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Listen to This: Music from the Tennessee Mountains

Norman Blake is a veteran keeper of the Tennessee mountains’ musical traditions. And a young act, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, is championing the same heritage.

Long before Ralph Peer’s Bristol Sessions in 1927, Tennessee was a deep well of the music we have been trained to pigeonhole into fabricated categories like old-timey, country, bluegrass or some such. Like most labels created to sell a product, these terms serve both to describe and obscure the actual music. They might offer a hint of what you will hear, but only just.

Admittedly, even the journalistic convenience of grouping two artists from the same state, while justifiable, is something of a cheap trick. But while the new albums from Norman Blake and the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are in many ways as different as apples and peaches, they are recognizably descendent of the same general traditions that were captured in Bristol (not to mention Johnson City and Knoxville) nearly a century ago.

Norman Blake, a master of mountain music
Norman Blake, a master of mountain music

Over the latter half of that time span, Chattanooga native Norman Blake has been at the forefront of keeping the tradition alive, releasing around 40 albums under his name and upwards of half-a-dozen highly influential instructional videos. Unless you are deep into the music that is now known as “Americana” — yet another genre-jail label that has been slung so carelessly as to mean next to nothing — you are probably not familiar with his name, but I’ll bet all the money in my pockets that you have heard him more times than you could count.

Blake has appeared on a handful of film soundtracks, including “O Brother Where Art Thou.” The popular success of that movie and soundtrack made this music safe for a wider — and more affluent — demographic than ever before. That album literally transformed the image of an art form that until then had been largely dismissed as the sound of down-market, backwoods bumpkins; even the Nashville establishment wanted nothing to do with it. Then “O Brother” went and sold more than 8 million copies, unheard of numbers for an album of “hillbilly” music. (Hell, this video of Blake performing "You Are My Sunshine" has racked a million and half views in just the past three years.)

Norman Blake played with Johnny Cash’s touring band for 10 years before becoming a member of the house band for Cash’s 1969-’71 television show.

Blake played with Johnny Cash’s touring band for 10 years before becoming a member of the house band for Cash’s 1969-71 television show. That led to touring stints with Kris Kristofferson and an appearance on “Nashville Skyline” with Bob Dylan. Soon after that, he recorded “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with Joan Baez and appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album.

Then he met Nancy Short, a classically trained cellist who fell for Blake and his music. They recorded their first album together in 1974, married in 1975, and are still making music together. For fans of this music, “Norman and Nancy” could refer to nobody else.

Nearly 50 years on, Nancy appears on his latest release, “Day by Day” (Smithsonian Folkways, 2021), but this album is really the Norman Blake show. Recorded in a single afternoon at a ripe young 83 years old, this mix of Blake originals and a few traditional tunes fits like your favorite sweater: nicely worn in, soft in all the right places, providing the cozy warmth that only years of honest wear can deliver. It is easy to imagine sitting in a swing listening to Norman serenade Nancy on their front porch overlooking the mountains.

Blake’s guitar playing remains a national treasure. He no longer has the chops that allowed him to rip alongside the legendary Tony Rice in the mid-’80s, but nobody alive can beat him on touch and time; he is steady as a fine watch and the equal of any player decades younger. His voice is where the time’s passage really shows, though: craggy, a tad trembling, but dripping with the resonance that comes only with a long life lived fully.

The track “Time” captures the situation nicely, Blake’s voice wrapping around the lyric “Time has taken in its sway / the golden dream of yesterday” with a world-weary knowledge earned through long experience.

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As inspiring as it is for an old goat like me to hear people even older carrying their traditions forward, it is a special thrill when the next generation raises up champions that will push this music long after I’m gone.

The Po' Ramblin' Boys
The Po' Ramblin' Boys

The Tennessee-cured quintet the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys seem to have emerged fully formed from the head of some Olympian goddess, but like any overnight sensation, this band has paid their dues and then some. They spent a good portion of the past decade performing as much as ten hours per day as house band at Ole Smoky Moonshine in Gatlinburg. In an interview with “The String,” a terrific podcast from radio station WMOT-FM out of Murfreesboro, founding mandolinist C.J. Lewandowski noted, “We were getting paid to rehearse. It made us tight, and we didn't even know it… . I think everything in music that we've had to fight or figure out has happened on that stage, to become what we are now. We've had to figure it all out.”

Along the way, they released three solid albums as a quartet that hinted at what they were to become. In 2018 they took home the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year. Their 2019 Rounder Records release, “Toil, Tears & Trouble,” earned them a Grammy nomination, and they’ve garnered several more Entertainer of the Year nominations from the IBMA. Their star, it was rising.

The addition of fiddler/vocalist Laura Orshaw elevated a good band into an ensemble that stands shoulder to shoulder with the finest bluegrass outfits since Bill Monroe went high and lonesome some eighty years ago. (Orshaw had appeared on “Toil, Tears & Trouble” as a guest artist and was invited to become a full member in 2020.)

The Tennessee-cured quintet the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys seem to have emerged fully formed from the head of some Olympian goddess, but like any overnight sensation, this band has paid their dues and then some.

Their latest, “Never Slow Down” (Smithsonian Folkways, 2022), has everything you could ask for from a bluegrass band: tight vocal harmonies and pants-afire instrumental breakdowns that never lose sight of the importance of putting the song first.

As the album notes put it, the band has a “commitment to tradition [and] an understanding that time marches on.” Aside from two originals by guitarist Josh Rinkel, songs by Carter Stanley (“Little Glass of Wine”), Jim Lauderdale (“Old Time Angels”) and Earl Montgomery’s “Where Grass Won’t Grow” (a song made famous by George Jones) showcase the band’s ability to honor tradition without getting stuck in museum-like fetishism.

A good example of Orshaw’s magic dust contribution is “Ramblin’ Woman” by Hazel Dickens, one of the first women to stand out in the male-dominated bluegrass world.

I know I’m making a big deal of Orshaw, but make no mistake: This is a true band outing, a coherent group of equals both vocally and instrumentally. Every one of these cats can shred with the best. Their vocal arrangements are tight as the proverbial tick and their archive catalog choices are spot on.

And if this original number by guitarist Josh Rinkel is a sign, they have the potential to add to the classic repertoire, too.

Go. Listen.

Rob Rushin-Knopf blogs about culture at Immune to Boredom.

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Chattanooga-based writer/musician Rob Rushin-Knopf, Salvation South’s longtime culture warrior, blogs about culture at Immune to Boredom and appears regularly as one-half of the near-jazz duo RoboCromp.

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