This is fun series in which we ask bluegrass music personalities, some famous, some not so famous, about some of their interests as well as about the music that they love.
Ron Block, banjo and guitar player with Alison Krauss & Union Station since late in 1991, has joined me today for a drink and chat. He is regarded as the “spiritual touchstone” of the group because of his faith-based songs.
His father owned a music store (Hogan’s Music) in southern California, so Block grew up surrounded by musical instruments.
What would you like to drink Ron?
“I’ll have a decaf Americano with half and half and two raw sugars.”
Do you want anything to eat as well?
“No, I’m good. I had a scramble with onions, red pepper, ortegas, jalapeños, kale, avocado, and tomatillo salsa this morning.”
What’s your favorite food?
“I eat a lot of raw food – salads, vegetables, avocados, smoothies, etcetera. It makes me feel good after. Eating well helps me function well. I do like good quality chocolate.”
And what would you have to drink with that?
“I think I would not want to live without hot chocolate. I drink a healthy version of hot chocolate nearly every morning. The ingredients are almond milk, raw chocolate powder, vanilla coconut sugar, stevia, cinnamon, and a half-teaspoon of decaf Starbucks Via. I put it in a milk frother that spins and heats it. But as I tell my wife, quoting W.C. Fields, ‘It’s easy to quit. I’ve done it a thousand times.’ ”
What’s the nicest meal that you have ever had?
“I went with my wife, Sandra, to a place in New York City, when AKUS was playing there and had a day off, to a place called Pure Food and Wine. They make exclusively raw vegan food – no meat or dairy. I know that sounds crazy to a lot of people – to some, ‘raw food’ means iceberg lettuce with a tomato. But these people are long-time professionals in the field of food-making, and it was an amazing though expensive meal.”
Let’s talk bluegrass….. Where/when did you first hear bluegrass music?
“I don’t remember the first time I heard it, probably in Bonnie and Clyde or Beverly Hillbillies. But the first time I was struck by was in hearing Lester Flatt on television sometime around 1976. I bugged my Dad, who owned Hogan’s House of Music, for a banjo, and he says now he got me a banjo when I was 13 and I didn’t come out of my room until I was 21.”
Which of your own songs do you have a particular liking for?
“There are several, I suppose. A Living Prayer and There is a Reason, Walking Song and Ivy, He’s Holding On To Me and Faraway Land are a few. I enjoyed writing the tunes on the new bluegrass instrumental record, Hogan’s House of Music, for instance the tracks Smartville and Mollie Catherine Carter.”
What about a song written by someone else?
I think Church Street Blues by Norman Blake is one of the most perfect songs ever. Also I love Larry Sparks’ versions of John Deere Tractor and Tennessee 1949. I love James Taylor’s Frozen Man. Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I recorded a few of my favorite banjo tunes for the new record, Hogan’s House of Music: Home Sweet Home, Gentle Annie, Clinch Mountain Backstep. I’ve also recorded an eight-song EP of Christmas songs called Carter’s Creek Christmas for this season and did a really fun bluegrass version of Sleigh Ride.
Which particular album do you like best and why?
“I can’t pick a ‘best’ but I’ll tell you several records I’ve listened to and/or studied a lot.
- Flatt & Scruggs – Foggy Mountain Banjo.
- Jimmy Martin – Big and Country Instrumentals.
- Rice, Crowe, Lawson, Hicks, Phillips – The Bluegrass Album.
- Tony Rice – Church Street Blues, Manzanita.
There are several hundred others, but I will spare you my enthusiasm.”
You play banjo and guitar. What models do you play?
“For banjo I mostly use two Huber Ron Block models. They are maple, and patterned after my 1926 Gibson Granada. I used them for most of my new record. I also played a Rich & Taylor for the two tunes where I used Keith tuners.
I’ve got a lot more guitars than banjos, but I’ve got some favorites. For live shows requiring a pickup or for flying, I use a Hayes mahogany guitar, a Santa Cruz Ron Block model, and a 1952 Martin D-18. When I can get away with just a mic, or for most of my recording, I use a 1938 D-28 I bought from Rickey Wasson, and a 1938 D-18. The Hayes guitar neck was made to feel like my ’38 D-28. For a small-bodied guitar, I often record with a 1946 00-18 – that’s the one I fingerpicked on the song Paper Airplane.
I’ve also got several electrics I like to use, a 1965 Fender Stratocaster and a 1963 Telecaster primarily.”
What’s your favorite bluegrass memory?
“I’ve got many. First of all, playing with Alison, Barry, Dan, and Jerry. I can’t imagine a better situation for me. Also, getting to play with Tim Stafford and Adam Steffey in the early 1990s version of AKUS. Joining that band back in 1991 was one of the great high points of my life. Playing on stage at the Ryman with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys at the end-of-show jam in the 1990s, when Dana Cupp stuck his hat on my head. Playing in the Bahamas with the Johnson Mountain Boys in the early 1990s, filling in for Tom Adams, and snorkeling in clear blue waters with Dudley Connell. Getting to be the guitarist in the Lynn Morris Band and traveling with some of the nicest people ever. Seeing J.D. Crowe and Bobby Hicks play banjo-fiddle tunes in a hotel room in 1984 from four feet away. Playing with Eric Uglum, Chris Jones, Mike Bub, and Butch Baldassari in Weary Hearts in the late 1980s. Growing up at the Norco and Grass Valley festivals in California seeing people like Bill Monroe, Jim and Jesse, Don Reno, Larry Sparks, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Whites with Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas at Grass Valley. Sitting in front of the Kruger Brothers in a hotel room as their only audience, hearing them acoustically, every nuance there, as they played new music just for me. Being at IBMA hearing the Forbes Family sing, and then later inviting them to the hotel room to sing more. Recording In The Shadow of Your Wings with them. Watching Stuart Duncan play in the studio. Getting to record the new bluegrass instrumental record, Hogan’s House of Music, with Sam Bush on a bunch of tracks. Recreating the So Long So Wrong rhythm section with Barry, Adam, and Dan for several other tunes on the new record. I could go on and on. I’ve got a lot to be grateful for.”