Day by Day is the latest offering from American guitarist and folk musician Norman Blake. Now 83, his warm weathered tones offer an authentic and soothing delivery collection of songs.
An elder statesman of Americana roots music, Blake has had a presence on many an iconic project since becoming a member of Johnny Cash’s backing band in 1963. Adept on any number of stringed instruments, notably guitar, dobro and banjo, even fiddle, he has appeared on records as hallowed and varied as Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ and the soundtrack of ‘O, Brother Where Art Thou’. His sought after and timeless playing also made him the obvious choice for adding his authentic-sounding acoustic guitar to some of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ ‘Raising Sand’. As well as having undoubted mastery of his instruments, he has a gloriously unstructured vocal style, which is now more redolent of a sipping whiskey, much of the fire replaced with a sweet glow and a lingering delicacy.
Blake has a long and healthy discography, often collaborations, with many being solo or with his wife, Nancy, an acclaimed instrumentalist who joins him again here on cello. Classically trained, she was a trailblazer for that instrument in this idiom, now commonplace in bluegrass and traditional Americana. Day By Day contains nine songs, each recorded in a single take, and are a mix of solo recordings on which he is joined by Nancy, along with members of The Rising Fawn String Ensemble that include fiddler James Bryan, vocalist David Hammonds, and guitar/vocalist Joel McCormick. A couple are originals while others are new takes on old staples, his gift being to embellish the most ubiquitous a song with a charming lustre of his own. It all could actually be that cliché, on his back porch.
Such is ‘When the Roses Bloom’, the 1929 Carter Family song, their version a much more rousing message of intent than here, where Blake imbues a poignancy that is drawn more from hope. His guitar frames the melody perfectly, seemingly simple and spare. Older still is ‘Tell Them That You Saw Me’, a morality tale from 1895; a chance encounter with the presumably “fallen” Madge. Corny as hell on the page, but as touching as can be in Blake’s straight and un-nuanced rendition. The trend continues with his reworking of a 1927 song, ‘I’m Free Again’, the verses swapped about to suit some slight revisioning, and adding further lines, complementing rather than embellishing. That this sort of material can take pride of place, nearly a century later is summed up by Blake in his sleevenotes: “The material is always the main thing with me; I consider my performance to be a very humble part of it.”
A change to the mood comes with Blake’s own ‘Old Joe’s March’, an instrumental on a five-string banjo, a courtly and elegiac two-step that evokes sepia images of the civil war. By comparison, the guitar picking that introduces ‘Montcalm and Wolfe’ sounds positively contemporary on a ballad that shares recognisable elements with the more familiar ‘A Blacksmith Courted Me’. In the liner notes, Blake reveals that Wolfe is the British General James Wolfe (1727–1759) and Montcalm, the French Marquis de Montcalm (1712–1759). “They were opposing generals at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec. Both died in the battle— won by the British. According to legend, Wolfe’s dying words were, “Now I will die in peace,” after hearing that his troops were victorious. His legacy in this battle established him as a folk hero.”
‘Three Leaves of Shamrock’ now runs the gamut into classic Irish American sentimentality, with any hint of mawkishness devoutly avoided by Blake’s respect for the song, which was written in 1889 by a James McGuire. Blake recalls that Charlie Poole recorded a well-known version of the song in 1929 titled ‘Leaving Dear Old Ireland’, and his version here is described as a ‘composite of the two’ with his own melody cradling the song in a loving setting. This wistful mood lingers into ‘Time’, the second original, this time a song, and in a style not far removed from the shellac-hued material elsewhere. In referencing the allure of older times, it fits in seamlessly. A thoughtful lyric, it may have you ruing, alongside him, the passage of time…It should be made compulsory listening for the young.
‘The Dying Cowboy’ is the sort of song that nobody could possibly ever write today, an unashamed tear-jerker whose origins go back to the 18th-century ballad “The Unfortunate Rake”. Other US variants exist, including the well-known ‘Streets of Laredo’, a song recorded by many country and western singers, including Johnny Cash. Delightfully maudlin, Blake is perfect, joined by Nancy on cello and James Bryan’s fiddle. Members of The New Fawn String Ensemble remain grouped for the more upbeat closer, here augmented by the backing vocals of Joel McCormick and David Hammonds, McCormick also adding additional guitar for ‘My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains’, an apt and appropriate place to close the album.
There is no better time to have this album laid before us, an opportunity to savour the past through the hands of a consummate craftsman.