NORMAN AND NANCY BLAKE: "THE HOBO'S LAST RIDE"
Bio / Press Release by David Royko, July 15, 1996
It is a rule of thumb that folk singers aren't supposed to be virtuoso pickers. That same rule book also has a chapter about making albums via recording one take after another until you can stitch together a perfectly polished product. Elsewhere, that rule book also says that you must write all of your own material to make a great album.
Seems that nobody sent a copy of that book to rule breakers Norman and Nancy Blake. But it hasn't seemed to hurt them, considering that their previous three duet albums all received Grammy nominations and critical raves.
And their new release, "The Hobo's Last Ride," features the dazzling instrumental work that has made Norman an MVP for the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez, and John Hartford, as well as Norman and Nancy's gorgeous duet singing that has been favorably compared to all of the classic appalachian duos going back to the founders themselves, the Carter Family.
But despite a laid-back demeanor, these two don't like to sit still for long, and this album features some new twists from the old home place.
For one, Norman has added a few more instruments to his already-extensive arsenal, such as a National resonator guitar and the six-string banjo, to go along with his guitar, mandolin and fiddle. Nancy's cello, guitar and mandolin also have a new cousin, the piccolo mandolin. As Norman says, "If there's any difference between this album and the last two or three duet albums that we've done, is that there's a little wider range of sounds on this one."
Nancy is also quick to point out Norman's incredible zeal for uncovering obscure tunes. "Norman's really dug deep for this material, and it shows Norman at his best. I think the album would be of interest to anyone interested in old songs, because Norman's sort of like the Turner Classic Movies of song-finding."
One of the best examples is the first track of the disc, "The Democratic Donkey (Is In His Stall Again)," written by Bill Cox and first recorded a couple of weeks after FDR was re-elected in 1936. Says Nancy, with tongue firmly in cheek, "With the election coming up, we thought we'd throw it in since they might need it at the convention." Keeping the election-year theme going, Norman unearthed another political gem, the wry Cowboy Ed Crain number, "Starving To Death On The Government Claim."
Then there's Norman and Nancy's deep appreciation for the more serious aspects of songcraft, exemplified by the album's title track, "The Hobo's Last Ride," which also happens to feature Norman's sizzling slide guitar, through the poetic "Tying a Knot In The Devil's Tail," to the stunning "Midnight The Unconquered Outlaw," described by Norman as a "very fine literary work."
But for all the beauty and grace of those songs' words, Norman and Nancy's picking and bowing imbue these as well as their "songs without words," the instrumentals, with a musical poetry approaching that of high art. In fact, the one original composition on the album is Norman's "Thebes," a mandolin-driven instrumental that, until now, Norman and Nancy viewed as a piece of unfinished business. "We recorded this way back on a Tacoma album [Directions], in a sparser version," says Norman. "This new version branches out. It has two mandolins, and Nancy puts a real nice counterpoint harmony mandolin part to it." Adds Nancy, "We felt like the material was underdeveloped, so we worked it over again. It's like 'same tune, years later,' and it has something the early one didn't have."
And as a perfect example of both the duo's instrumental brilliance and Norman's knack for musical archeology, their recording of "Forked Deer" offers a fresh twist. As Norman puts it, "This 'Forked Deer' is kind of a composite, with three parts where you normally hear two. I learned it off of an old record that had the standard part, and it had this second part that I had never put in there, so I just put that in second, and made the usual second part into a third part. It makes it a little different and archaic."
At the heart of the new CD is Norman and Nancy's philosophy that the soul of music must breathe naturally. "We've tried to stay real with it," says Norman. "We haven't tried to slick it up in any way or overdo it. Sometimes when you polish off a rough edge, you lose the feeling. I always say that I like it with a little dirt on it." Nancy: "Everything we're doing is pretty much from start to finish. We don't try to patch it together like a lot of people do with their records now, where you take the best notes out of ten different takes and hammer one together. This is just music played in front of the microphones and there it is. We did a few overdubs but it is basically live in the studio. That's gotta be worth something."
In the case of Norman and Nancy Blake, it's worth plenty.