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July 6, 2009

Norman Blake & Red Rector

There was an intimation that someone around here liked Norman Blake... which is almost as good as a request if the file is already uploaded and just awaiting posting...

I won't write any long, indulgent intros. Instead, I pirate two interviews for the guitar or mandolin enthusiast, below:

Norman Blake

Norman Blake: Flatpicking Legend

Norman Blake quit school at age 16 to play mandolin in a band, and music has been the focus of his life ever since. Born March 10, 1938 in Chattanooga, TN, Norman grew up in Sulphur Springs and Rising Fawn, GA (both towns have found themselves part of the titles of later albums). His first band, The Dixie Drifters, played the Tennessee Barndance on WNOX Radio in Knoxville, TN. Later, they went to WDOD Radio, and from there to WROM-TV in Rome, GA where they stayed until 1956. Norman then worked with banjoist Bob Johnson as The Lonesome Travellers. They joined with Walter Forbes in making two records for RCA. In 1959, Norman left those groups to go with Hylo Brown and the Timberliners, although he continued as a duet with Bob Johnson in making several guest appearances on WSM's Grand Ole Opry.

At that time, Norman was drafted and stationed in the Panama Canal as a radio operator. There he formed the Fort Kobbe Mountaineers, a bluegrass band in which Norman played the fiddle and mandolin. They were voted Best Instrumental Group of the Caribbean Command, with Norman voted Best Instrumentalist.

Upon returning to the United States, Norman taught guitar to as many as 150 students weekly, and played the fiddle in a country and western dance band three and four nights a week. He also made frequent trips to Nashville to play sessions and, for a time, played as a member of June Carter's road group.

In 1969, Norman moved to Nashville to do the Johnny Cash Summer TV show, in which he played the guitar and dobro as a member of Cash's group. Along with country and western sessions, Norman recorded with Bob Dylan on The Nashville Skyline album. He was a member of Kris Kristofferson's first road group, playing guitar and dobro, and did a seasonal tour with Joan Baez, playing mandolin, guitar, and dobro; Norman recorded with both groups. He left Kristofferson to join and record with John Hartford's Aeroplane Band. After that band dissolved, Norman toured with John Hartford as his accompanist for 1 1/2 years, during which time he recorded his first solo album, Home in Sulphur Springs. He also received a gold record for his participation on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's legendary, Will the Circle be Unbroken album. After a nine-month tour with the Red, White and Blue(grass), he left to go back on his own where he has been ever since.

In the ensuing years, Norman and his wife Nancy Blake have toured extensively, playing to larger and more dedicated audiences. Again, Frets Magazine Readers Poll Awards voted Norman first place, this time in the category of Best Multi-Instrumentalist of 1986. Since 1989, the Blake's have received four Grammy nominations in the "Best Traditional Folk Recording of the Year" catagory for their projects, Blind Dog, their Shanachie debut Just Gimme Somethin' I'm Used To, and Shanachie releases While Passing Along This Way and The Hobo's Last Ride.

A San Francisco Examiner music critic wrote, "What Blake does is important, of course - but the glory of his string sounds, the Tennessee-Georgia twangy drawl of his vocals and the awesome blend of the Blake's instruments produces an American music of incomparable purity and integrity."

Norman Blake Last year in Maryville, Tennesse, at the first Steve Kaufman Flatpicking Camp, Norman Blake began his Saturday afternoon workshop by saying, "I'm here to teach you how to play slow." For many of the nearly two hundred camp attendees, including myself, it was exactly what we needed to hear. After spending a full week being blown away by teachers and fellow campers who could pick at lightning speeds, fingers dancing all over the fingerboard, it gave our deflated self-confidence a boost to hear a man of Norman's stature say that he likes to play slow and, for the most part, likes to stay on the first five frets. When Norman said that, a lot of us breathed a sigh of relief and decided that we would not burn our guitars when we got home.

All Norman Blake fans know that when he chooses to Norman can certainly play very fast, he can play all over the neck, and he can play fiddle tunes and bluegrass with the best of them. Additionally, most who are familiar with Blake's work know that he has spent the majority of his career playing Martin guitars. In an interview conducted at the 1997 Merlefest event, Norman Blake talks about why he now prefers to play the slower traditional old-time numbers and why his current guitar of choice is his 1929 Gibson Nick Lucas special.

At Steve Kaufman's camp you said that all you ever wanted to do was play like the "hillbilly's on the radio." Was that how you first became interested in playing music?

That is basically it. That and old records. We had 78 rpm records and wind up machines at home and I had heard Roy Acuff records first. The first music I was ever really conscious of was Roy Acuff and the Smokey Mountain Boys. I also heard the Monroe Brothers on record and of course the Skillet Lickers, the Carter Family, the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers, and the Chuck Wagon Gang were all influential.

My Grandmother was a good musician. She played the piano, the organ and a little mandolin. She taught me my first guitar thing, "The Spanish Fandango," in open G tuning. She could play that. I also had a cousin named Earl Wallraven who was a fiddler and old time banjo player. I would go to his house about a mile down the railroad track and he would play the fiddle and teach me to second him. They called it "second" back then, playing "second to the fiddle." I did that and he would tell me when I wasn't making the right chords or changing in the right places. He would crack me over the knuckles with the fiddle bow or something.

How old were you when you started?

I was about eleven.

When you listened to the old records and the radio shows, were you drawn to the sound of the guitar or were you more interested in the music in general?

Just the general over-all thing I think. I wasn't drawn to it just for the guitar. You heard the fiddle and the dobro. I was really drawn hard to the dobro, but I didn't know what one was at that point. Old Oswald was playing it on Acuff records. The whole idiom just tickled my fancy.

When did you start to learn how to play leads on the guitar?

Well the first thing was that "Fandango," but of course it was a finger style thing. It wasn't like the written version because that is in 6/8 rhythm, but this was the open G straight time thing that you hear people play. When I got over the initial bare finger playing, I didn't flatpick. I played with one finger pick and a thumb pick and then gradually added a second finger pick. I then took up mandolin shortly after that and played that with a flatpick. At that point, in my mind, you didn't mix the two. The mandolin was played with a flatpick and the guitar with a thumb and finger pick.

Most of the old time accompanists in the old time bands just played with the thumb and finger deal behind the fiddle. So, I got into that and of course with that you learn how to make a lot of bass runs. Then you start to hear people like the Carter Family where she (Mother Maybelle) played the bass line run for the melody, so I learned that way. I learned the bass runs first and then the Carter Family got me playing the bass string lead with thumb and finger.

Later down the line I'd been through the Army in '61 through '63 down in the Panama Canal zone and I would pick up the guitar and I might play it with a flatpick, but still in my mind that was not the way that you did it. In the early sixties, I would give a few guitar lessons, and people kept talking about this fella named Doc Watson. I had never heard him and someone brought me a Doc Watson record. I listened to that and said, "Lord a'mercy, I could do something like that." I just didn't think that it was something you did. It was sort of like a novelty that you would play the guitar that way.

We had one fella that I knew early on by the name of Eddy Smith, up on Sand Mountain, who was a local player, who flatpicked like that. We sort of marveled at him, but we didn't try to imitate him that much. He could do the Riley Puckett style, but he had some flatpick rolls, sort of like cross rolls, that he did. I also remember Don Reno playing the "Country Boy Rock and Roll" and flatpicking the gospels on the guitar and stuff. I generally got into it that way. But when I heard Doc, I was sort of blown away by that. In those days I looked at it like mandolin style on the guitar. So I just gradually started doing it and kept on doing it.

I read somewhere that you still like to fingerpick when you play at home.

I fingerplay a whole lot. I got back into that, but I don't do it with picks anymore. I've got to where I like to do it without any picks because I can get so much more, lick- wise, without those picks. I just recorded a project on the Shanachie label that has fingerstyle on the 6 string banjo and on a National guitar. Its called "Chattanooga Sugarbabe," and should be out this summer. I am currently starting to perform fingerstyle more on that banjo. I like to do it on light strings. I like real slinky trebles. I have gradually gotten more into that.

How much of the fingerpicking carries over into flatpicking?

In my case a lot of it does because a big influence on me back about 1970 was Tut Taylor playing the dobro with a flatpick. I got into those kind of rolls when I was playing with him a lot. I think I play so many rolls now that my style has slowed down. I used to be able to burn it up speed wise with a thumb and finger pick. I could drive any banjo player crazy with a thumb and finger pick in the early days. I could play good bluegrass backup with a thumb and finger. I have lost that art now because I just haven't kept at it. My style has sort of broadened out, and the term I use is that I have gotten more "arrpegiated," because I have gotten to where I play more and more rolls with my flatpick and that has smoothed out and slowed down my style quite a bit. I think the fingerstyle and those flatpick rolls kind of go hand in hand.

I read somewhere that when you first started going out and playing on your own that you would play "hot licks" because that is what the audience expected. Earlier today you said that you used to play the Martin guitar because that is what people expected. Now it seems that you are getting into doing what you like to do.

Yeah, I'm doing what I like to do. It is easy to get me burned out on something that is real current. When enough people get into it, I kind of run the other way. I think I've done that a little bit with big twelve fret guitars, or D guitars period. People burned me out a long time ago. I heard so much D-28 hype in bluegrass that I got tired of it and I started playing twelve fret guitars. Now the twelve fret guitar has become well established, and I am glad to see that and I think that I have had a large factor in that because I performed on them so much.

Now I'm going full circle back around because I started playing the Gibson once again. They were the first guitars I had when I was a kid. Also, the Martin thing has gotten to be such a ritzy, high dollar, sophisticated club. I don't knock it. I think it is great. But it is more to my liking to branch off and kind of get away from that. I don't like to get typed into one thing totally.

What is the guitar you are playing today?

It is a 1929 12 fret Nick Lucas special.

What is it that you like about that guitar?

I like that it has a shorter, punchy tone that is good for old time music. It has a deep tone, but it has a real short, gutsy, loud, spit-it-out kind of sound. It doesn't ring or sustain forever. I kind of equate, in my own idiosyncratic mind, lots of sustain in guitars with a more modern sound. In other words, if you get a guitar that rings and you can go out and get a hot dog and come back before it stops ringing, it starts to get a little modern sounding. It can also start to get a little generic sounding because they can all start to sound the same. It is like the A model Gibson mandolins, there is only about one in a hundred that is really a cut above the other ninety-nine. That is about the same thing with large guitars if you are not careful. There is about one in a hundred that you can pick out and say has character.

I feel like old time music has such character that I want to play it on an instrument that has that same character. To my ear, if I do old time music, I want to hear something that sounds more that way. Maybe that is all it is. It seems that sustain makes the music sound more modern and more generic.

I also like Gibsons because they have a short scale. I've gotten to where I don't like the Martin 25.4 scale. With the shorter scale it is a little easier playing anchored in a chord as much as I do. I anchor down and play in a chord. When you are holding down something and moving in a chord it is easier because you don't have as far to go. The strings are also looser and I like the sloppier feel.

I never have cared for instruments with long extended necks. They have never appealed to me. I don't play that way. I usually play in about a five fret range. Visually, and the way it sits in your lap, I like twelve fret, shorter, chunkier built instruments. The Gibson fits that build. I was getting closer to it playing my big twelve fret guitars too. I like them better than most fourteen fret guitars. However, I do have a '39 D-18 that I like about as well as anything I've ever had.

You mentioned earlier that you like to use a thicker pick when you are at home than when you are on the road because the thinner pick sounds better through a microphone, it is the same with guitars?

I used to do that. I would play the smaller guitars when I was at home and then when I got a gig I'd grab the big Martin and away I'd go. I decided that I didn't want to make that transition. I'd play one at home and then I'd have to go get used to one that I'd play on stage. I kind of quit that. I figured that the one that I would like at home I would kind of like anywhere.

As far as the thick picks go, a thick pick can sound real good when you are kind of sitting around, you can get into that big fat tone, but it can sound a little muddy on a mic because you can pick up bass. A thin pick, when it is on a mic, gives you a little more cut and articulation. When it is just sitting under your ear and you haven't got that bigness of a sound system, then a thicker one can sound better.

Does the Nick Lucas have bar frets on it?

I had bar frets on the Martins because they were staccato and I liked them because they had height. Now we have so many frets that are all kinds of heights that I went away from that. Also, it was so hard to get people to work on them that could do a good job. Not only was it hard to find a guy who wanted to do the job, but rarely could they do it. A bar fret job, when it is done right, is really great. But more often than not, they weren't that great and then they can be

really hard to play on. For what I was gaining out of them, I was also losing as much.

What kind of strings do you use?

I use GHS Dynamite Boomers. I use them in individual gauges. I have not used standard sets in years. I use whatever suits the particular guitar. What's on that Nick Lucas guitar is .012, .016, .024, .034, .044, .060. I rarely use anything heavier than a .025 third. I would never use a .026, which is standard medium. I hardly ever use a .017 second string. Sometimes I use a .011 on the first string, but never a .013. I never use anything lighter than a .058 on the bass of any guitar. I hardl

y ever use anything heavier than a .034 on the fourth or .044 on the fifth. That is the basic parameters I stay in. I like the big string on top but I have never liked real tense, tight trebles on an instrument. I like the high end to be pretty loose.

Norman Blake

Can you talk about the pick that you like to use?

I take a standard Fender heavy and I take the point off and then I take one of the rounded back corners and I make it a little straighter where it comes to some kind of a not too sharp point. I bevel them on both sides too. I might leave one of the back corners li

ke it came. That will give me the big woody, meaty sound if I want it. Then you have got the point, which you have shortened. So the whole thing becomes a basic triangular pick, just smaller. I used to sharpen my picks more than I do now. I used to be into getting a lot more of a trebly sound out of it and I don't like that quite as much as I used to. I tend to go for a bit more of a rounder thing with it now. I find that suits me better now for the tone I try to produce.

But, as we talked about earlier, at home you might play a heavier pick?

Sitting around the house I might play an extra heavy instead of a heavy.

Doesn't the bevel you put on the pick make it seem a bit lighter than a heavy or extra heavy, as the case may be?

Right, and it also depends upon the degree of bevel. If you have an extra heavy pick and you bevel it enough, then you could still get a good bit of snap and articulation out of it. But if it doesn't have enough bevel, it can be muddy. Therefore, on the opposite extreme, if you take a standard heavy, you don't bevel it as much because it isn't as thick to start with and you still get a brighter sound, but with less bevel.

Earlier you said that it is easy to get you burned out on something that is real current. Has the fact that there are many young guitarists out there burning it up and playing everything at 90 miles an hour been a factor in your preference to play things slower these days?

I am certainly more comfortable with it slow. I think it all boils down to the fact that I have played more and more cross rolls over the years and that just slows you down. When I was playing my fastest, I wasn't doing all that. I was just playing single note style. I call it linear style, just stretched out playing linear notes. But when you start playing rolls with a flatpick it will slow your style down because you are putting in more. With the rolls you are putting in more at a slower speed, the other way you are putting in less at a faster speed. The guys that can play the fastest, I think, are putting in less notes and the fingerings have to be different.

I feel that Tony Rice has a set of fingerings that are indicative strictly of his style. I don't even savvy those fingerings enough to know what is going on. I see what he is doing, but it is way out past me. Sam Bush and Tony and those guys of that particular time frame, they developed a thing all their own. It is a whole style that is like a new jazz style really. You can't hardly relate that back in some ways to some of the older things. They just developed their own thing. They have spent a lot of time on that and they do fingerings that really suit those things that they are doing. That way they can get a lot of things that are seemingly impossible to some of us mere mortals (laughs).

I've seen that you have been out playing some with Tony lately.

Yeah, we've been gigging a little bit.

Is the set you do with him different from the kind of set you did today with Nancy and James?

Yes and no. It sounds different because of him. It is going to sound different because he is Tony and he sounds like Tony. He is probably playing slower to play with me. I just sing some songs. Sometimes I sing the same songs that I sang today. We play some instrumentals like "Salt Creek" and "Cattle in the Cane" and some of the standard things. But for most of it I just go out and sing some songs. He is not singing right now, so we don't try to duplicate what we have recorded.

Its great, I just go out and sing and say that I have a great lead guitar player. We have a lot of fun. He and I both like a good song. We always said that if we never got together on any other ground, that was enough right there. He has said that what we also have in common is that we both like tone. We both are conscious of making a certain kind of tone and dynamics. Speed wise, I don't hold him any candles there.

Norman Blake How do you go about working up a solo to a fiddle tune?

I could come at it from a lot of angles. It would depend upon the tune partly. A lot of fiddle tunes I learned out of fiddle tune books on the mandolin because I can read better for the mandolin than I can for the guitar, plus it is all written for fiddle, so the mandolin is the one. I might learn it on the mandolin out of the book and then gradually, just by ear, it translates over to the guitar. It usually gets changed because I think that some things that sound good on mandolins, fiddles, and banjos are not guitaristic. Some people say a "note is a note" or a "tune is a tune," but I think there are certain things that sound good on a guitar that makes guitar music what it is and fiddle music different.

But I might start a new tune by learning it out of a book and learn it that way on the mandolin and it might come over to the guitar. If I learn it by ear starting on the guitar I am usually looking for a place where I can get the most out of it just playing it by myself. I usually approach everything on the level of performing it at least by myself, so I am looking for where I can get the most rolls, the most power, volume and tone. I try to get the most happening with just me. This means that I would be playing it out of a C or G position trying to get the most open strings and adjacent drone strings. So I would go at it from that angle if I was just starting it on guitar.

Would the break change a bit if you were playing in a band situation?

It might. It might be that you just don't need as much or you don't need to establish the same kind of rhythm. The more people that are around, the more you tend to leave out because you can clutter it up too bad sometimes. There is no point to going into everything you can do if there are other musicians.

During the workshop at Kaufman's camp you said that you still try to play two or three hours everyday, but you also said that you used to practice more. I've heard stories about you sitting and practicing all day long. What do you do when you practice?

I might play one tune for a week. I might play different tunes all the time or I might not play any tunes, I might just sing songs, or I might just doodle around. Some days I just say that I am "doing maintenance," I am just moving my fingers. I'm not learning a thing. I might go a month and not learn a thing except just keep my fingers in trim, keep them moving to where I could go up on stage and play. Or I might spend a month working hard to learn a set of tunes. I have no set regime. It is probably to my disadvantage really. I mean, a lot of people have much be

tter practice habits. I don't have good practice habits. I purely play because I like to play and sometimes that means just fooling with it.

- from Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, reprinted here

Norman Blake


Red Rector was a much loved and highly respected musician, one of the most distinctive stylists of bluegrass and country mandolin. His playing was powerful, sophisticated, neat, often amusing and above all heartfelt. Very sadly, Red is longer with us, having died in 1990 when he was only 60.

In 1982 the old Bluegrass And Old Time Mandolin newsletter was pleased to be able to publish an interview with Red Rector. The interview took place in late 1981 when Red and banjo player Don Stover were staying in England with John Atkins, long time musician and supporter of bluegrass and acoustic music in this country. John, and his two associates in Breakdown Productions, Mike Craig and Dave Hatfield, were responsible for bringing Red and Don over for a successful UK tour. During this time John managed to fit in the interview with Red, and has now kindly given permission for it to be published on the Web.

Interview with Red Rector

John Atkins: When you started playing mandolin, Red, who did you listen to first of all?

Red Rector: Oh, Bill.

JA: You listened to Monroe?

RR: Oh, yeah!

JA: That was Bill before you listened to, say, the Blue Sky Boys or the Morris Brothers, or people like that?

RR: Must have been. The first mandolin I heard was Bill, Bill and Charlie (Monroe), that New River Train. I did hear the Morris Brothers, when I was going to grade school. Zeke played mandolin some.

JA: When you started playing, as a result of Bill, what was the first mandolin you ever bought?

RR: A Kay.

JA: How did you learn how to tune it, and things like that?

RR: Well, I played for quite a while before I learned to tune! I guess I finally learned to tune by tuning the E string to the guitar open E, but I played for two or three years before I learned to tune. I was a terrible tuner!

JA: Did you find that Bill's style of mandolin playing was so good as to put you off playing that way, or did you really work on copying Bill's style?

RR: Yeah, when I first started, that's the way I wanted to sound, exactly, the first three or four years that I played.

JA: That was Bill playing with Charlie Monroe?

RR: Yes.

JA: Can you remember anything that you learned from Bill and Charlie?

RR: No, I just learned to like the mandolin. But when I started to listen to Bill on the Grand Old Opry later, that's when I really started trying to play just like him. That's when Clyde Moody was with him, he had his Blue Grass Boys, he was playing those blues things: True Life Blues, Tennessee Blues, Honky Tonk Swing - I learned to play that exactly - I thought it was exactly like it, anyway!

JA: Do you still play that? Or Tennessee Blues?

RR: No. I can't remember it. I remember it (Tennessee Blues) was in A.

JA: Was it Johnny Wright who told you that you really should quit playing like Monroe?

RR: Well, when I went with Johnny and Jack in Raleigh (NC), early in 1947, or late 46 I guess it was, I was 16 years old, and they began to work with me to get me to try to change the way I was playing. I was playing note for note like Bill then. John explained, 'Look, there's only one Bill, and if you're ever going to gain any name for yourself as a mandolin player, you've got to get a style of your own.' But I wouldn't listen to him, I thought, if you don't plav like Bill, you don't play mandolin. So they began to tell me about a boy that used to play with them in West Virginia named Paul Buskirk. 'He has his own style, and he can play mandolin!' The way I heard him was when they went on the Grand Old Opry, and I was so scared to go on the Grand Old Opry that I didn't go with them. The thought of going on that stage petrified me! So they got Paul Buskirk, and I tuned in one night, and heard him on the Grand Old Opry, and thought, 'Man alive! I never heard nothing like that in my life!' - the way that guy played the mandolin. So I went down to the Opry to pick my mandolin up - I'd sent it on ahead with them, 'cause I'd fully intended to go on with them when they started on the Opry. The more I'd thought about it, the more frightened I'd felt about going, so I didn't go! I had a chance to meet Paul Buskirk. We went backstage - Bill Monroe got us in - the crowd was gathered around the dressing room, Buskirk was sitting there in a jam session, and everyone was gathered around watching him play. Chubby Wise, I remember, and it seems like Eddy Arnold was standing there watching him - enough people to let you know that somebody was picking that everyone wanted to hear! So I had a chance to meet Paul that night, and listen to him and talk to him some, so it was then that I started trying to develop a style. I started playing a little bit like Paul, maybe, on the low strings. There was another boy named Ernest Ferguson I thought played real pretty mandolin, the guy playing with the Bailes Brothers. Then I got a job with Charlie Monroe, and went to Knoxville on The Mid-Day Merrygoround, and Homer and Jethro happened to be there at that time. When I heard Jethro, and I'd already heard Buskirk, I said, 'Well, I've heard the two greatest in the world!' So somewhere between then and a year later, I came up with a little sound that, if I have anything that is different, that's when it started. By the time I was 18, I was playing my own style.

JA: Of course, Bill Monroe gave you some pretty solid advice, didn't he?

RR: He came over - I was 15 when we were on a little local radio station at Asheville, WWNC, and he played the civic auditorium there, along with Carl Story and his group, the Rambling Mountaineers. We were called The Blue Ridge Hillbillies at the time: Red Smiley was playing guitar and Jimmy Lunsford on the fiddle and a fellow called Snowball that managed the thing. He was an old Nashville showman, a comedian. I forget who else was in the group, maybe the Sauceman Brothers were with us. So we went over to the auditorium, and that was the first time I'd been around Bill, and I was scared to death to even walk in the place! I didn't own the mandolin I was playing - an F5 mandolin that belonged to Red Smiley. I was sitting, trying to tune it or something, when Bill walked over and asked what it sold for new. I said, 'I don't know, it's not mine. It belongs to the redheaded boy that plays the guitar, over there. I think he paid $250 for it.' Bill said, 'Is that right? Can I look at it?' He took it and played it for a few minutes - and tuned it (laughs) - and then he asked me to play a little tune. I tried to play something. He said, 'Well, you got good fast fingers, but you're playing with a stiff wrist.' I looked down, and I really was playing with a stiff wrist, stiff as a board. So that's when I started trying to develop my wrist.

JA: You've mentioned all these guys that you liked, Buskirk, Ernest Ferguson, and Jethro, and how you evolved your own style. Did you actually copy what they did? How did you work on your own style?

RR: Well, I tried to listen, and maybe incorporate ideas from different players, and try to get a few of my own things in. I guess it came together with a combination of things like that.

JA: You play mostly away from the first position. Is that deliberate, to get a different sound?

RR: Oh, yeah.

JA: When did you start doing that?

RR: I guess when I was with Carl Story.

JA: When you play tunes like Blackberry Blossom live, you play at about 6,000 miles an hour!

RR: Maybe a little faster!

JA: What sort advice would you give to anybody wanting to play at that speed?

RR: Well, you have to do it with your wrist - too much work for the arm.

JA: Do you think in terms of trying to keep your fingers close together?

RR: Mine are naturally close because they're short, but you'd almost have to do that. I don't advise anybody to play at breakneck speed. Well, maybe one tune on the show is good for the show, but if you're going to make a good recording........

JA: On your records that you've done so far, you've tended to play a lot more slowly than you would otherwise do. Why is that?

RR: I think it's a better feel for the studio musicians, and then a lot of times you don't have time to work things out the way you would like to. When you go into the studio you have so many hours to record, so you pick a pace that suits everybody best, and go from there.

JA: Do I take it from that, that you're not ecstatically delighted with your records that you've made so far?

RR: I've made some that I was happy with, and I've made some that I wish I hadn't made! I guess everybody's like that.

JA: But there's not one that you can look back on and say, 'That's it! That's the one!'?

RR: I don't think so, no. I've made some that I would have to say that I was sort of proud of, not for what I do, but for what the other guys do that are on it. But I don't think that there's any one that I ever made, that I didn't think that there was something that I could have done maybe better.

JA: You use an A model mandolin. You've tried an F model ....

RR: I've played a lot, and I don't have anything against them. The A just seems to suit my style of playing.

JA: Have you tried any of the other mandolins (other than Gibson) - the newer makes?

RR: Yeah, I've played some that I've liked.... Norman Blake has an F5 that I like to play, and he's also got a real good A model that I like!

JA: What sort of advice would you give to someone who was just starting out on mandolin?

RR: Well, the biggest thing is, make sure you want to play! Practise as long as it's fun. If you can play an hour and have a ball, great! You're learning something. If you play 30 minutes, and the last 30 minutes you're looking at the clock and saying, 'Man, I can't wait until I can quit practising,' then you're not learning a durn thing! As long as it's fun, practise.

JA: I think there are a lot of people with the mistaken impression that geniuses are born that way. In some cases they are, but I've never known yet a genius who doesn't need to practise. Often the difference between Jethro and somebody who's nowhere near as good is not only a genius, (Jethro obviously has some gift!) but it's also hours and hours of practice. Would you agree with that?

RR: Yeah, that and a love of the thing. If you love the music enough, that creates desire, and I think desire creates the ability that you might not have had basically. I think that a good musician has the basic ability, just like a real good athlete, has that gift of special coordination, maybe, that some people don't have. But you're right about practice, though; the gift is no good unless you do something with it. How many mediocre musicians do you know who could be great if they applied themselves to the natural ability that they might have?

JA: You are known as a bluegrass mandolin player. Do you play other forms of music? Jethro, for example, would be hurt if somebody called him a bluegrass mandolin player! (laughter from both) Jethro is a jazz mandolin player...

RR: Yeah, he's known for jazz, but he likes to sit around and pick hoedown tunes, you know. I enjoy playing other kinds of music. I love to play these old Irish tunes, like When I Grow Too Old To Dream - not that that's an Irish tune! But tunes in that category. Lara's Theme - I do that on the shows a lot....

JA: My advice, when I used to teach, was that whatever you play, whether it be banjo, mandolin or guitar, think of it as a musical instrument. So if you want to play the guitar, play the guitar. Don't say, 'I'm gonna play bluegrass guitar, and that's the end to it!' Would you go along with that advice?

RR: Yeah, absolutely. Now there is, in playing bluegrass music, a special technique. There are some real fine guitar players that couldn't back you up on John Henry or something, because they haven't heard it before, and maybe their ear don't hear that rhythm. So there is a technique, and the same with playing bluegrass mandolin. I don't think of myself as a bluegrass mandolin player in the strictest sense, but I guess I play more bluegrass shows than I do anything else, and I'm booked more on bluegrass festivals, so that's the category that I would be in.

JA: But I would think of you as a mandolin player that plays bluegrass music - you play other forms of music, obviously. Nobody in bluegrass plays Miss Jameson's Favourite, as you do, (a Celtic tune) - yet!

RR: So, practise, and get with someone that you enjoy playing with. You can always learn from other people, jam sessions, and don't get so doggone independent that you'll only listen to one style. Listen to different styles, 'cause that's the way it's going now.

JA: What about playing more than one instrument? Most people, it seems, come on to mandolin as a second instrument. There are very, very few people who play mandolin only - you could probably count them on the fingers of one hand, couldn't you? The real mandolin players.....

RR: A heck of a lot of mandolin players are fiddle players who double on mandolin. Byron Berline plays good mandolin. He's a fiddler, and I think Jethro and me are probably the only two mandolin players that can't play a fiddle! I can't use a bow...

JA: Monroe could be a third?

RR: Ah, he plays some. He can plav some old tunes, not on a par with Kenny Baker or anyone like that, but he can saw out a tune.

JA: But you play guitar, yourself. Do you think that playing a guitar is any use to you as a mandolin player, or do you think it limits you in any way?

RR: Well, it don't help me! I don't play guitar that much any more. I use one a little, occasionally.

JA: So your advice to a mandolin player would be to play the mandolin?

RR: Yeah, unfortunately there are only a few Mark O'Connors that can play them all. For most people, play the instrument you love - that's the one you'll learn to play. I like all of them, but the mandolin is my first love!

Red Rector's mandolin style is characterised by very clean but powerful picking, and a really clear tone from his Gibson A4. Red is a consummate artist, with a particular ear for melody, and a good taste which relies more on playing what sounds right than on impressing his listeners with flashy chromatics and off-beat ideas. Not that there isn't a place for the latter, it's just that Red doesn't need to use them most of the time, though sometimes he sticks in a wild little run (usually in triplets, at the speed of light!) to ginger it up! I've always thought of Red as the 'gentleman' of the bluegrass mandolin world - never one to seek the limelight, but preferring to act as a support musician of the highest order. Luckily the mandolin world is quite aware of Red's talent!

- from
Norman Blake & Red Rector
County 755 (1976)

01. The Girl I Left Behind Me
02. Denver Belle
03. Lorena
04. The Old Spinning Wheel
05. Mississippi Sawyer
06. Red Wing
07. Cricket On The Hearth
08. Limehouse Blues
09. The Green Leaves Of Summer
10. Freight Train
11. Darling Nellie Across The Sea
12. Darlin' Honey

the moon shines tonight.
from vinyl | mp3 vbr | w/ cover | 47mb

* out of print

thanks to kike again!


Bloody Holly said...

Lol, Irate Pirate, I think your one of the few bloggers from which I enjoy such lengthy posts...

Great work!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much. I enjoy Norman Blake a lot!