THE MICHIGAN DAILY
THE MICHIGAN DAILY Page Five
By JOAN BORUS
Anyone who was privileged
enough to hear Norman Blake
last weekend at the Ark Coffee-
house knows that it more than
compensated for missing Bob
Dylan at Crisler. "Surprised you
all ain't at the Bob Dylan con-
cert," Blake told a packed house
last Saturday night, wryly add-
ing, "I'm him after taxes."
Indeed, as one talks to him this
desire to be recognized indepen-
dently of Dylan becomes even
more pronounced. This is reflect-
ed not only in a very fine spoof
of the former's "Mr. Tambour-
ine Man" that he did for me dur-
ing my interview, but also in his
comments to the audience.
"People are always asking me
what Bob Dylan's like," he said.
"I don't know the man outside of
one or two phonograph records
I've done for him. I think he was
trying to figure out what was
happening to him and now I
think he's found out," Blake
said, referring to Dylan at the
time when Nashville Skyline
was being recorded.
It is only in recent years that
Norman has begun to actively
tour, record, and write songs,
achieving the recognition he so
AP Photo richly deserves. Most of his mu-
sic reflects images and memo-
ries of his past; of a background
that is deeply rooted in the blue-
grass idiom. Much of the ma-
terial he performed on Saturday
comes from his album entitled
Norman Blake; Home in Sulphur
Springs, Georgia on the Rounder
Records label and is to a great
extent autobiographical in na-
Blake was very willing to talk
about his background, thus giv-
he said grinning. "We did have
a radio, though, that ran on big
bulb batteries. They burned up
so fast that my father rigged up
an old Packard automobile bat-
tery and ran the radio off of that
... that's where I got interested
in music because I heard music
from the radio when I was a
little-bitty kid and at that time
there was really a lot of live
string music back in the early
"I want to play music like I would play it on
ing more insight into the nature
of his music. He was born in
1938 in Chattanooga, Tennessee,
where his father had a public
works job in a boiler factory.
When Norman was a year old,
the family bought a tract of land
with their small savings in Sul-
phur Springs, Georgia, which
happened to be the next adjoin-
ing land site to his grandfather's
homestead. His father continued
to work in Tennessee and did
some farming on the side.
"It was just real quiet we
didn't have no telephones: we
didn't have any electricity - it
was a pretty quiet existence,"
forties," he said, namiag some
of them that are no longer in ex-
The home was back in the
woods, right at the foot of Look-
out Mountain, and overlooked the
Southern Railway. Many of the
Blakes worked for the railway,
which is the source of many
of Norman's songs. "They were
telegraphers basically, my
grandmother and her brother
and all her people - they were
all railroad people," he said. Ac-
cording to Norman, the railroad
had a definite style to it at that
time, a pattern that was disrupt-
ed in the early fifties when me-
chanization replaced human la-
bor, such as the telegrapher.
Various members of the Blake
family played musical instru-
ments, so Norman grew up sur-
rounded by musical figures. Of
particular influence was his
grandmother, who taught him to
play his first guitar piece, The
Spanish Fandango at age eleven.
Norman has emerged with very
definite ideas about his music
and now he wants to play it.
Shunning, larger commercial
companies for smaller compa-
nies like Rounder Records, "a
collective of freaks" to use his
phrase, Blake places a high
priority on recording, but in his
"I want to play music like I
would play it on the stage, rang-
ing from by myself to six or
seven people. I just don't want
to put something on record that
I couldn't perform alone or do
with the same people that re-
corded with me - if you sound
a certain way, that's what your
records are supposed to sound
like. I would like to have an
opportunity sometime, though,
because of the fact that I do
play a lot of instruments and
have a lot of sounds, and have a
lot of musical lines in my head
to use extensive overdubbing
just to see what I could do with
it." A new record on Rounder,
as well as tentative plans for a
record on the Takoma label are
his latest plans.
As he mentioned, Norman
plays all sorts of instruments.
Although he is best known for
his guitar playing, he is espe-
cially interested in the man-
dolin-"I'm a mandolin player
at heart," he said, "and the
dobro. I made a living on the
dobro at times when I couldn't
seem to make a living on any-
Norman is also very critical
of the direction country and
bluegrass music is taking as a
whole and stresses that there
is indeed a distinction between
the various types.
"Oh good God yes," he said.
"Bluegrass covers a wide area,
but it certainly in any sense is
removed from country. The line
over to country crosses with cer-
own bag or create a new one for
you. It just gives you a little
novelty aspect to your music -
the rock band who can play a
He sees the movement in this
direction as falling short in the
long run adding, "the only way
the form can be ungraded in its
natural way is to take new ma-
terial or rearrange old mater-
ial that is already in the form.
Music in the long run has to say
something valid to me - my
idea is to play original mater-
ial that people should write-
they should try to write original
instrumental and vocal mater-
ial in the bluegrass tradition and
they should take some of the old
songs that are not worn out -
not just old blue grass songs,
but old country ones; rock and
roll isn't in a related field to
Norman is an interviewer's de-
light, willing to talk about him-
self and his music in great depth.
It is easy to see why other musi-
cians feel comfortable with him
-his easy rapport, honesty and
sincerity are instantly felt. He
is also a deeply sensitive and in-
telligent man - one to whom
times have not always been
kind. Shunning to go out, while
in Ann Arbor, he preferred to
stay at the Ark, absorbed in his
music and treated me to a pri-
vate concert of requests. Those
who missed to chance to see him
this time around should make
every attempt to catch him at
the next available opportunity.
1214 S. UNIVERSITY
Sot., Sun., & Wed. Promptly
at 1, 3, 5, 7, & 9 p.m.
Mon. & Tues. of 7 & 9 only
tain groups that appeal more to
the listening audience of blue-
grass, but have chosen to elec-
trify and commercialize their'
sound, whereas bluegrass is
basically composed, of acoustic
instruments. He is expecially
critical of what is termed "New-
grass," - "where they do a
lot of top forty and rock and roll
songs taken into the bluegrass
thing. I tend to disagree with
this faction - I just don't see
where that borrowing songs out
of another idiom, borrowing
licks out of another idiom and
bringing them over into your own
is going to do anything for your
John Prine: Shining up
those, old rainy-day blues"
[ Y w b
NASHVILLE W) - At a time
when songwi'iters are almost as
abundant as guitar cases, John
Prine has fashioned a fan club
which insists he's the best song-
writer in the country - by far.
The industry shares these mu-
sic lovers' respect for the 27-
year-old former mailman, who
was nominated last year for a
Grammy as best new artist..
Kris Kristofferson recently
called Prine "the greatest song-
writer in the country right now."
He may be right. Prine can
turn a phrase or shake loose an
emotion with his imagistic lyr-
ics, such as: "Ain't it funny how
an old broken bottle looks just
like a diamond ring."
His greatest ability is a pen-
chant for writing two songs in
one. One story conveys a gener-
al theme, but the impact is re-
alzdthrough a detailed ac-
counting of some personal ex-
Critics have labeled his style
s- e . f - estrangement." But
Prine's own explanation indi-
"It's a conscious thing," he
says. "It's like setting two stand-
ards at the beginning of a song.
I sometimes do a side thing for
myself, even if nobody relates.
"With one, it's reasonable to
expect people to catch on. The
other part I'm doing for my-
self. But I'm trying to fuse the
two together .
Two examples are "Sam
Stone" and "The Great Compro-
mise," which , was conceived
from the Chicago Seven con-
"I was writing about empti-
ness in 'Sam Stone,"' said
Prine. "It wasn't an effort to
cast soldiers, the war, drugs or
anything. There were vehicles
for getting to emptiness."
Prine says he has no formula,
but speed helps him produce.
"Some of the best songs come
out faster than you can write,"
he said. "You're just writing it
down so you don't forget it."
Prine's writing shows a natur-
al grasp: of the tools of poetry.
But the artist scoffs at the idea.
"I really know nothing about
poetry," he said. "Writing came
real easy to me in school. When-
ever anything came up that in-
volved fiction, I could knock it
out with ease."
Idle time compelled him to be-
gin writing at age 14, he said.
Prine has three albums, John
Prine, Diamonds in the Rough,
and his -latest Sweet Revenge.
He's planning a fourth.
The third album marked a de-
parture from his style of simple,
heavy songs geared to acoustic
picking. It's more electric and
"My earlier songs were some-
times down numbers and could
be depressive. One is all right,
'but four or five in a row could
be too much. I wanted to write
as much stuff as I could."
His fourth album will mark a
change - not in lyrics but mu-
sically. "It'll be pretty differ-
ent," he said. "I want to write
parts for the band. Use the music
more. I just want to try it."
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