Ron Block has been an icon in the bluegrass banjo world for at least the last 25 years, the time he has been part of Alison Krauss & Union Station. Though he also plays guitar with Alison, the banjo world has especially embraced his playing, an affection he returns to them in kind. Close followers of bluegrass will remember Ron from his first professional run with Weary Hearts in the late ’80s, a group that also included Chris Jones, Eric Uglum, Butch Baldassari, and Mike Bub.
In addition to numerous award-winning recordings with Krauss, Ron has several successful solo projects. The first few (Faraway Land, Walking Song, and Doorway) showcased his skills as a songwriter and vocalist, but in more recent years his picking abilities have become the focus of his studio work. His 2015 release, Hogan’s House Of Music, was his first banjo album, and it included a number of five string classics as well as a large helping of his own original tunes.
For 2018, Ron has a new project that is all about banjo music, this time as a duo record with Irish tenor banjoist Damien O’Kane. Again, it mostly features original music, but with the contrast between finger style and flatpicked banjo as the the vehicle.
Ron shared a few words with us recently about this project, which will certainly be of interest to banjo players of every stripe.
He says that Damien is a true virtuoso in his style, whom he met through his musical association with English folksinger Kate Rusby, and they found common ground right away.
“I met Joe Rusby at Sore Fingers bluegrass and old-time camp near Oxford, England, in 2009. Joe has been his sister Kate Rusby’s sound man for years until very recently, and did a lot of her studio engineering. We stayed in touch, and when AKUS played over there in 2011 he came to the show with Kate and her husband/guitarist/bandleader Damien O’Kane. After the show we were talking, and Damien and Kate asked me to play on her upcoming 20-year anniversary recording (20). I did, early in in 2012, and then ended up playing some of the shows that year. This has all led to playing banjo on quite a few of her albums, and on two of Damien’s solo records.
Damien and I hit it off right away. He grew up in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, playing trad Irish tenor banjo and guitar. I grew up in California, playing traditional bluegrass banjo and guitar. We both love our rooted traditions and we’re based there, but we also both love a lot of other kinds of music. He plays with Kate, who takes traditional music from over there and makes it new and fresh. I play with Alison Krauss and Union Station, and we make music based on the same principle – rootedness combined with creativity.”
But their duet project, Banjophony, was several more years in coming to fruition.
“Damien began talking about doing a banjo recording but it was some time before we began it. The first session was when I was over there traveling with my family in 2014. We recorded several more sessions in the next couple of years, finally wrapping up the tracking in early 2018.”
There is one traditional Irish tune on the album, but otherwise the instrumental music is all recently written.
“Damien composed a lot of it, and I contributed four tunes. I’ve been mostly a songwriter, aside from an occasional tune, so I procrastinated a good while before jumping in. David Kosky wrote a couple, and there are a couple of Michael Rooney tunes and one trad tune on there.”
Ron also shared one of the tracks for our readers to enjoy, one he wrote called Battersea Skillet Liquor. He and Damien tracked it live, assisted by Steven Byrnes on guitar, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Sierra Hull on mandolin, and Barry Bales on bass.
Of the song he says…
“A tune with a booted foot on either side of the Atlantic. It is made by mixolydian-ing a cup of G.K. Chesterton with a cup of Gid Tanner; boil down to a syrup and toss it back. It’s good for what ails you.”
When Banjophony was released earlier this year, Block made a trip across the ocean for a brief tour in support.
“Damien and I did the opening Banjophony tour with Steven Byrnes on guitar, Duncan Lyall on bass, and Josh Clark on sound. We started at the Underneath the Stars Festival in Yorkshire and then played York, Grantham, Saltaire, London, Newton Abbot, Cornwall, and ended up at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Since all those guys are part of Kate’s band, we played with Kate at Underneath the Stars, a festival in Wickham, and a set at Cambridge. When the tour was over I made sure to thank Kate for loaning me her husband, her band, and her van.”
They are hoping to work out a US tour as well, though there is nothing to announce there as yet.
Banjophony is available wherever you find music online, and on CD directly from Ron’s web site.