Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Rory Block has been one of the country’s preeminent blues artists for more than four decades and close to 30 albums now, but if you haven’t checked in with her in the past dozen years, you’ve missed out on some of the best music she’s ever made. It was in 2006 that Block made her extraordinarily soulful The Lady and Mr. Johnson tribute to Robert Johnson, and she followed that triumph with a remarkable succession of six discs in what she calls her Mentor Series—each devoted to a different legendary blues personality she encountered and learned from when she was first coming up as a musician in Greenwich Village in the mid to late 1960s: Son House, Fred McDowell, Rev. Gary Davis, John Hurt, Skip James, and Bukka White; quite a group. Each of those albums manages to capture the essence and originality of the featured bluesman, while also showcasing Block’s formidable skills on slide and fingerstyle acoustic guitar, and her underrated talent as a passionate and versatile singer.
Now Block has turned her attention to a new series, Power Women of the Blues, “a project that has been simmering in my imagination for 54 years,” she writes in the liner notes to her exceptional 2018 album, A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith. Over the course of ten tracks, which range from such chestnuts as “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” “Weeping Willow Blues,” and “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” to less-known numbers like “On Revival Day” and “Empty Bed Blues,” Block dives head first into the wide range of styles tackled by the “Empress of the Blues” in the 1920s and ’30s—from deep blues to slinky, ribald excursions, to jazzier numbers. Block’s singing has never been better, and it goes without saying that the guitar playing is scorching when needed, delicate if called for. Block has few peers when it comes to acoustic blues, and with the able assistance of Rob Davis—her husband, co-producer and engineer—she’s learned to layer her “solo” albums with multiple parts, giving her projects a richness and complexity that is at times astounding, and always supremely tasteful.
I reached Block by phone at her home in upstate New York this past summer and talked a bit about playing slide, the new album, and, naturally, the gorgeous Martin signature model guitars that are all over her albums.
You came to slide relatively late in terms of your overall development as a guitarist. I’d like to hear how you got into it and who the models were for you.
The first slide player who blew me away was Robert Johnson. His playing sounded so clean I just couldn’t see how it was possible that he was using a slide. In 1964, some of my friends were starting to play slide, but to me the sound was very different from Robert Johnson. So I made the decision to play Robert Johnson’s music with my bare fingers. I did that for years, until at some point it began to dawn on me that I had to embrace the slide, because it was such a central part of the music I loved—whether Son House, Bukka White, Robert Johnson, and others—and I knew I really had to learn the style. Stefan Grossman and his friends used to break a wine bottle, sand down the sharp edges—thus the term “bottleneck.” I searched for years but could never find anything small enough to fit my finger. At some point, the word got out and people started bringing me custom-made slides. I developed a wonderful collection of blown glass, short and long, porcelain in many colors, brass . . . all beautiful, but somehow none of them fit me.
Eventually John Hammond said, “Go out and get yourself a socket wrench; they come in all sizes.” That was the best advice anyone ever gave me. So I went down to a friend’s gas station and picked out a 14-millimeter deep-well socket. They sanded the knob end off for me, and I used it on my ring finger, from the second knuckle down. I later realized that I do this because of the way Fred McDowell played when I knew him. He had a tiny piece of metal on the end of one knuckle, but the music he made with that tiny slide was huge.
So I started experimenting with my socket wrench, but I really could not get it at all. I was overshooting the frets, playing too fast, the vibrato was too tense, and the whole thing was perpetually buzzy. It wasn’t until Bonnie Raitt played on one of my albums and we were mixing—we had her soloed in the speakers, and there it was, plain as day: It was relaxed. She was taking a stroll up the neck. She would hesitate for a split second and then she would start to rock, slow and funky. “Oh,” I said. “I’m doing it all wrong! It’s relaxed!” That’s when I finally started to make some headway, but not before rethinking the whole thing. Still, I had to work crazy hard on it before I found “the pocket.” Sometimes it takes its time before it gels, before it starts to come together. But when you find it, slide is pure joy. My husband says I play slide just like it’s a vocal.
When did slides start to become commercially available?
If you go back a few decades, there were never slides in stores. I’m just glad that today slides come in all sizes, so anyone can go out and buy one in their own size. Back in the day you had to make your own; you had to be creative like Fred McDowell, who notably once used a marrow bone. In those days, people got ahold of anything that made a cool sound on the strings—jackknives, bones, pieces of metal. So I don’t really remember what year it was, but eventually slides began to appear. At first they were all huge, made for a large hand, and once again I couldn’t find anything that worked for me. That’s where the socket wrench came in—and add to that some severe struggling on my part.
Besides the old blues guys, were there more modern players who influenced your slide playing?
In addition to Bonnie Raitt, I always loved Ry Cooder’s playing. As far as I was concerned, that was the sound to emulate when I first heard him in the mid-’70s. Ellen McIlwaine was out there playing killer slide back in the day—back when it was a really unusual sound and it hadn’t yet become all the rage. Then along came Kelly Joe Phelps. Now there are a great number of super-talented slide players. Slide is truly an art form unto itself.
Were you applying too much pressure, digging in too hard?
I don’t know how to describe it except to say that I just had the wrong touch. Slide is like a tennis backhand—at first it doesn’t work, doesn’t work; then suddenly you find the sweet spot. After the moment of revelation I had listening to Bonnie, I realized that it was not so much about obsessing over pitch, but that the pitch finds itself when you relax. If you overthink it, it gets stiff. When you relax and let it get intuitive, it gets really funky. It has a kind of wobble to it that’s really beautiful. And it isn’t so much about pressure—hard, soft—it’s just a feel.
When I’m teaching, I tell my students that you can go up with the slide, or you can go down. I learned that from Brendan Croker, who played with Mark Knopfler [of Dire Straits], in a band they put together called the Notting Hillbillies. Brendan was touring in the US and just happened to have a gig in my town. We managed to find some time for him to come over and sit in on one of my songs. As I watched him, I saw that he was going up the neck and down. That hadn’t occurred to me until then. It always seemed like slide was meant to go up the neck. I’d seen people do what he did before, but I hadn’t really focused on it until I started playing a lot of slide myself. Brendan’s playing made me realize that slide was even more versatile than I thought.
‘One day, out of the blue, Martin called me and asked me if I wanted to pick out a guitar.’
At that point, I went back and listened to Son House again, and I realized you didn’t have to slide across the strings—you could leap over the strings and use the slide as a fretting device. You could lift up and come down on all these different notes and pick out a melody. You could even leap off the string to create a sound like a little exclamation point. Bonnie is great at doing that.
How has having the slide above the joint informed your style, or affected what you can do with it?
A lot of slide players go for the fully covered finger. For me, partially covered and bent at the knuckle is about flexibility. That’s not to say anyone is less flexible with a larger slide, it’s just that we all figure out the way we want to do it, and what feels best for us. So I like the feeling of being able to bend my finger. It also allows me to fret with my other fingers in a comfortable way.
Did getting into slide open your eyes to other tunings?
No, no, I grew up with open tunings. It was all about open G, open D, and partially open tunings like dropped D. Open G and dropped D were my two favorite tunings for years, dropped D being a typical country blues tuning used for “Big Road Blues,” “Canned Heat,” and so many others. The E string turned down to low D is an iconic, beautiful country blues sound. “Frankie and Albert” and all sorts of other songs are in open G. I was spending most of my time in open tunings right out of the gate, so it was just about switching over what I was already doing to incorporate slide.
The parts on the new album are nicely layered, with multiple guitars, some percussion, and bass, all of which you played. Can you talk about that process?
When recording multiple tracks most people use some sort of mechanized click-track. It gives everyone something to play to, keeps the tempo steady, and is perfect for overdubs. But it’s also possible to have it make things sound and feel a bit robotic. Somewhere along the line, I decided to try creating my own hand-played click-track. The idea was to give the whole thing more of a human feel. A live performance is always going to breathe more, fluctuate, and go a little faster here, a little slower there. So I decided to create all my own rhythms for an entire album—starting with the hand-played click-track and adding things like percussion played with cooking utensils on storage boxes and tubs, things you’d find in a kitchen, attic, cellar, or even a barn. Anything that sounds good works just fine. I assembled all these different boxes and whacking devices. I used plastic, metal, and wooden spoons, as well as my hand hitting the guitar—I call that “guitar bongos.” I started by tapping along to Bessie Smith’s track to get a tempo, then Rob [Davis] would mute the track and I’d just keep playing. I think we ended up with rhythm tracks with a human feel. Almost all the tracks have some little irregularity or complexity to them, but that’s the sound I wanted.
‘Slide is like a tennis backhand—at first it doesn’t work, doesn’t work; then suddenly you find the sweet spot.’
Then I recorded the root guitars, most of which were in regular tuning. Then I’d build from there, and that’s where things got really fun. Overdubs in different tunings—I’d mess around until I heard something I liked, and maybe create a new tuning or two for interest.
After that, I began adding bass parts, and for those I simply tuned the guitar way below pitch. For the first song, “Do Your Duty,” I listened to the bass player on the original recording, who played such a brilliant part—I thought, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” The original part was that good. But soon after that, I began to just play whatever came to me, and that started to work also. By the time I got to the third or fourth song, it was like I was just playing bass—getting the vibe and creating my own parts, inspired, of course, by Bessie’s outrageous band. I began tuning down into completely unknown open tunings. Sometimes it was just the three lower strings—the E, the A, and D—and I’d tune them way down. Then the last thing I added was slide, and that was the icing on the cake—and always totally spontaneous.
When I walk into the studio, I want to get right to it, so Rob has to have everything ready to record the minute I walk in. I’m getting ideas and trying things out as I’m tuning up, and I don’t want to miss anything. I’m not as good the second time around, I’m not good at repetition. I’m not one of those “OK, take 30!” types. I work quickly and I want to get it down “on tape.” Rob’s got to be recording as soon as I put the headphones on.
Obviously, a difference between this album and your Mentor Series is that all of those guys were guitarists, so that gave you something to work off in terms of your musical choices. Here, you’re playing off a singer and different kinds of arrangements, sometimes dominated by horns instead of guitars.
That’s right. When I was doing Son House and Robert Johnson, I was definitely following their arrangements; that was the whole point! Crack the code and honor the original. Then, from the Fred McDowell album on, I was mostly playing my own lines. In this case, I am using the guitar as the building blocks for the entire track, not based on another guitar part but on an entire band arrangement. At first, I started by using the horns in Bessie’s band as the main inspiration. Those horns are beyond amazing!
Let’s talk about your signature model Martin. How did that come about?
In the ’60s, when Stefan Grossman and I crossed the country together, he would walk into pawnshops and come out with these unbelievable prewar Martin guitars that nobody seemed to value at the time. The owners must have just seen them as old instruments covered in dust that needed a lot of repairs; clearly they weren’t thought to be super-valuable at the time. Some of the guitars Stefan found needed a neck reset, some a bridge that needed to be glued, and he’d often pay as little as 50 bucks for some herringbone- or pearl-inlay Martin that for some reason someone had pawned. He fixed them all up, and for a long while, I was playing his guitars exclusively, because I didn’t have one of my own at the time. I had an old Galiano that my parents gave me when I was eight years old, but it was set up for nylon strings, and soon I had begun to play only on steel strings.
Over the years I was given a number of guitars by various companies and builders, but I never felt completely happy until I got my own Martin. One day, out of the blue, Martin called me and asked me if I wanted to pick out a guitar. This was a landmark moment in my life, a dream come true. The first one they gave me was an OM-28V, which was the closest thing to what Stefan used to have, because I knew my hands were comfortable with it. I used it exclusively for a time, and loved it to death. Then they called me up again and said they’d like to do a signature model. I couldn’t believe it; this time I had died and gone to heaven! So [Martin archivist] Dick Boak, Rob, and I went to a restaurant and drew design ideas on dinner napkins until we decided that the neck would be a blacktop highway, which I reasoned was an iconic, bluesy theme—complete with highway signs: stop, yield, and a railroad crossing—and Dick, who is a great designer as well as a builder, came up with the idea for a [1930s Hudson] Terraplane on the headstock, to honor Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues.” I specifically wanted to pick a body size that was generic—not designed for one body size or another, but a universal size that would fit everyone—so that’s what we chose, and my pride and joy, my Signature Model OM-40, was born. There were four prototypes to begin with, and then they made 38 signed guitars, and all sold out. At one point, I parted with one of them—and it was traumatic; of course, I miss it. But I got some comfort knowing that it went to a great home. I have three left and I’m not going to sell any of them. One I think of as a ballad guitar and another is a sort of all-purpose guitar that can take slide and more strident playing. I’ve had a lot of people ask me when I’m going to do another signature model, and it’s certainly something to think about.
What has age given you as a player and a singer?
You mature, you learn, and you get more experienced. I feel much more free and confident now, and I can say that I have expanded my range. I’ve broken my own rules and created new boundaries. Nonetheless, most of my foundational learning took place between the ages of 14 and 16 years old. That’s when I learned all the different styles of the artists I’m now doing tributes to. I’d say the biggest change now is that I play slide, and next that I’ve become a songwriter. I think that all the years, all the gigs, all the tours, and all the experiences in life have contributed to a kind of new version of myself—which I frankly feel is reflected in my music, particularly in my guitar playing. I think that happens to all of us in our own areas. We bring everything we have to what we do and it becomes a new piece of fabric, a growing piece of artwork, with new brush strokes and new layers constantly being added. This process never stops, and that’s a good thing, too, so things never get boring.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.