Forget everything you've learned; start at the source. So Norman Blake declares to his audience and to himself -- at least on his last two Shanachie albums, 1998's Chattanooga Sugar Babe and 1999's Far Away, Down on a Georgia Farm. The very embodiment of North American flat-picking tradition, a flesh-and-blood Library of Congress of folk music, Blake has influenced every truly serious acoustic guitar player after him. His arrangements have been copped, his live performances studied, his records and tapes slowed down to discern just how a mortal makes such sounds. Blake's virtuosity has been fetishized; Blake has had enough. Now he has elected to slow his right hand, shed all melodic adornment and let every strum and hammer-on count and astonish like strokes in Zen calligraphy. He turns to labyrinthine stories of locomotives, mines, ships and human disasters, uncovering their mirth and tragedy, then casts aside all of modernity -- its inventions, politics and bogus promises: "Cannot stand the government, cannot stand the law," he sings on a new original, "Cannot stand the dark days a-comin' on us all." For Blake, the blues have become bitterly personal, even as they've lost none of their universality: "All around this country, what do you think I see?/Whiskey, dope and women done made a wreck of me/Whiskey deaf and whiskey blind." Hearing Blake's new songs and minimal style, one thinks of Dylan's recent excavation and remaking of folk music; therein lies the only solace, perhaps the only truth left. The lessons are still hard, Blake's rugged guitar and voice say, but they've never been more rewarding.
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