Norman and Nancy Blake
The Hobo’s Last Ride
review by Art Menius
“It sounds like Norman Blake,” my wife Becky said about four notes into hearing The Hobo’s Last Ride, the new album from Norman and Nancy Blake. Becky’s right, too. Blake has honed his precise, stripped to the essentials acoustic guitar style into something completely personal and immediately recognizable. Equally unmistakable proves Norman’s world weary, deceptively soulful vocals, often blended with Nancy’s into authoritative duets. Nancy and Norman have made music together at home, in motel rooms, and on stage for years, so their playing and singing intertwines and compliments naturally, more a whole, than parts. All that and a strong musical integrity permit the Blakes to make honest music of the highest order. Each new release is like an annual letter from dear old friends, warm and welcome, familiar, yet with a few charming twists.
On Hobo’s Last Ride, the surprises often come from instrumental choices. Norman plays a Goose Acres six-string banjo on the gospel songs “I Know My Name Is There” and “Angel Gabriel.” The later also features Nancy playing a piccolo mandolin. Norman reaches back into his session career more than twenty years ago for the steel resonator guitar for the slide work on the title cut.
The Blakes eschew technique for its own sake. They use their considerable skills to present and interpret the melodic and vocal riches of vintage material. Norman offers but one original instrumental, “Thebes,” which features the north Georgia couple on twin mandolins. The other fifteen selections are mostly traditional, displaying Norman’s vaunted abilities to unearth obscure songs and tunes.
Neither their P.D. choices nor the integrity of their melodies mean that the Blakes simply recreate source material. Norman completely rebuilt the best known selection, “Forked Deer,” adding a third part from an old 78. “Old Shady Bothreen” becomes a fiddle and cello duet that hovers beautifully between high art and hillbilly. For an election year, they unearth “The Democratic Donkey (Is In His Stall Again), written by Bill Cox sixty years ago.
Mixing their backgrounds in bluegrass (Norman) and classical (Nancy) musics, the Blakes have over the past twenty years staked out their own musical space, rooted in the traditional music of the mysterious South, but filtered through their own vibrant creativity. Their music won’t likely appeal to those who prefer flash to substance or illusion to truth. For those who like real music, The Hobo’s Last Ride will provide another captivating missive from Rising Fawn, Georgia.