If George Harrison was “the quiet Beatle” then Ron Block is the quiet, uh, Union Stationer. As a member of Alison Krauss’s band since about 1992, Block has been the banjo roll that kept her music grounded in bluegrass while her voice and personal style constantly pulled everything skyward on angel wings. He’s played gorgeous acoustic guitar, written songs, sung harmony and been a vital part of the band’s mesmerizing sound. But he’s been subtle, stealthy and always supporting the music, not himself. Happily, he’s appearing this week as a featured artist on a bill that seems assembled out of household staples. Elizabeth Cook won’t make cornbread but she will render new material from an upcoming album. Matt The Electrician is a prolific folk singer who could wire your home were he to fall back on his former trade. Songwriter/rocker Daniel Hutchens advertises no obvious homemaking skills, but we’re sure we can find something for him to do, like entertain us.
Ron Block arrives at Roots with a new album that embodies a lot of his musical journey. It’s an all instrumental bluegrass LP called Hogan’s House of Music, named for the music store his dad ran in Lawndale, California. It was ground zero for Ron’s interest in music. “I would go clean cymbals when I was eleven,” he told me by phone this week. “I started working there when I was 16. Dad loaned me money to buy a car. And I kept working there til I was 21. I heard a lot of music I wouldn’t have heard” otherwise. He says it was good to be exposed over the store stereo to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton, because he was otherwise completely obsessed with the banjo and bluegrass to the near exclusion of everything else. Early on via California connections he met Stuart Duncan and he upped his bluegrass game studying in famous traditional music program at South Plains Collegve in Texas. There he met bassist Mike Bub and out of that came the Weary Hearts with late mandolinist Butch Baldassari. That led to Nashville and eventually the AKUS gig.
Block’s previous solo albums have focused on his songwriting with a strong gospel bent. But as a lifelong lover of Flatt & Scruggs Foggy Mountain Banjo and Jimmy Martin’s Big and Country Instrumentals, not to mention the newgrass work of Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, etc., the time came for him to compose a work with no voices save for those of the world’s best grassy instrumentalists. So the disc includes his AKUS bandmates, including Jerry, plus Duncan and Bush, as well as Sierra Hull and Adam Steffey on mandolin, Rob Ickes in dobro and Clay Hess on acoustic guitar. For Wednesday’s set, he’s bringing Fain, Ickes and Hess for a lean quartet. I expect we’ll be treated to the amazing opening track “Smartville” with some of the most extreme string bending I’ve heard. It’ll be some deserved time in the spotlight for the humble Mr. Block.
As for the fabulous Elizabeth Cook, she returns to Roots for the first time in three years, following a challenging time in her generally charmed career. As she told country music journalist Chrissie Dickinson recently:
“A series of events started in 2012 where we lost a lot of people in the inner circle of the family. There were two divorces, one of them being mine. There was a fire at my sister’s house. . . .Nobody gets out of this life unscathed, but it was a really condensed period of time where those things seemed to roll up every six weeks for two years. I got overwhelmed. I was not focused. I wasn’t doing well for quite a while. I’m just now starting to come out and shake off the dust.”
We sure want the best for Elizabeth, whose unflinching honesty, lyrical bravery and quick wit have been load bearing beams in the Americana house over the past decade. That dust should be entirely gone by the time her new album, the exotically titled Exodus of Venus, arrives in the spring or summer. Her people sent me a quick sketch: “Look for a crack band exploring a darker perspective though Elizabeth’s dense wicked-sharp sense of narrative and the sensual vibes of producer Dexter Green.” No music has been shared yet, but it seems likely we’ll hear some previews on Wednesday night.
Rounding out the bill, Matt The Electrician really was one and donned the nickname at early songwriter shows. I love it. It suggests what happens when we listen; we get our brains all wired up with lots of new energy. He grew up on the West Coast but relocated his career and home base to Austin. And he’s put together a long-term career with fans who are plugged in on both sides of the Atlantic. And when Daniel Hutchens last visited us it was with his hard rocking band Bloodkin, and he brought out sax legend Bobby Keys as a special guest. Now Bobby is gone but we have a great Scarlati photo to remember the historic occasion and memories of Hutchens as a bracing musician and a fine songwriter.
We look forward to seeing you at our house for a down home good time.