Ron Block is what you might call a complicated artist. If you pick the five, you probably see him as the powerful banjo player with Alison Krauss & Union Station. Guitarists think of Ron in that role with AKUS, as do fingerstylers. Those who craft songs – or study on how to do so – may think first of the original material he has added to the bluegrass catalogue, and singers praise him for his lead and harmony vocals. And studio types might look at him as a successful producer.
In each of these niches, Block has made quite a name for himself and, taken as a whole, he can be viewed as among the finest and most accomplished musicians in bluegrass. People who primarily follow and admire the music, however, may simply enjoy what he brings to the table, without worrying about niches and categories.
Today (7/30), Rounder has released Walking Song, which highlights Ron’s many skills and strengths more completely than either of his prior excellent recordings. It also demonstrates the sorts of music that call to him, and reveals some of his artistry beyond the substantial AKUS catalog by which he is best known.
Aside from the record’s three instrumental numbers, all of the tracks are new songs, written by Block in collaboration with Rebecca Reynolds. Their partnership began online, with Ron being impressed by the precision and lyricism of her writing and her having only the faintest impression of his stature in the music world when he suggested they might write a song together. Rebecca is in East Tennessee, and Ron in Nashville, but they continue to work online with her penning lyrics for his melodies, or vice versa. Now the pair have several dozen co-written songs, 11 of them included here.
The title track which opens the album has a Celtic flair, accented by the banjo and fiddle playing in unison, an accordion in the background, the use of a bodhran for light percussion, and the vocal harmony of British folksinger Kate Rusby, with whom Ron has toured on breaks from AKUS. Jordan, Carry Me is a wandering song, with more of an old-time mountain sound and feel.
On Ivy, Ron and Rebecca show the influence Gordon Lightfoot has had on this generation of acoustic musicians. Performed with only guitar accompaniment, Ron’s voice perfectly sells this light and lovely song. Summer’s Lullaby is a waltz sung in duet with Rusby, with a sparse rhythm section of guitar, banjo and reso-guitar.
Nickel Tree Line is likely to get plenty of airplay from bluegrass radio. It’s a driving, bluesy, mid-tempo song about a fine young horse, with vocals shared by Block and Alison Krauss. The chorus displays just the sort of poetry that attracted Ron to Reynold’s writing.
She don’t know love, but to wander,
She don’t know love, but to roam,
She don’t know her way back home.
Why don’t you lay by, and let that filly fly?
Let that filly fly.
Also certain to please grassers are a pair of fiddle tunes done banjo style: Devil in the Strawstack and Shortnin’ Bread. The former is an old timer with a pentatonic feel, and the latter a sprightly recreation of the familiar Earl Scruggs arrangement. Both are ably supplemented by the musicianship of Barry Bales on bass, Sierra Hull on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, who very nearly steals the show on Shortnin’ Bread right from under Ron’s clever guitar solo.
A real highlight is Ron’s version of the shape note classic What Wondrous Love Is This for banjo and guitar. It’s slow and stately, as this one must be, supported by a National Duolian with accordion and organ. Beautiful.
Sunshine Billy offers a bluesy, swingy feel with help from Sam Bush on mandolin, Buddy Greene on harmonica, Jeff Taylor on accordion, and Suzanne Cox singing harmony. Suzanne returns with her sister Evelyn for the album’s final track, Rest My Soul, a new song that recalls popular 19th century hymns.
You might expect to find a Ron Block album to be strong start to finish. No surprise there. What makes this one stand out is the power of Reynolds’ lyrics – and the fact that Ron has grown substantially as an artist since his last release, DoorWay, in 2007. Perhaps the spirit of this project can best be encapsulated in the chorus of Let There Be Beauty, another with a Celtic vibe and harmony from Suzanne Cox.
So let there be beauty,
For beauty is good,
The made and the making
And the bliss understood.
So let there be beauty,
For beauty is free,
Come swim in the waters,
Come drink from the stream.
Look for Walking Song wherever you buy or download your favorite music. You’ll be rewarded with 46 minutes of finely-crafted acoustic and bluegrass music from some of the best the genre has to offer.