Where do you start with Rory Block? Something of an acoustic blues legend these days, she’s a lady who has played with the greats, sat at their feet absorbing their multi-hued styles and tones while always striving to open new boxes with her sassy, savvy driving vocals and strident, percussive fretwork. For over fifty years, Block has thrown down the blues gauntlet, pushing herself to the limit at times, known for her bleeding, scarred and torn fingertips and her refusal to compromise her music in any way.
It’s only fitting that she has most recently centred her focus on the old generation of pickers, the guys that influenced, inspired and instructed her in the music, legendary names that every blues-fan both knows and reveres. Guys who were her blues buddies, sharing their own evident love of the music with her, as she honed her craft and powered her way along the care-worn, blues highway.
Currently riding a well-deserved wave of popularity, Block’s stunning, Stony Plain ‘Mentor Series’ of recent releases have not only reacquainted many with the traditional roots of the music but also showcased her own, startlingly colourful mastery of a range of different and divergent styles of playing. This is a lady who doesn’t just play the blues – she pretty much is the blues incarnate.
It’s perhaps as a slide-player, however, that Block is probably best-known. But to slip her into such a box is a positive mistake, a failure to fundamentally grasp what this extraordinary lady and her music is really all about. Sure, she agrees that she loves that slamming, sliding, stridently demanding sound and style of picking guitar, and her soaring, searing voice swells perfectly alongside the feathery, ringing, zinging fretwork flourishes, giving her an almost immediately recognizable intent and signature sound. But just take a listen to her recent takes on two entirely different blues masters (part of her current Mentor Series range) – Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis – to get an instant, delightful hit of her truly remarkable range and power and knowledge.
John Hurt did very occasionally pick up a slide – Spanish Fandango springs to mind – but his was a much more relaxed, melodic, warmly caressing style of playing that often sounds rather simple at times, belying its intrinsic complexity and skill. With her release “Avalon’ in 20X13, Block nails the beauty and glory of Hurt’s own approach with absolute clarity and ability.
‘I remember John Hurt real well,’ she confirms, thinking back to her youth in New York City. ‘He was always such a nice, gentle guy; people just don’t get how complex his picking was and could be. When I was about to record the album, I tuned in again, listening to his music and it was such a welcome surprise. I was picking to the best of my ability. It was challenging stuff. It took me back to meeting him, watching him play and the way he just did it all, with something extra always there. A sort of embellishment that’s too easy to overlook and miss. He just blew me away. I listened back then, and still listen to him and think, Oh My God! What a player, what a musician and so very knowledgeable.’
Turning to the Reverend Gary Davis, one of the true powerhouses of blues and gospel music in the late sixties and early seventies in the USA roots music world, Block recalls meeting him many times, especially when she was involved – as a relative youngster – with another near-legendary picker, Stefan Grossman, who often accompanied the blind, Davis to his gigs and walked him onto the stage. ‘Stefan took lessons with the Reverend. He spent a lot of time with him and they each helped each other. His playing is just so complex at times, it’s incredibly demanding. Just trying to work through his music is always a wonderful challenge, full of unexpected twists and turns, reversals and rhythmic surprises. I usually prefer to play guitar with just my bare fingers. But to get anywhere close to that bouncing, bassie sound, I had to use a thumbpick – that’s all, no finger-picks – just a thumbpick throughout.’
‘Of course, everybody does it their own way but when I had the idea for the Mentor series of albums, there was a shortlist of players I’d been real lucky to know and meet who were always top of the list. The Reverend just had to be up there.’
Other acoustic greats she includes in the Stony Plain series, include another old personal favourite of hers, Son House and the other-worldy ethereal, minor-chording sounds of Skip James. ‘Skip had such a special sound. Sort of haunting, eerie, always memorable, for me,’ she adds with a laugh.
And what about Mississippi Fred McDowell, I ask? Another of the greats she has covered in her current series of releases: ‘I recall first meeting Fred when he turned up unexpectedly at our (Stefan Grossman and Block’s) apartment in Berkley, California, one day. Stefan was off dong his thing at his record company nearby and I was alone when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find this unknown – to me – beautiful guy standing there with a battered guitar case. “I’m Fred McDowell,” he said. So I took him in and he pulled out his guitar and blew me away with his picking and voice. A wonderful discovery for me at the time and another genuinely lovely guy. Keen to help, to spread the word and the music.’
“I remember being totally smitten by him. He played slide with a real short piece that just covered the first part of his ring-finger, just down to the first knuckle. I was so entranced and impressed, I went down that same way of playing for many years. Nowadays, I use a more standard size and sort of slide but back then I followed Fred’s way and it always worked for me.’
Asked which of the current, six-album Mentor releases is her personal favourite, Block shrugs, laughs a touch diffidently and, with little true surprise, reveals it to be her current offering, ‘Keepin’ Out Of Trouble,’ her own tribute to the style and strength of Bukka White. Clearly delighted by its evident success – it’s riding pretty close to top of most US blues charts – she says: ‘He was so strong. A deep influence. He was strident and percussive at times and could just about do it all. I’ve always loved working his songs.’
Now in her mid-sixties, Block looks back to her beginnings as a kid, her time learning and soaking up influences in the hothouse that was 1960s New York and Greenwich Village, with wonder and near-amazement. So many great players were then being rediscovered, given a second lease of life and a chance to shine for a whole new generation of nascent musicians. She remembers Bob Dylan way back at the outset; Maria Muldaur and another good, close buddy and fellow upstate New York resident, Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian. ‘I never really had a guitar of my own for much of the time. I’d often borrow John’s,’ she quips, before adding that though he tends to be thought of as a singer-songwriter and harp-player, Sebastian is in fact a surprisingly talented picker in his own right.
In some ways it’s hard not to think that Block has been under-rated and unacknowledged by the mainstream music world for way too long. While other bluesy contemporaries such as Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur have ‘made it’ with chart-topping, popular successes, she has never quite gained the acclaim or spotlight that her overwhelming musicianship surely merits. This might be down to the fact that both Raitt and Muldaur have had songwriting success that has just slipped past Block. Again, it might be too simplistic to under-rate Block as a songwriter and some years ago one of her own self-penned tracks, ‘Lovin’ Whiskey’ was a surprise hit in Europe, giving her confidence to continue wrestling with the muse – a feature of her current Mentor Series of recordings.
With Rory Block its absolutely impossible not to turn towards the late slide master, Robert Johnson, and she has of course been repeatedly linked to his extraordinary playing, a style that in many ways Block embodies in her own work: ‘I started out trying to sound as much like Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown as I could. They were my mentors. I’ve always loved dynamic sounds and strong rhythms. It’s in my nature to put aggressive energy into my instrument. Charlie’s sound was very percussive but Willie’s was all out high powered snapping. To play like that you actually have to get your thumb deep under the string, grab it and yank it as if you’re trying to break it. If anything, I continue to develop a more and more percussive style, all-out attack without losing the strings.’
And as for the frequent references to possible similarities with electric slide lady Bonnie Raitt, Block jokes about sharing a stage with Raitt – a good friend – some years ago: ‘ One time I was in Saratoga and Bonnie asked me to join her on stage. She said, “Do you know ‘such and such’ a song?” and I mumbled, “No, but I’ll follow along!” I went out there, and she ended up doing one of her most masterful, complex, signature pieces (which of all of the great Raitt material I had hummed in my sleep for years, I coincidentally didn’t know), and I ended up literally searching for a harmony point and finally singing not a word. I am not one of those people who wishes to contribute unless I know it will be spot on, so I simply walked around the stage feeling like a complete jerk. Later, when I apologized profusely, she looked at me kindly and said, “Well at least you got out there!” I am not suggesting making a fool of yourself like I did, but there’s also real truth in the power of simply “getting out there.” And amazingly enough, someone came up to me in the supermarket the next day and said, ” I heard you with Bonnie last night… you sounded great!”
Despite the success she is presently riding, Block remains rooted in her life in upstate New York, around an hour’s drive from Woodstock, home to many of her old buddies including Happy Traum, Larry Campbell, John Sebastian and the late Levon Helm. She teaches guitar to a handful of students who make contact and ask for her help and also features as a tutor at Jorma Kaukonen’s legendary Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp in the Ohio hills. This year, she’ll be helping out with the ‘Reverend Gary Davis Weekend’ at the camp in October, alongside Roy Book Binder and others, for example. And she confirms she has thoughts of the future and even retirement at some time.
For some years she was introduced – largely in Europe – as being on a ‘Farewell Tour.’ She laughs at the thought, saying she never did understand why this had happened as it had never then been her own intention. Instead it was a promoter’s error but one she just let roll along with a seeming life of its own. However, nowadays, she is looking ahead and a farewell tour just might turn up on the cards.
Fortunately, however, that remains in the future: ‘I still love doing live shows,’ she says. ‘I just love the energy. I’ve used up a couple of tour busses, now on my third and have travelled over three hundred thousand miles in each one, so they always seem to need repairs. But I am looking at production work ahead,’ she hints, disclosing a reluctance to ever really quit the blues music game altogether. ‘I’ve worked on a few albums and enjoy it. I like to think I can bring something to the projects, based on my own experience, so that’s definitely a road I will try out sometime, as I wind down.’