From her first album appearance, at age 12, with her father’s string band, to guesting on Stefan Grossman’s 1971 album, How To Play Blues Guitar, and her 1975 solo debut, Rory Block has staked a claim as one of country blues’ foremost interpreters. Simultaneously, she has emerged as a distinctive singer/songwriter, and both sides of her musical personality trade fours on her latest Telarc CD, From The Dust. She also has a new instructional video on Homespun Tapes, entitled Rory Block Teaches The Guitar Of Robert Johnson.
Vintage Guitar: Some people feel roots music needs to be recorded in a “roots” way.
Rory Block: It’s a very interesting subject. I have no objection to it, and I think recordings that are done that way – just put a mic in the room and have the choir stand around – are fabulous. I had a leg up on Pro Tools – from when it was being beta tested, when it was called Sound Tools – 10 or 15 years before it was released to the public. We have a Pro Tools setup, along with the effects and microphones Rob [Davis, producer/engineer] uses in the studio and on the road. But you can use it organically, to make a completely natural recording. You take out things you don’t like, but you don’t construct the whole thing in an artificial way. Then it wouldn’t have any feeling. The way people can tell is by seeing me play live.
Why do you prefer Martins?
I just love them! It’s been my favorite guitar since the beginning. In 1965, I basically ran away from home and went through the South with Stefan Grossman, and he’d find these old Martins in pawnshops for fifty bucks. I knew that this was the ultimate guitar, the thing to aspire to.
On 2003’s Last Fair Deal, it was one guitar, many sounds – thanks to Rob. It’s all my Martin OM28V, but multiple guitar parts. My performances on the guitar are almost always Layer 1, Layer 2, Layer 3. On From The Dust, most of the recording was done before we got my signature guitar, an OM40, but I used it on “Big As Texas.” The OM28 is a road warrior – a strong guitar that can stand up to what I give to it. The new guitar has more personality and depth – a deeper variety of tones. It plays like butter and sounds gorgeous without amplification; then when you put a pickup on it [Ed. Note: Rory uses a Fishman Gold Plus], it becomes extraordinary.
How were you first exposed to Robert Johnson?
I grew up with a lot of roots music around me, and heard McKinley Morganfield [Muddy Waters] and also the country artists, like Roscoe Holcomb. We’re talking soul. The acoustic music of the ’20, ’30s, and ’40s was awesome, soulful stuff.
Within maybe six months of meeting Stefan Grossman, he gave me a record called Really The Country Blues, with all this variety of country blues, and right away it became my life.
My dad played fiddle and banjo, and had this dense way of playing the strings – with these gnarly hands from working [making sandals] with leather and dyes. I’ve only recently realized that his clawhammer banjo style of frailing has had a major impact on the way I play Robert Johnson. There’s also a flamenco connection, where flamenco and blues obviously came together. If you think about open G tuning, and realize that it was once called “Spanish” by Mississippi John Hurt and the other players, to me, that clearly means that Spanish guitar styles got translated through different ethnic groups and got picked up on by early blues. Also the Appalachian mountain style was swirling around and blending.
When I was 12, I went to the North Carolina fiddler’s convention with my dad, and met Doc and Merle Watson. We stayed at [banjo player] Clarence Ashley’s house, and [fiddler] Fred Price was there. There was all this talk about country blues and Appalachian old-timey music, how those guys knew each other and swapped information. So there are lots of little things you can pick up on from diverse styles that lock in in a really interesting way – from my point of view, into Robert Johnson. Because that’s the style that I’m most focused on. Robert Johnson is my first love – what can I tell you? I’ve been loving him since I first heard him. It was clear to me that he was the great all-time genius. And I use the clawhammer banjo style and a lot of things I learned in many different places, but landed in my lap at blues.
You have a reputation as an interpreter of the blues greats, but you have this other side, as a singer/songwriter. Is taking the blues to another level part of your thought process or aim?
I wouldn’t say that I’m taking the blues to another level, because I think it’s already at the greatest pinnacle it can ever reach. But I do think I’m continuing the flow of the movement of the music. People tell me, not infrequently, “I think you’ve managed to continue something that might otherwise have died out.” All I know is when I play blues I love it to death, and I’m there emotionally with the music, and it’s all that matters to me when I’m playing. Someone else would have to say whether it’s an extension of the music; I don’t really know. But I’m happy that people seem to experience it that way, because I would like to be able to add something of value.
The same as with a classical performer. Let’s say you get somebody who plays their instrument well enough so that, even though they’re playing somebody else’s notes and honoring where it’s supposed to speed up and slow down and whatever’s written into the music, they still are bringing something of themselves. So people want to see them do it. And I’ve been doing it long enough so that, at some point, the way I do it became part of me. Early on, it was much more reverential. I wasn’t worried what I sounded like; I just wanted to be able to do what they were doing.
What I might bring to bear with the music is just something that happened over time, and people say they can tell it’s me when they hear it. That’s gratifying – not for egotistical reasons, but because that would mean that something of yourself has been added to the equation. And I would rather have that be the case than not – to know that there’s some individual stamp that has occurred over time that gives a genuine connection feeling for the listener.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.