American Folk Great Norman Blake to Release New Album Day By Day, Out October 22nd
American guitarist Norman Blake is one of the great unsung heroes of 20th-century folk music. Over the course of his lengthy career, he’s been at the forefront of multiple revivals of American roots music, from his work in the late 60s and 70s as the house guitarist for Johnny Cash and his playing on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, to his work creating newgrass with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and in the 2000s reinventing bluegrass for a new generation with T Bone Burnett on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Even with the glitz, glamor, and prestige, including nine Grammy nominations, Blake has held steadfast to the idea that the music should remain as humble as his own aspirations. And though he’s recently undergone a kind of personal renaissance – releasing five albums in the last ten years for the same label, Plectrafone Records – he’s done this work entirely by hand, recording in and around his rural home in the hinterlands of Georgia.
His new album Day by Day, due out October 22, 2021 and now available for pre-order, is an album of favorite folk songs done in single take recordings. On guitar and on banjo, Blake showcases the instrumental mastery that’s won him four generations of fans, never playing for speed or virtuosity, but always treating the source material with the greatest respect.
For the past ten years, Blake’s been crafting new music for Plectrafone, much of it surprisingly coming from the original songwriting that Blake only rarely showcased before. Blake’s poetic song “Time,” an ode to days long gone, and instrumental tune “Old Joe’s March” are the only originals on the album; the rest of the songs and melodies are taken from Blake’s lifetime of interest in American roots music. Here he interprets old classics like “The Dying Cowboy,” and resurrects even older ballads like “Montcalm and Wolfe,” a broadside ballad describing a 1759 battle, and the Tin Pan Alley number “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me.” Blake cuts through the cloying nostalgia that clings to these songs by playing them straight and with the utmost respect. As he says in the liner notes, “The material is always the main thing with me; I consider my performance to be a very humble part of it.” The album was recorded in one afternoon, cut in single takes in a recording studio in Alabama, under 30 minutes from Blake’s rural Georgia home. Blake’s wife Nancy, who has appeared on many of Blake’s recent albums, joins him on cello, as do members of The Rising Fawn String Ensemble including fiddler James Bryan, vocalist David Hammonds, and guitar/vocalist Joel McCormick. Despite the presence of friends, the album is mostly Blake on his own, holding court in such a relaxed manner that you’d almost expect him to be playing this on his front porch for Nancy as the sun softly sets on a long day.
At 83 years old, Norman Blake has earned the title of elder statesman of American folk music. His music has influenced too many other guitarists to count, has driven folk revivals for fifty years, and garnered him many awards and accolades. But the songs have always been the true stars in his mind, and he proves it with Day by Day. He sets each song as carefully into his arrangement as a jeweler, and these shimmering sepia images of our collective past come to life in his hands. As he sings on the one new song on this album, “the magic lamp of time shines bright,” and for Blake it’s always showed him the path forward.