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Songs of Experience

On the crest of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the influential Norman Blake comes to St. Louis for the weekend

"The songs are the ruminations of my own personal life at that point," he says. "I've always concentrated on the great body of traditional music; that's my first love. All I've ever tried to do is, if I write something, I want it to be as good as the old songs. I like parlor songs, the ones that found their way into the country tradition. I'm looking for things that have some personal connection, some sentiment and message, and that can be related to the melody. I think people are afraid of sentiment these days. They like it when someone else gets up there and expresses it, but they're afraid of it themselves."

Over the years, Blake has seen popular interest in old-time music come and go. He appeared on the most successful hippie-bluegrass album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and toured with Steve Earle when the country-rocker decided to go acoustic. Though he never expected to play on a million-selling album, he's not surprised by the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and film. "I think it certainly fills a void," he says. "People are very tired of what's passing for country music anymore. I think people like good old-time string music, if they get half a chance to hear it. They just never get a chance. One of the wildest things about this whole O Brother thing is not only the interest that it's stirred up in old-time music but the fact that so much of it is of a religious nature. When people are supposedly so blasé about spiritualism, it's amazing how people have responded. They said that radio stations have been playing my recorded version of 'You Are My Sunshine' every morning during the traffic in New York City. They've been blasting New York with it!"

Norman Blake: He is to old-time string music what the Library of Congress is to history.
Donald Kallaus
Norman Blake: He is to old-time string music what the Library of Congress is to history.
Norman Blake: He is to old-time string music what the Library of Congress is to history.
Donald Kallaus
Norman Blake: He is to old-time string music what the Library of Congress is to history.

Even after 50 years of playing old-time country, Blake hasn't exhausted the pleasures he finds there, and he has never given a thought to playing anything else or to complicating the simple grace of his sound. "I'm not one of these musicians who makes a statement to prove that I could go off in another direction," he says. "I only play what I know how to play, what I enjoy the most, what's from my heart the most, at that time. When I sit in front of a recording microphone, or sit on the stage, I play what's on my mind right then. I don't try to see how complicated I can make things. Some of those old country musicians weren't great guitar players, but they did a beautiful job. I'm very conscious of trying to be a singer and guitar player who can do a song that's not fancy but which can be complete. That's what I'm striving for."

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