Although he is proficient with a variety of stringed instruments, Norman Blake is famous for his acoustic guitar skills -- he was one of the major bluegrass guitarists of the '70s. Blake came into view in the late '60s, when he began performing as a sideman with artists as diverse as June Carter and Bob Dylan. During the '70s, he began a solo career that quickly became one of the most popular and musically adventurous within bluegrass. He continued recording and performing -- occasionally with his wife, Nancy -- well into the '90s. Blake began playing music professionally when he was 16 years old, joining the Dixieland Drifters as a mandolinist in 1954; the group debuted on Tennessee Barn Dance, a radio show based in Knoxville. After two years, he left the band and became a member of the Lonesome Travelers, which was led by banjoist Bob Johnson. By the end of the '50s, the Lonesome Travelers had added a second banjoist, Walter Forbes, and had made two records for RCA. Although he joined Hylo Brown & the Timberliners in 1959, Blake continued to perform with Johnson. The following year, he also became a member of June Carter's touring band.
In 1961, Blake was drafted into the Army, and was stationed in Panama. While in the service, he was a radio operator on the Panama Canal and formed a band called the Kobbe Mountaineers. The band became a popular attraction and was voted the best band in the Caribbean Command. In 1962, Blake recorded Twelve Shades of Bluegrass with the Lonesome Travelers while he was on leave. He was discharged from the Army the following year and moved to Nashville, where he joined Johnny Cash's band. That same year, he married Nancy Short and settled in Chattanooga, Tennessee. For the next few years he played with Cash, both on recordings and concerts. In 1969, Bob Dylan hired Blake to play on his country-rock album Nashville Skyline, providing the guitarist with a whole new audience. That audience expanded even further when he became Cash's main guitarist on the singer's television show. Cash's program featured a wide array of musical guests, who were often impressed with Blake's talents. Kris Kristofferson asked him to join his touring band and Norman did so, playing both guitar and Dobro; he also played on several of Kristofferson's records. Blake also played on several of Joan Baez's records, including her hit version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
Following his folk and country-rock experiments, Blake returned to his bluegrass roots in 1971 when he joined John Hartford's band Aeroplane, which also featured fiddler Vassar Clements. Aeroplane fell apart quickly, but Blake stayed with Hartford for a year and a half. In 1972, Norman recorded his first solo album, Back Home in Sulphur Springs, which began a long relationship with Rounder Records. This arrangement lasted through Blake's 1990 album Norman Blake and Tony Rice 2, a follow-up to an earlier collaboration with Tony Rice. Most of Blake's output in the '90s was released on the equally venerable Shanachie label, including 1999's Be Ready Boys: Appalachia to Abilene. Far Away, Down on a Georgia Farm arrived that same year, followed by Flower from the Fields of Alabama in 2001. Blake teamed up with Ukrainian fiddler/mandolin player Peter Ostroushko for 2002's Meeting on Southern Soil in February of the following year, with the compilation Old Ties arriving later that spring.
Norman and Nancy put out Morning Glory Ramblers in 2004 and Back Home in Sulphur Springs in 2006. Norman released Shacktown Road in early 2007, following it with Sleepy Eyed Joe in 2009. That same year saw the release of Rising Fawn Gathering, a reunion of sorts with Blake's early-'80s group the Rising Fawn String Ensemble, which had issued three albums for Rounder in the early '80s with James and Rachel Bryan. The new recording juxtaposed the group with Ireland's Boys of the Lough in a collection that showcased Southern folk music as it evolved from Celtic origins.
In 2011, Norman released Green Light on the Southern, a completely solo collection of traditional folk and country standards. He recorded solo again in late 2014. Wood, Wire & Words was his first collection of all-original material since 1974's Fields of November; it was issued by Plectrafone in January of 2015 and received a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album of that year. The guitarist returned two years later with Brushwood Songs & Stories. It contained 19 originals, including two instrumental rags, two spoken word pieces, and 15 songs, two of which were co-written with wife Nancy, who also sang harmony on five tracks. ~ Kurt Wolff