Ordinary Guy, Extraordinary Music

Hometown Heroes, People
on January 13, 2002

If the meek shall inherit the earth, Norman Blake is well on his way to claiming his share of the kingdom.

For four decades, the easy-going guitarist with the scruffy beard and wavy gray hair has been revered as a folk legend by die-hard fans of bluegrass and early American music. Now, thanks to his contributions to the platinum soundtrack from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, he’s also charmed music critics, city folks, and teenagers who once snubbed their noses at twangy folk tunes.

“I’m just doing what I want to do,” says Blake, who lives in a rambling, three-story farmhouse in Rising Fawn, Ga., (pop. 4,000) with his wife, Nancy, an accomplished cellist, and a blond Cairn terrier named Bascom. “It doesn’t interest me as show business. It interests me as an art form.”

Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., Blake grew up in Sulphur Springs, Ga., and Rising Fawn, listening to the sounds of live radio, the well-worn records of Roy Acuff and the Carter Family, and the hillbilly plucking of his kinfolk. By age 11, his grandmother had taught him to play guitar, and at 16, he quit school to play mandolin with his first band, The Dixie Drifters, on the Tennessee Barndance show on KNOX radio in Knoxville, Tenn.

“I just had a yen for this all the way down the line,” Blake says.

Later, he was drafted into the Army, where he served as a radio operator in the Panama Canal Zone in 1956.

When he came home, Blake taught guitar and began frequenting the Nashville, Tenn., music scene. One day in 1963, a booking-agent friend invited him to sit in on a Johnny Cash recording session. The legendary balladeer was short a Dobro player and hired Blake on the spot, sparking a longtime friendship.

“John’s a great guy,” Blake says. “I could talk about him for days and weeks and never run out of (good) adjectives.”

It didn’t take long for Blake to tire of the Nashville scene, though, and he came back to Rising Fawn, about three miles from his old homeplace.

Over the years, Blake recorded 28 CDs, not counting his collaborations with Cash, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and other hit-makers. Six of his records were nominated for Grammy awards in the traditional folk category, and he became known as one of the world’s best acoustic guitar flat-pickers and a master on Dobro, mandolin, viola, Hawaiian guitar, and fiddle.

“He is to old-time string music what the Library of Congress is to history,” wrote a reviewer for the (St. Louis) Riverfront Times last spring.

And yes, the success of the O Brother soundtrack has been good for business, he says. Blake performed the CD version of You Are My Sunshine, cut a guitar rendition of I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow, and provided instrumentals on several other tracks.

“The music never seems to quite die, but it’s good to see it get a little shot in the arm every once in a while,” he admits.

Last June, Blake and the rest of the O Brother performers played Carnegie Hall. A few nights later, he serenaded a standing-room-only crowd in Greenwich Village.

“Norman is a modest, gentle guy who’s been doing this music for 45 years,” says Scott O’Malley, Blake’s longtime publicist. “He says he can hardly even go down to the corner stop without people standing there looking for autographs. He loves it, but Norman’s a private guy.”

Despite all the O Brother publicity, Blake has no plans to change his lifestyle. Success, to him, means owning his farm. He generally shuns things he considers high-tech, satisfied “if I can get something to play an old record on,” and even went once for eight years without watching television. He dislikes flying, touring the country instead in an RV he keeps parked on his land. But he’s pleased that a type of music once popular only in the rural South now has so many people humming along. And he’s looking forward to the O Brother cross-country tour, starring the entire musical cast, which begins this month.

“I really don’t think we have seen the end of it, by any means,” he says. “Who knows what it will lead to?”