category on TV.”

His bearded face – more Hollywood, Ala., than Hollywood, Calif. – and the nonchalant modesty he expresses might suggest nothing special on first impression to anyone unfamiliar with his work, but a demonstration of his exquisite technique and an education of his accomplishments quickly shatters any illusion that he is just another local killing time by picking guitar.

His lifelong dedication to music shines in the hundreds of country songs he knows so well.

Since 1989, Blake and his wife, Nancy, have received four Grammy nominations in the Best Traditional Folk Recording of the Year category for their projects: “Blind Dog,” their Shanachie label debut, “Just Gimme Somethin’ I’m Used To,” and releases “While Passing Along This Way” and “The Hobo’s Last Ride.” Blake performed in “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and “You Are My Sunshine” on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, which won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002.

The Blakes also lent their talents to three additional T-Bone Burnett soundtracks: “Cold Mountain,” “Walk the Line” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I

n the November 2006 issue of Acoustic Guitar Magazine, Burnett called Blake “a true hero, one of a handful of the best acoustic guitar players in the world and an absolutely revered musician I will continue to champion to the end of my days.”

Speaking of musical legends, Blake also played on the 2007 album “Raising Sand” by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. That album won five Grammy Awards. His recordings have been described as neotraditionalist Americana folk and roots music (folk, bluegrass, country, blues).

His current label, Plectrafone/Western Jubilee Records, refers to the newest nominated album, “Wood, Wire & Words,” as “eight songs, three rags and one march recorded by Norman and his guitar with one selection written and performed with Nancy Blake.”

Blake explains the title of the album as “what my life has been about since I was about 12 years old, playing the acoustic guitar with its wood and the wires and writing words.”

His storied past includes stints performing with a virtual “who’s who” of folk and country music. Of his many collaborations, Blake says Johnny Cash stands out because of their long run together. He was a regular on-screen picker for Cash’s television show and played for a time as a member of June Carter’s road group.

He made his mark on bluegrass, folk and traditional country music in the late 1960s and 1970s, also recording with the likes of Chet Atkins, Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Earl Scruggs. He’s partnered with Jack White and Reese Witherspoon, among a long list of others.

Aside from his work playing alongside Nancy, he’s best known for the sounds made with John Hartford and Tony Rice. Popular artists like Phish also have recorded his original songs. Compositions such as “Ginseng Sullivan” from “Back Home in Sulphur Springs,   “Slow Train through Georgia,” “Billy Gray” and “Church Street Blues” are considered bluegrass and folk standards by those in the know.

His latest originals were written over a period of about two months and recorded over a few days in the summer of 2014 at Cook Sound Studios in Fort Payne, Ala.

“I just decided I needed to sit down and write these songs. I was inspired to do it somehow,” he says. “I don’t totally know how, but I did it. This was my second album recorded at Cook Sound with David Hammonds. It’s a good lil studio, as good as Nashville, and it’s close to home. You can go there with the environment on the mountain for comparative quiet. David is a fine engineer with a good ear.”

The project is even more remarkable when one considers that it was Blake’s return to form after a serious health setback.

“I had, basically, a mini-stroke,” he says. “I had a 95 percent blocked artery. They operated on me, and I was in the hospital for 10 days. I was pretty incapacitated. I couldn’t talk very well and certainly couldn’t sing a song. It took me a while to get my playing back to some degree. It took about a year to recover to where I felt like I could do that again. It did not permanently impair my ability to perform. I was thankful I had a good doctor. It was easier playing again than getting my voice back.”

So gifted as an acoustic guitar flatpicker, he also plays the mandolin, six-string banjo, fiddle, dobro, banjo and viola. He has taught others to use his loose right hand guitar technique.

Picking up an instrument again and creating new songs after months of relearning how to physically function as before was a process of writing “to see what came out,” he says.

“I tried to write without any influence of any kind on it other than just what was going to come out of my own head or the situations I would find to write about. I get ideas for songs from whatever I can find in various books, from things I hear being said or something off the TV. There’s no set formula, just whatever strikes you.”

He described “Wood, Wire & Words” as “a fairly laid-back record. It’s not particularly entertaining in that it is fairly serious in forcing you to listen to the stories I’m telling. I like to evangelize a bit in my music even though it is not necessarily religious. I like saying something and telling stories. Some morals or some direction – some substance to it other than just entertainment value.”

“Wood, Wire & Words” was a solo project, although Nancy did co-write a song and provide harmony on it.

Despite their storied show-biz history over several decades – or perhaps because of it – the couple are content to stay in Rising Fawn, Ga., much of the time.

“I don’t much like big cities, much less Nashville,” Blake says. “There’s so much going on, and it’s so fast-paced. I was raised back in the sticks. We stopped touring nationally in 2007 and mostly play small gigs closer to home these days.”

Win or lose at L.A’.s celebration of the best music around, another Grammy won’t shake the Blakes’ appreciation for the rewards of simple country living and creating great music here in the shadows of Lookout Mountain.[/s2If]