Norman Blake, a singer and instrumentalist, is a renowned performer of southern old-time, string-band, and bluegrass music. He has earned several Grammy Award nominations for his own albums and won fame for his performance on the influential soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).
Blake was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on March 10, 1938, and spent his childhood in the Dade County communities of Sulphur Springs and Rising Fawn in northwest Georgia. He grew up listening to local musicians and to Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts. Inspired by the old-time music of Uncle Dave Macon and the Carter Family, as well as the bluegrass music of Bill Monroe, Blake learned to play guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and Dobro (a guitar with a metal resonator). A versatile player of each of these instruments, Blake is most famous for his precise, rapid flat-picking of fiddle tunes on the guitar.
After quitting high school to play with the Dixieland Drifters on the “Tennessee Barn Dance” radio show on KNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, Blake then joined Bob Johnson to perform and record with the Lonesome Travelers bluegrass band. The U.S. Army drafted Blake in 1961, but military service barely interrupted his music career. He formed a bluegrass band, the Fort Kobbe Mountaineers, while stationed in Panama and used his military leave time to continue recording with the Lonesome Travelers.
After his discharge, Blake moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where his instrumental skills earned him work as a touring musician with June Carter and, later, as a regular musician for Johnny Cash’s television show and touring group. He won praise as a session musician for his work on Bob Dylan’s country album, Nashville Skyline (1969), Joan Baez’s hit version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (1971), and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (1972). Blake also toured or recorded with such notable musicians as Kris Kristofferson, John Hartford, Tony Rice, and Doc Watson.
In 1972 Blake married fellow musician Nancy Short. Together, they returned to Dade County, Georgia, where he began a highly successful independent recording career, starting with the album Back Home in Sulphur Springs (1972). His lengthy discography includes more than twenty-five albums, which feature traditional fiddle tunes (“Whiskey before Breakfast,” “Forked Deer,”), pre–World War II (1941-45) string-band songs (“Democratic Donkey,” “Poor Old Dad”), and story songs (“Lincoln’s Funeral Train”). He is also the composer of many new tunes, including “Church Street Blues” and “Chattanooga Sugar Babe,” within these genres.
Blake’s influence as a southern musician is extensive. His work covers scores of traditional old-time and bluegrass tunes. His recordings preserve and reinterpret the musical past with an authenticity and authority that helped prepare the way for the public’s renewed interest in American roots music during the 1990s. Blake’s prominent role on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and in the follow-up Carnegie Hall concert and national tour with his fellow O Brother musicians—including the Cox Family, Emmylou Harris, John Hartford, Alison Krauss, and Ralph Stanley—is a tribute to the stature and respect he has earned as a guardian and performer of southern traditional music.