Album Review: Norman Blake, ‘Day By Day’

It’s quite simple: this is a new album by Norman Blake, and it’s another chance to celebrate his clear-eyed vision of old-time, bluegrass, and roots music. The house guitarist for Johnny Cash, the man who lent his licks and riffs to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, and the man who helped introduce bluegrass and old time for new listeners in O, Brother Where Art Thou here delivers nine songs recorded in single takes, most of them spare versions of old favorites featuring Blake on vocals and guitar or banjo. There are two Blake originals here—“Time” and “Old Joe’s March”—that reflect the humble splendor and illuminating musical candor with which Blake plays every song his hands and voice touch.

The album opens with Blake’s crisp, clear guitar fingerpicking on “Honey Boy” Evans’ “When the Roses Bloom.” His deeply felt, raw vocals and bright cascading guitar lines evoke the images of a lover looking forward to returning to his home (in this case, “Dixieland,” with the lover likely a soldier returning from the his time in the Confederate army; Evans’ original title is “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland,” but Blake dropped the last word from the song title on his album) and the new life he will make there with his lover. Blake’s gentle front-porch playing creates a picture of nostalgia and longing for home. Gently circling guitar fingerpicking and chords and Blake’s yearning vocals on “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me” poignantly capture the vision of a young girl whose once bright-eyed beauty has been ruined by her encounter with urban life; she’s a bird in a gilded cage. Since the writer of the song is Paul Dresser, Theodore Dreiser’s brother, it’s hard not to see Carrie Meeber—the protagonist of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie—in the words of the song. Warm guitar lines lay down a warm bed in the joyously somber “I’m Free Again,” celebrating the release from a love gone wrong, and also, in the final verse, the release from life into death. Lively and dazzling banjo picking and rolls propel the high-stepping, foot-tapping, instrumental “Old Joe’s March.” The tune is just right for clearing away the chairs and tables for a night of buck dancing. The minor chord mournful ballad “Montcalm and Wolfe” recounts a battle from 1759 during the French and Indian War, while Blake delivers a bright Celtic ballad on “Three Leaves of Shamrock.” The album closes with the gospel-inflected “My Home’s across the Blue Ridge Mountains”; the warmth of the song, which sings of leave-taking and home-going, rises from the contributions of the Rising Fawn String Ensemble: Nancy Blake on vocals and cello; James Bryan on fiddle; Joel McCormick on vocals and guitar; David Hammonds on vocals.

Day by Day is a gift from a musician’s musician who continue to play and sing humbly in the service of the songs. Open Blake’s present to us and expect to discover gem-like facets on each replaying of the songs.

Day By Day is available HERE.

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Supported By