“I feel like I’m on a roll. I know what I’m doing here. I’m focused. I’m excited about it, I’m on the road and I know what my destination is. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that as clearly as I feel it now.” Rory Block
Rory Block is one of the world’s greatest living acoustic blues artists. She’s been honing her guitar skills since she was a teenager in 1964 in New York City, and has devoted her life and career to performing the blues. Her talent has been recognized many times by WC Handy and Blues Music Awards in the US, as well as gaining accolades and awards in Europe. She has just won Acoustic Artist of the Year in the 2019 Blues Music Awards.
Over the years Rory has performed with a host of other top artists like Keb’ Mo’, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, Taj Mahal, Mark Knopfler, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jorma Kaukonen…the list goes on. As the New York Times put it, “Her playing is perfect, her singing otherworldly as she wrestles with ghosts, shadows and legends.”
Rory Block grew up in the New York of the 50s and 60s, in the world of Bob Dylan, Maria Muldaur, and the folk revival which saw country blues artists like Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, Fred McDowell and Son House rediscovered. Her personal encounters with these influential blues masters of the 20th century left an indelible mark on her and has inspired her music and performances ever since. Not least in her highly acclaimed set of tribute albums to Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, Fred McDowell and Son House. In these she has masterfully recreated the music of these seminal artists, reinterpreting the songs for a new generation.
Down at the Crossroads was delighted to get talking to Rory, and found her undaunted by the prospect of getting older, as inspired and excited about her music as ever, embarking on a new multi-album project which pays tribute to the woman blues artists of yesteryear, and generally loving life.
We talked to her about her life in the blues and her new album A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith. So interesting and wide-reaching was the discussion, we’ve split in into two parts. Here’s Part 1 –
Gary Rory, Congratulations for having won that Blues Music Award. But I know of course that you’ve won many blues music and W.C. Handy awards and others over the years. How satisfying is that sort of recognition for you?
Rory It really does mean a lot. I think it’s fabulous to be nominated. Actually, it’s a shock! When I was first nominated, I couldn’t believe it. It was just so you know – so justifying – it makes me feel like my work, it means something. People are noticing, people care. Sometimes we can get in a bit of a low spot where we think nothing that you’re doing adds up to anything. Anybody can have that feeling. And so, a nomination in itself tells you that you shouldn’t be discouraged, that something is going right.
But I used to tell myself, don’t worry, because I had been nominated a number of times before winning the first time, and I was pretty much satisfied with that and I wasn’t expecting to win. But I secretly wished that someday I would! But I kept telling myself not to think about it. And when I did win, it was a sweet thing and it did really make me feel joyous and happy. And then most recently I thought, well, I’ll never win again, I’ve got my five awards. That’s more than enough. So, I was going to the awards fully expecting not to win because I’m not that much of a social media person and these days you just really need wide reach, lots of attention given to social media and I’m not so great at that at all. I mean, I don’t post anything myself. Without my husband nobody would see anything! But I just thought well, I’ll just be so happy with the nomination. And so, when I heard my name in the distance, I didn’t even know my category had been called. And I thought, Oh my God, I think I might have just – could it be? And I thought I better go and see! So, I kind of went up the back steps to the stage and then they were all looking towards me coming up and I thought, this could be that I just won – it was so far from my mind at that point! It was as if I just thought that’s part of the past.
So it’s really meant a great deal to me because I felt like somehow it was really a validation of my work – that it is being appreciated. I think that’s the beauty of it, honestly, it is a good feeling.
Gary Yeah. All these years in your long career and it is still being appreciated.
Rory Nice. I feel energized and so does my husband Rob. In fact, I feel like I’m just getting started! Even without the award I feel like I’m on a roll. I know what I’m doing here. I’m focused. I’m excited about it, I’m on the road and I know what my destination is. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that as clearly as I feel it now.
Gary Well that’s absolutely fabulous, because as people get older, sometimes they just kind of drift a little bit. They think it’s all behind them. But you know I think what you’re saying is fantastic, that you feel you’re on a roll, that you’ve a lot more to do. That’s brilliant.
Rory Yeah. I mean, honestly, that’s the whole thing about “older or younger” whatever it may be – when it really comes down to it – getting older or passing years is only what you make it. You know, you may make a disadvantage of it, but honestly, I don’t go there. I see it as an advantage. Now maybe I’m crazy, but I see it as a real opportunity to know more, to do more with what you know, to feel more…your fruit ripens! And to me it’s like I don’t feel old. What are you talking about? For me, it’s just like I feel more secure. I’m more clear that this is what I was put here to do. You know, really, I see it that way. I was put here to do it. And man, I’m just getting started! I don’t feel a limitation at all and I don’t feel old – my goodness, not at all.
Gary Well that is fantastic. That was very refreshing to hear you say that. And congratulations on the Bessie Smith album which has been very well acclaimed and very well received. Tell us a bit about why you wanted to make this album.
Rory Well, you know that my previous project is the mentor series. I have to back up and just talk about that if I may, for a second, because it makes the other thing make more sense. I was raised in an environment and in a family where you didn’t talk about your accomplishments. It was not OK. Whatever that moral system is where some of us were raised to go, “Don’t boast, don’t tell anyone.” And I never spoke about the people that I knew in person and I never spoke about, “well you know I actually spent time with Son House” – I never spoke about anything from the past. And then one day it just hit me, like, I really want to talk about this! I thought I ought to tell my story a little bit and that’s when I started writing my book. And I ought to record records that celebrate the people that I knew in person. So, after the Robert Johnson tribute, which was however many years ago and won Acoustic Album of the Year, I thought it really should be followed by Son House. Whom I knew and had spent a fair amount of time with. And then I thought, you know, I really should try and explain that this is someone who inspired me in person, because in retrospect, how rare is it to have spent time with him? I just thought well, everybody spends time with someone else, and everyone spends time with Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt! But it really turned out that good fortune had put me into the right place at the right time and I was able to briefly meet these absolutely phenomenal, influential founding masters of blues.
So that led to the mentor series – six CDs to blues masters whom I met in person. And it was nothing to do with whether they were women or men. These were the blues people who were rediscovered and brought in to Greenwich Village where I lived. If they had brought Bessie Smith back (she was deceased at that point) – I would have been overjoyed to meet her too. But with no choice on my part, these were the blues masters who I was introduced to as a young teenager. So those six CDs concluded the mentor series.
And everyone was saying, What are you gonna do to follow up? And then I thought, this really needs to be about my favourite women of blues, and so “the power women of the blues” is my new theme. And it was a no-brainer to start with Bessie Smith. No, I didn’t meet Bessie Smith but that’s not the criterion of this new series. It is those who I dearly loved who were a huge part of inspiring me. And I don’t even know who I’ll pick from here because there’s such a broad range of names and great artists. You could do tributes just about for the rest of one’s life and never run out of inspiration. But to choose Bessie Smith was easy for me because I grew up listening to her music.
Gary Actually it was the women blues artists in the first instance that were the really big stars even before the men wasn’t it?
Rory You know that’s a good point and I’ve heard nobody say that, but I think you’re right. Yes, there was Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, all who actually attained real name recognition. They toured the world with bands – Bessie Smith was playing with Louis Armstrong and she played for luminaries around the world and she was a big star. So yeah, I think that’s that is a good point.
Gary Then you get through to somebody like Sister Rosetta Tharpe who maybe isn’t exactly blues but I mean she was a big star.
Rory Yeah. That’s totally correct. And one of my challenges is how modern do I get? Bessie Smith was still recording, maybe overlapping in some of the years of the early country blues acoustic artists. But then there were the ones who are even beyond Bessie’s decade and I’m going to I have to limit this to 1940, 1950, 1960. So that’s a challenge that I haven’t yet sorted out. I suppose it really shouldn’t matter that much and I should just pick my favorites!
Gary Yeah, it’s very interesting. All those wonderful tribute albums you’ve done to the country blues guys – they were all fine guitarists and I guess this is an understandable thing for you to do to pay tribute to them by picking up something of their style and at the same time making it your own. But I guess the process is really rather different with somebody like Bessie Smith who sang with a big band. How much of a challenge was it and how did you go about reinterpreting the songs?
Rory I’m glad you asked because that was a huge challenge and I was thinking I really wouldn’t manage it very well. But I figured it out! But in the beginning, I thought, How will I play all these jazz chords because I’m not a jazz player? And I started listening to it and I thought, this isn’t going to come out right. This is never going to work, it’s not going to have any credibility. And I started trying to do the basic tracks which come first on the album. As I started working on them, I thought, I can’t get these chords, they’re over my head. But then, somehow or other it began to fall into place.
I start with a simple rhythm track that I do myself, by the way, with little boxes and Bongo things – mostly boxes and tubs, an oatmeal box, literally, and serving spoons and wooden spoons. And I create a basic track which gives it a much more alive feel than a generated click track. I wanted a more organic sound. So, if I make my own click track that translates into a much more natural feel in the end. I’ve discovered this and it’s really my thing. It’s a way to make it sound more organic, because there’s gonna be the human variation on the beats and they’re not just computer generated. So then I play the acoustic layer of the chords to the best of my ability. And then I put on overdubs, once I get that.
So, the challenge was to get the chords right. And I was scratching my head, wishing I’d had jazz training, but I managed, and all of a sudden, it got easier! And then I would move on and put the bass part on. I was listening to the parts of the band members on her great tracks and the bass player is astounding! So I tried to do that and I followed along, translating what I could, and I think I did a pretty much a note for note type of translation in the beginning. And then after a while I stopped doing that. It was perfect for the first few tunes to use as much as possible the actual notes played by the bass player. Then after a while I just started getting the bass groove to my guitar down and I just started playing and it felt like this is working. So after that, it just opened up and I thought, I can do this! And then I would layer on my slide parts. And then once it gets rolling, then it’s like, this is fun!
Gary So you basically did everything on the album yourself by the sounds of things?
Rory Completely, yes! There’s nobody else but me! That’s the way it’s been for a while and I’ll tell you why I started doing it. And there is no other good reason other than that in the beginning we couldn’t afford anything. Back in the days when they were making big L.A., New York records, if you look back at the budgets for a star from the 70s, we’re talking like, a half a million dollars to make an album. And then times changed and those little acoustic artists came along and we’d make albums at studios that weren’t charging three and four hundred dollars an hour, but maybe 40 dollars an hour. We’re like, oh this is so great! But I had one day in the studio with luminary players where a band came in – the soul people from Philadelphia and so on – and it was a ten thousand dollar day! You know, I mean, my goodness people don’t have that kind of budget money anymore now.
At one point I used Stevie Wonder’s backup singers on a certain record but that was back when people were giving me budget money to pay for that stuff. But then it just kept getting less, and it wasn’t because you were becoming less known or because people didn’t care about your music or your career wasn’t growing, it was because everything was restructuring. Record companies’ budgets went down, down, down. Everybody I know has had the same experience. So, in the end I said, I’m going to sing these myself, I’m going to play this myself. It was literally you had to do it if you wanted to have a band sound in this little niche that I’m talking about. So, I just came up with it and it right away felt like it could work. And so, I’ve stayed with that and now it’s like it’s what I do.
Gary Now you just mentioned singing. People will always remark that on your fantastic guitar work and your slide playing, but in listening to this album, I must say, I was very taken with your singing. Obviously, you couldn’t try to imitate Bessie Smith – but the singing on this is terrific. What had you to think about in your approach to the singing?
Rory Getting the right amount of soul. You know, it’s really about the soul and putting yourself into it the whole way. I had to add power. But listen, I’ve been singing Mississippi John Hurt, I’ve been singing Reverend Gary Davis, I’ve been singing Robert Johnson, so I understand that you can’t do a weak vocal. I have to give my all because these artists are just so amazing that I really don’t want to miss the mark. I know I have to give everything that I’m capable of and so that’s how I that’s how I approach it – I go, you better get this right! This is not about getting by. This is about giving everything you can give. And as you said earlier, you also have to put something of yourself in there, otherwise you’re trying to be someone else.
Gary Yeah. And every occasion, whether it’s a Robert Johnson song or Mississippi John Hurt song, I guess you’re always trying to make it fresh for a modern audience. You’re capturing this style, something of the essence. But how do you go about that, you know, taking one of those guy’s songs and making it fresh?
Rory Well I don’t think it’s something that you consciously do. I don’t consciously say, I better do this a little different. With the Robert Johnson tribute, that was an example of where I didn’t want to do it differently. For me Robert Johnson is the top of the mountain. He is the master of that style. It doesn’t get any better than that. So, it’s not like somebody is waiting for me to do it my way.
And that doesn’t diminish me as an artist. It just means that I’m not going to come up with a better way. So, I wanted to get right down to something that I felt I really understood. I heard him first in 1964 when I was 14 years old and I immediately knew that he was the top of the mountain. I mean it was so great. So I said, I’m going to crack this code – because I knew about the guitar playing, I feel like I’ve known from the time that I first started listening to him and tried to play the music, I had some kind of a connection to it and I was very focused on it. I want to talk about that again in a second, where I had an interesting background that I think gave me a certain edge when it came to being able to play something very close to what he was playing.
Check out Part 2 of our interview with Rory Block here, where she talks about meeting the seminal country blues artists, dealing with stage-fright, and sitting in guitar lessons with Rev. Gary Davis.