Bob Minner is most visible in stadiums and arenas, strumming with the country singer Tim McGraw—a gig he’s held for three decades and counting. Minner is also heard on McGraw’s No. 1 hits like “Live Like You Were Dying.” But the depth of his musical life runs much deeper than is apparent from the supportive role he plays with McGraw.
The Nashville area–based Minner, who is 56, is a gifted multi-instrumentalist. He grew up in Missouri playing guitar, banjo, and fiddle, winning regional contests on all three instruments. Along the way, he developed a penchant for songwriting, and went on to pen hits for country and bluegrass acts like Dailey & Vincent, Blue Highway, Billy Droze, Ronnie Bowman, and others.
But flatpicking guitar has always been closest to Minner’s heart, and his passion for the approach is best witnessed on his solo recordings, like Five for Frankie and the appropriately titled Solo, which showcase not just his impeccable technique and distinctive style but his skillful arranging and composing—to say nothing of his warm, luxurious sound.
Allen St. John, author of Clapton’s Guitar and a co-moderator with Minner of the Facebook group Bluegrass Guitar, says, “Bob is Mr. Tone. He’s borderline obsessed with the sound of great vintage guitars, but he has the playing chops—and the taste—to be able to pull that choir-of-angels tone out of whichever guitar he’s playing.”
That stunning tone is heard all over Minner’s latest project, From Sulphur Springs to Rising Fawn, a star-studded tribute to Norman and Nancy Blake, featuring pickers like Kenny Smith and Chris Eldridge with their vintage Martin dreadnoughts. I chatted with Minner about how he put together the album, in the process befriending the Blakes, and got the low-down on the old and new guitars behind his signature sound.
Your career has been a blend of playing traditional bluegrass and arena country. How have those different worlds impacted your playing and perspective?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to make a living for 30 years with Tim McGraw as his acoustic guitarist and banjoist. I owe it all to my early influences. [Norman] Blake, Doc [Watson], Clarence [White], and so many others were the bedrock of my playing. But I was also into players like Roy Nichols, Jerry Reed, Chet [Atkins], Jerry Donahue, Roy Buchanan, and others. It may sound a bit biased, but it seems that most of the great acoustic players here come from a bluegrass background. That genre sets the table for a player in so many ways. But I’m a bluegrass guy at heart and always have been.
How do you approach the guitar in a traditional flatpicking context compared to your supporting role with McGraw?
In the McGraw gig, it’s more structured—I try to stay close to the recorded parts, but that doesn’t mean I don’t stretch out some. Of course it’s mostly rhythm. I approach that gig like I’m a cog in a wheel with a specific job, and it’s interlocked with everyone else’s specific jobs. Playing bluegrass/flatpicking allows me to both retain the discipline of those tunes, but also really stretch out in a jam situation. So the bluegrass/flatpicking genre really works skills I don’t get to utilize in my day gig. In the end, there’s a lot of cross-pollination of skills.
Your Norman Blake tribute was released on Blake’s 84th birthday. How did you conceive of the project and what obstacles, if any, did you encounter working on it?
In February 2021, I was in George Gruhn’s office and I told him I wanted to do a flatpicking project on the heels of my Solo CD. I said there was an obscure Blake tune I had always wanted to remake, “Lonesome Jenny.” [Blake’s wife] Nancy had played some great cello on the original from 1976, and I didn’t know any cello players to cop that part. I jokingly said it would be a blast to have Nancy do it. So George says, “Why don’t we call her?” And in a few seconds, on speakerphone, there were the voices of Norman and Nancy. I was freaking out and trying to be cool. But I went home and told my wife, Ginger, that I felt I should do a Norman Blake tribute project. So I called Adam Engelhardt, who owns the Engelhardt Music Group record label, and he gave me the green light.
I wouldn’t say there were obstacles, per se. But coordinating schedules with all the collaborators was a challenge, especially in terms of studio time. And through phone calls with Norman throughout 2021 during the recording process, having his input on a myriad of things made both the experience and end product all the more rewarding and special.
You’ve been transfixed by Blake’s music since you bought Whiskey Before Breakfast as a kid. What qualities of his music affected you as a young guitarist, and how is that reflected in your playing today?
That album hooked me pretty hard at 12. That huge D-18 sound through my mom and dad’s console stereo was like thunder. I’d also say it was his authority in playing that affected me. It was something that got deep in my bones, I suppose. And there was—and still is—an unapologetic honesty to his playing. What you hear is what you get. It’s unvarnished, raw, and honest, but at the same time refined and disciplined in a way I still can’t put into words.
How did you choose the songs for the tribute? It’s a nice mix of popular and obscure selections, especially Nancy Blake’s two originals.
I just scratched the surface of their music on this project. As with any tribute project, you need to include songs that are the hits, so to speak: “Ginseng Sullivan,” “Green Light on the Southern,” “Ridge Road Gravel,” and others. It was just a matter of trying to present those in a new light that honored the spirit of the songs.
Then there were other, more obscure songs that I had always loved, such as “Widow’s Creek,” “Lonesome Jenny,” and “Macon Rag.” As for “Lonesome Jenny,” [vocalist] Dale Ann Bradley just killed it. And my old friend Chris Carmichael did a stellar string trio arrangement. It’s one of Norman’s favorites, and he told me that that performance is an entity unto itself. That was very humbling and really helped me see that following my instincts on it was the right choice. As for the two Nancy Blake originals—“Hangin’ Dog” and “Year of the Locust (Farewell to Old Rufus)”—they had to be on there. I have always loved her mandolin work.
You surrounded yourself with great players on vintage guitars. Did you try to match the sounds on Blake’s original recordings?
I don’t think we were consciously trying to imitate tones or anything like that. Everyone I wanted to play already pulled big tone, so I knew that was a given. I used Frankie, my 1936 D-18, extensively, as well as a 1937 Gibson Advanced Jumbo and 1931 Gibson L-2 loaned by George Gruhn. And how can you go wrong with Tim Stafford’s 1934 D-18, Kenny Smith’s 1935 D-18, Chris Eldridge’s 1937 D-18, Vince Gill’s 1941 D-28, and Ron Block’s 1938 D-28? And I’m a huge fan of slope-shoulder guitars from Kalamazoo, so my Collings CJ-45 T fit nicely in that tone spectrum as well. The tones took care of themselves so we could settle into the songs.
What’s the story behind Frankie?
Well, Frankie is an interesting guitar. He’s a 1936 D-18, one of 258 made that year. The neck block was stamped on October 8, 1936, and it cleared final inspection on December 11, 1936. I acquired Frankie in 2019 from my good friend Dave Drake, who had gotten it from a family in Sarasota, Florida. Dave had a neck set, refret, new bridge, and setup done by Brothers Music Shop, in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, so the guitar came to me ready to go in its original case. One stipulation Dave made was that I needed to keep the cognomen “Frankie,” which I was of course happy to do. Even after all this time, I’m still overwhelmed by the sheer tone, volume, and tonal nuances of the guitar. A lifer indeed.
I understand you were involved with Collings on the development of the CJ-45 T. How would you describe that process?
I had always expressed to Collings my affection for war-era slope-shoulder guitars, having owned a few of them, as well as a Collings CJ. And Bruce VanWart [Collings’ master luthier, who retired in March 2022] was also a huge fan of the slope-shoulder design, so we just started a dialogue on it all. I flew a couple of my war-era guitars down to the shop, and we spent a couple of days detailing every inch of them. Then Collings started sending me prototypes to evaluate. Right out of the box, I knew they were onto something special. Every prototype was better than the last. I’d offer my observations and comments, and Bruce and crew just kept dialing it in. In the end, the CJ-45 T is all Collings, but with certain distinctive elements that really capture the essence of those 1940s designs. [See a review of the CJ-45 T, as well as a transcription of Minner’s composition “VanWart,” in the September/October 2021 issue. –ed.]
Talk about what it was like to work with such great pickers on the Blake tribute album.
It was a bucket-list experience of sorts. Everyone brought such great guitars and brought such a special thing to each song. Kenny Smith is a dear friend, and he and I are cut from the same Norman-esque cloth in our early years. So it was great to bring the obscure Blake tune “Widow’s Creek” to life again. Same with Chris Eldridge and “Ridge Road Gravel”—that was only recorded on the first Blake and Rice album [Blake & Rice, 1992], never by Norman on any of his other projects. And Chris’ relationship with Tony Rice really made that a special collaboration. In the end, everybody brought their love of Norman and their A game. The arrangements were kept loose and sort of on the fly. I wanted folks to bring in their interpretations of the tunes, and we’d start from there. I think it added to the freshness and spontaneity of everything—you can hear that in the recordings.
You developed a fast friendship with Norman and Nancy. What was it like visiting them at their home in rural Georgia with George Gruhn and playing them the mixes and final tracks?
I knew that their contributions would be important to produce a respectable tribute to their work. Gradually, I started calling Norman and we just visited about many things: guitars, songs, his travels and experiences, etc. Slowly we developed a nice relationship, all the while making the record. I wanted to be accurate and respectful towards the songs, so I was constantly asking him about various details, or he’d ask who was doing what and how we were thinking about doing it. He never once told us how to do anything, though. I guess he trusted me and the collaborators to bring a different but honorable interpretation to his songs.
Once we got into mixing mode, I told Norman and Nancy it would be an honor to visit them and play the record for them. Their reclusiveness is no secret to those who love their music, so I didn’t want to impose on that. But George said he’d love to visit them again, as they all had been friends since the late ’60s and early ’70s. So we went down and I set up a pair of powered studio monitors and ran cables from my iPhone. I was scared to death, honestly. But they both gave it high marks and their approval, as well as contributing liner notes.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve taken away from the project, and what do you hope acoustic guitarists will gain from listening to the album?
Firstly, I’m thankful to have developed a friendship with Norman and Nancy. That’s more than I could ever ask for. And just how much of a national treasure they are. As a guitarist, I learned more about communicating and serving the songs: space, feel, tone. Not everything has to be fast or complex. I gained a renewed respect for melody and lyrical content. And the joy of playing—I mean, to sit across from someone and just play, communicating and really wanting to create something that the listener will enjoy over and over.
I also came to a place where I could finally accept how I play in a non-self-critical way. I’m 56 and, honestly, certain skills are starting to wane on certain days. Some days the left hand feels different. The right hand has less speed than it used to. I had long talks with Norman about those things and how he dealt with them. I took his wisdom to heart and applied it to this project.
I would encourage guitarists who aren’t familiar with the original cuts by Norman and Nancy to go back and really study them. Immerse yourself in his Whiskey Before Breakfast album. Hear the spirit of what he’s doing. There are no overdubs, no retakes; the vocals and guitar were cut at the same time. It’s totally old-school, and that’s why it works and gets down inside you. Then listen to something like Rising Fawn String Ensemble. Listen to how they communicate and stay out of each others’ way, how the album is saying something musically profound. The older I get, that’s where it’s at for me: learning to say something musically, instead of doing something posing as music.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.