Rounder's Heritage series specializes in new anthologies of previously released work -- the musical equivalent of old wine in new bottles. Two of their latest offerings arrived in the mail last week and rather than being forced to decide which one to review I’m doing both.
Norman Blake's Old Ties features selections that span from 1971 to 1990. Musical collaborators include his wife Nancy (at one time ex-wife, but they’ve re-married; apparently the divorce didn't work out), dobro pioneer Tut Taylor, guitar virtuoso Tony Rice, Fiddler James Bryan, and a few others. Most of the songs feature small ensembles of two or three players rather than full bands. Norman Blake's renditions of songs tend to be introspective miniatures rather than big-scale productions. He likes to simplify songs down to their bare essences, which accounts for why most his performances are such classic and elemental versions. One listen to his treatment of "Ginsing Sullivan" or "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar" shows how once he covers a tune it becomes his own.
Nineteen songs drawn from twelve different albums supply a broad cross-section of work from throughout Blake’s career. Even from the beginning Norman Blake had a unique style. Except for differences in sonic fidelity between his earliest and latest selections it is next to impossible to tell from the performance themselves when they were done. Even thirty years ago Norman Blake’s style was mature and fully developed. If you have never experienced the mastery of Norman Blake, Old Ties is a fine introduction to an artist whose work is both unique and timeless.
Looking to rapidly expand your musical horizons? The Singer Songwriter Collection is a great way to meet seventeen singular artists, each with their own special voice. Looking through the list of performers on The Singer Songwriter Collection I'm immediately struck by both their diversity and musical excellence. Cheryl Wheeler, Ellis Paul, Mary McCaslin, Bill Morrissey, Christine Lavin, Carrie Newcomer, Utah Phillips, Tanya Savory, Patty Larkin, Vance Gilbert, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Nanci Griffith, Jim Ringer, Kimberly McCarver, Bill Stains, Lynn Miles, and David Olney represent an astoundingly varied swath of musical styles, artistic temperaments, and topical concerns. You'll find everything from a tune about man’s (and woman’s) best friend to one about mankind’s most evil creation, both done with wit, style, and a plethora of catchy hooks and bridges. Despite a widely divergent field of artistic sensibilities, compiler Steve Netsky manages to make this whole disc flow smoothly from one song to the next just like a master disk jockey from the golden days of free-form radio. Also Netsky accomplishes the nearly impossible task of capturing the essence of each performer’s special qualities with one representative selection. Talk about having to herd cats...
Even if you are familiar with half the artists on The Singer Songwriter Collection it may be worth acquiring just so you can meet the others. I can almost guarantee you that you’ll discover some new musical friends in the process.