During last week’s IBMA awards, Norman Blake was recognized as one of the 2022 Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame inductees. The 84-year-old chose to remain with his wife, Nancy, in their beloved rural Rising Fawn home, but appeared during the ceremony in a video previously recorded by Bob Minner.
Minner, an outstanding guitarist in his own right, who has performed with Tim McGraw for the past 30 years, was present to accept Blake’s award and talk about the master guitar picker during the musical festivities at World of Bluegrass in Raleigh this past week. Minner’s latest project, From Sulphur Springs to Rising Fawn, is a star-studded tribute to Norman and Nancy Blake, featuring pickers like Kenny Smith and Chris Eldridge.
Here is what Bob Minner had to say about Norman Blake:
“Like a bunch of young guitar players back in the day, I was among most of them that were listening to all the greats in bluegrass at that time: Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Charles Sawtelle, Clarence White, Dan Crary. But of all of them, the one that really connected with me and stuck with me first was Norman Blake. I think this is because I was about 12 years of age and coming from a community of musicians in a small town in a small rural setting. When I heard his music, it was relatable to me. It sounded familiar. It sounded comforting. It sounded like the hills that I grew up around.
I’ve always been a fan of Norman. I’m 56 and it took me until I was 55 to actually talk to him. The tribute record came about from being at George Gruhn’s shop. I was upstairs visiting in February of 2021. It was in the spring of the second year of the pandemic, and I wasn’t going to be touring with Tim McGraw. George asked, ‘what are you gonna do for the rest of the year?’ I responded, ‘I’m probably going to make another guitar record at the home studio in the cabin. There’s one Norman Blake song that I’ve always wanted to record, and that would be Lonesome Jenny. There’s a bunch a cello on it from Nancy and I don’t know any cello players, so maybe I’ll do that kind of song on a different project.’ Well, George picks up the phone and says, ‘why don’t we call them?’ In a few short seconds, he has Norman Blake on the phone. I was nervous just listening to Norman’s voice as it was getting real!
I visited with Norman for a little bit. They politely declined doing any kind of cello work for the record because they’re retired. I did ask Norman if he minded if I keep in contact with him because I’d like to visit. He was gracious and said, ‘sure that would be no problem.’
A couple weeks after I left George Gruhn’s, I got to talking with my wife, Ginger. I told her, ‘I think I’d like to do a Norman Blake tribute album.’ Adam Engelhardt, who owns Engelhardt Music, does the administration of my songwriting catalog, so I approached him with the idea. He told me to get the songs and the people that I’d like to do it together, and then we’d talk about it. Well, that’s what I did.
I got the songs together and I called in some favors from some really good friends that I’ve known for a while, and some new friends. We started on this project, From Sulphur Springs to Rising Fawn: the Songs of Norman Blake. Throughout the recording process, I kept in contact with Norman. Out of respect, I wanted to include him in the progress of the album, even down to the layout and the artwork. Eventually, after the album was recorded, I was able to go down and play the music (with my wife, Ginger, and George Gruhn along) for Norman and Nancy’s approval. They approved whole heartedly. That was really a high point for me because I had my heroes’ approval!
The album was released on March 10, 2022, which incidentally is Norman’s birthday. He turned 84 years old this year. The record has exceeded my wildest dreams. It’s been received by deejays and Norman Blake fans alike. I am eternally grateful.
What I didn’t expect was the call from Pat Morris (IBMA president) about two months ago letting me know that Norman was going to be inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. I was extremely happy for Norman, but Pat had spoken with Norman, who wanted me to do the induction. Obviously, I was beside myself. Even up to the day of the show, it was a reality check for me. I couldn’t believe that a 12-year-old kid in a 56-year-old body who loved Norman Blake way back then is actually putting his hero in the highly esteemed Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
When people ask me, what was it about Norman’s music that made me gravitate to it, perhaps above his other contemporaries? I would have to say at the time I discovered Norman, it was the sound of the guitar, the songs, and the overall rawness, energy, and honesty of the performances that were what really connected me. It was never in a large band or bluegrass setting unlike Tony Rice and others. Norman’s music has always been solo or with Nancy, his wife, or with James Bryan and Nancy as a trio.
Whiskey Before Breakfast was the first album that I discovered of Norman’s which is all guitar. It is pretty stripped down. It is stripped down for a reason. Norman is about capturing the essence and spirit of the song and the music. If I distilled it down, it was the simplicity, veracity, and honesty of the performances on that record that got me hooked.
Although the record is wonderful in the sense that it has been accepted by the community of musicians and listeners, personally, the friendship and relationship with Norman and Nancy is what means the most to me. If I would have met them when I was younger, it would not be the same, and they probably wouldn’t have had much to do with a young kid who thinks he can play guitar. They have been so generous to Ginger and me with their time, opening their house, and their lives to us.
When we came to their house the first time set back in the north Georgia hills, I walked into the kitchen and whispered in Ginger’s ear,’‘I know these people because they’re the country people, the hill people.’ They’re the salt-of-the-earth people that Ginger and I grew up around. The only difference was it was in Rising Fawn, GA, instead of Missouri. That’s the thing I value most.
I look forward to my conversations with Norman, his laugh, and talking about everything from the state of the world that we can’t fix to the weather, to old guitars or anything in between. I know that there is a day coming when that will no longer be possible because he’ll be gone. I heard it said from one of his dear friends, Joel McCormick, ‘when he’s gone, it’s gone.’ And that ‘it’ is everything that makes Norman Blake, Norman Blake, and makes him the last of his breed, a true American musical legend. I’m honored to call him friend.”