Norman Blake | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Norman Blake

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These days Norman Blake is best known for his facility with the acoustic guitar traditions and songwriting styles of the American south--that's him doing "You Are My Sunshine" on the sound track to O Brother, Where Art Thou?--but his roots are in 1950s Nashville country. Born in Chattanooga in 1938, Blake grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and made his professional debut accompanying a team of blackface comedians. In the late 60s he reached a pop audience working with artists like Johnny Cash (including a stint on Cash's TV show), Kris Kristofferson, and Bob Dylan (he appeared on Nashville Skyline in 1969). In the early 70s he remade himself as a folkie, and since then he's developed a historically accurate, effortlessly dexterous flat-picking style that makes it hard to distinguish his own compositions from traditional material. On his latest album, this year's Flower From the Fields of Alabama (Shanachie), he's in top form: his propulsive, bass-heavy strumming is just relaxed enough to allow his lacy single-string patterns to unfurl at an unhurried pace, and his flat-timbred, unnuanced vocals seem suited to the simple but deeply spiritual common folk who populate the songs. Blake interprets the fiddle standard "Bonaparte's Grand March" with such delicacy it sounds more like a religious meditation than a martial anthem, and on "Salty Dog" his rippling finger work stands in for the customary libidinous braying. Instrumentals like "Chasin' Rainbows" and his own "T.A.G. Railroad Rag" showcase single-string licks imitative of a ragtime pianist's fleet runs and curlicues; "The Slopes of Beech Mountain," another original, stays true to its old-timey inspiration right down to the lyrics, as Blake sings about his "brogan shoes" and "gold watch chain." It's a testament to his mastery of the idiom that he can toss off such careful details so nonchalantly. Sunday, October 7, 7 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mac Carbonell.

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