Not to be confused with the younger chap of the same name from the Scottish group Teenage Fanclub, our Norman Blake is an American who was born in Chatanooga, Tennessee in March 1938 and is a talented multi-instrumentalist as well as a writer and singer. After an early family re-location to Georgia, he quit school to play music. During his earlier years he played with an array of local groups including The Dixie Drifters, The Lonesome Travellers and Hylo Brown and the Timberliners, and with his pal Bob Johnson from the Travellers he made several appearances as a duo on WSM's Grand Ole Opry. After being drafted for a spell in the forces, he went to the perceived epicentre of Nashville where he began to find work with many big names. He joined June Carter's band and played stints with Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez and John Hartford, and made acclaimed recordings on Dylan's “Nashville Skyline” in the late sixties and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in 1972, and it was around this time that he also cut his first solo album “Back Home In Sulphur Springs”.
This album was made at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California in 1976 and is a rare live recording of his flatpicking guitar playing, although there are several tracks where he plays fiddle. Opening with a rip-roaring and crowd pleasing version of the traditional song ‘Nine Pound Hammer’, repeating the trick later with his takes on other trad tunes like ‘John Hardy’, ‘Arkansas Traveler’ and ‘Bonaparte's Retreat’. Norman's rapport with the crowd is evident on Claud Grant's ‘Sweet Heaven When I Die’ which follows the opener, when his audience respond enthusiastically to his delicate picking break. There are plenty of his own works here with ‘Border Widow’, ‘Dry Grass On The High Fields’ and ‘Harvey's Reel’ standing out, and ‘Border Widow’ is the number when he introduces his partner Nancy Blake to accompany his fiddle with her cello. Their playing is both sombre and melodious on the mournful tune that adds a new and contrasting element to the concert.
Following this there is the first of two medleys, and this one, The "G" Medley has Norman and Nancy playing ‘Green Leaf Fancy’, ‘Fields Of November’ and the traditional ‘Fort Smith’, three tunes that meld together beautifully while subtly switching moods.
The notes of this fine album go into detail about Norman's playing techniques and his choices of guitar, as do internet sites, but suffice to say that the notes talk of him being 'one of the original masters of the genre' of flatpicking guitar players. The original vinyl album, considered by fans to be one of the best examples of his work, was out of print for many years before a fan campaign brought about a re-issue on the Fantasy label who owned Takoma in the nineties.