Nothing to prove

To stand out in today’s Old Crow-feathered scene, any bluegrass-ish band needs a cute publicity trick or two up its sleeve. Promising North Carolina boys the Avett Brothers boast a Web site “printed” on faded parchment paper; the effect recalls a “Wanted” poster from the Wild West.

And speaking of west, the further in that direction you go, the slicker the tricks become. Bay-area roots fusionists the Waybacks feature a funny logo — a sketch of a hairy caveman (get it?) who drags a guitar behind him instead of a club. And the Crooked Jades, an old-time outfit also started in San Francisco, go so far as to borrow the old-school skateboarders’ mantra: The merchandise section of the band’s Web site offers bumper stickers that declare, “Old-Time is Not a Crime.”

Google “Norman and Nancy Blake,” however, and you won’t find any Web site, official or otherwise. Sure, they have a manager — but he doesn’t even list an e-mail contact.

“We just don’t have a commercial leaning,” Norman said by phone recently. “We never have pushed ourselves like some musicians do.”

Still, this patriarch and matriarch of old-time — married for more than 30 years — were nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Traditional Album for last year’s Morning Glory Ramblers (Plectrafone/Dualtone Music Group). And the vintage-guitar-toting pair is as integral to the genre as sunshine is to the Golden State.

But the Blakes’ digression from other old-time acts goes beyond maintaining an unusually low profile. Apart from Norman’s hall-of-fame guitar work (his flatpicking is routinely mentioned in the same breath as that of Doc Watson and Clarence White), the duo’s strong vocal presence is a stylistic departure in a genre that often favors instrumentals with fiddle leads.

“We’ve done it both ways,” he says. “But we always felt that more communication was established [through singing]. Mention old-time and people immediately think fiddle, banjo and square dance, and that’s just not true; that’s just one facet.

“We lean toward the poetry in the old songs.”

Born in Chattanooga (the couple still lives near there, in the North Georgia mountains), Norman already had a passel of bluegrass bands to his credit when he began co-billing with the Carter Family in the 1960s. In the ’70s, he appeared on the Johnny Cash Summer TV Show, played on Bob Dylan’s country-rock breakout album Nashville Skyline and toured with John Hartford, both with Hartford’s Aeroplane Band and with his solo act. Norman met Nancy — a classically trained musician — in Nashville. Their subsequent decades-long musical alliance has netted sheaves of Grammy nominations, culminating with renewed notice — and a storm of awards — during the early millennium’s O Brother and Cold Mountain maelstroms.

With Morning Glory Ramblers, the pair doesn’t stray far from the glowing, steady, softly melancholic sound that’s made their veteran act such a roots-music mainstay. (You won’t find in their catalogue the unfortunate ’70s disco forays or synthed-up ’80s messes that derailed other traditionalists. “Not having the goal of wanting to make hit records” made it easy for the duo to stay true to their vision, says Blake. “We never felt the wherewith to go in some of the directions other [musicians] go.”)

The new album’s liner notes, though, reveal a certain intention behind the selection of songs. Not counting some new lyrics they added here and there, the Blakes forsook originals on Morning Glory, instead covering traditional tunes that Blake says were “rather personal to us at the time … that were particularly heartfelt right then.”

The album is dedicated in part to the “loving memory of … John and June Cash.” Fittingly, the record features no less than three Carter Family songs — “Dark and Stormy Weather,” “Little Log Hut in the Lane” and “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland.” And Blake likens his duo’s own endurance to the innate reciprocity found in family bands like the Carters. It’s a complex chemistry — and it can’t be formulated.

When recording or playing with his wife, Norman finds that the understanding between them is “automatic. … We know what each one is going to do; it goes without saying.”

It is, he adds, an “unwritten” rapport — as invisible as their nonexistent Web site.


Norman and Nancy Blake play the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Friday, May 20. 9 p.m. $22. 232-5800.

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