Over a long career known for his musical integrity and his respect for tradition, Norman Blake has established a singular legacy as a guitarist, mandolinist, songwriter, singer, and session man. His newest recording has the feel of a final statement, as if he’s spent an extended period of time looking both behind and ahead, and feels that it’s time to say some things that he thinks need to be said.
The 19 tracks here are listed as “all original Blake music,” and with the exception of Nancy Blake’s voice supporting him here and there, it’s Norman’s voice and guitar (and a bit of fiddle) solo throughout. The sole instrumentals are fingerpicking and features a pair of lovely light tunes called “Newsome Gap Rag” and “The Generic Rag” that show his hands have lost none of their dexterity or expressiveness.
His voice on a few numbers has a bit of added cragginess, but for the most part rings clear and strong as he touches on themes near and dear to him. He’s a storyteller at heart, with occasional interspersed spoken word stories like “The Lantern Thru The Fog” and “The Nameless Photograph,” and he’s at his best in deftly profiling figures from history in song. This is how he spins the tale of a jazzman (“Bunk Johnson”), a dancer (“The Countess Lola Montez”), a train-robber (“The Fate Of Oliver Curtis Perry”), as well as a trainwreck story in “The Wreck On The Western & Atlantic.”
His wry humor is especially welcome on “Fiddlin’ Peg Leg Jackson On The Mourner’s Bench,” because many of his new songs have a starkly discouraged and even angry point-of-view. It’s clear that he’s not happy with the direction in which the modern world is turning and doesn’t mince any words about it in songs like “The Target Shooter,” “High Rollers,” “The Truth Will Stand,” “There’s A Storm Somewhere,” and the song that could almost serve as the album’s theme, “How The Weary World Wears Away.”
When the recording ends with a plainspoken song called “Stay Down On The Farm,” it’s pretty clear that this is his own plan for the foreseeable future. We can only hope that Norman Blake will continue to venture out, if only via his songs and recordings, to share a musical vision that has always been and continues to be uniquely his own. (Plectrafone Records, P.O. Box 9187, Colorado Springs, CO 80932, www.plectrafone.com.)HK