From the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Blair Jackson
This third installment in Rory Block’s Power Women of the Blues series takes the acoustic slide guitar master and blues belter in some unexpected but completely rewarding new directions. Over the course of around three dozen album releases since 1975, Block has primarily been in a deep country-blues bag. She is justifiably famous for her outstanding tribute albums to such well-known early country blues masters as Robert Johnson, Son House, Fred McDowell, Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James, and Booker “Bukka” White, as well as many lesser-known figures from that world.
The previous Power Women of the Blues releases include A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith (2018) and Prove It On Me (2020), with interpretations of tunes by Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey, and a host of more obscure women singers, like Lottie Kimbrough, Rosetta Howard, and Helen Humes.
There’s still plenty of blues feeling on Ain’t Nobody Worried in Block’s singing and playing, which ranges from wonderful slide work—tasteful, never showy, and always somehow perfect for the song—to fingerpicked and strummed acoustic. The guitars are her Martin Rory Block Signature OM-40s, as well as a Martin OM-28V. Block uses the Martin Gold Plus VTII acoustic pickup system and Martin medium-gauge MA150 Authentic strings. Her slide is a 15mm deep well socket, and she uses a Shubb capo.
A product of the lockdown era, the album finds Block handling everything we hear: the multiple guitar parts, the stacked lead and backing vocals, bass, and percussion/drum programming, all expertly recorded and layered by Rob Davis at Kentucky Studios, in Sandy Hook, Kentucky.
The biggest surprise is the bold, genre-crossing song choices, heavy on iconic popular songs that are already very closely associated with a pantheon of great women singers: “I’ll Take You There” (Mavis Staples), “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Gladys Knight), “I’d Rather Go Blind” (Etta James), “Dancing in the Street” (Martha Reeves), “Love Has No Pride” (Bonnie Raitt, whom Block calls “the best singer on earth”—no argument here!), “Fast Car” (Tracy Chapman), “Cried Like a Baby” (Koko Taylor), “You’ve Got a Friend” (Carole King), and more. A prolific songwriter through the years, Block also includes a version of her own “Lovin’ Whiskey,” which she describes in the liner notes as “the song that launched my career… that earned me a gold record and has remained my most popular and requested song for over three decades.”
Of course, we fully expect the guitar-playing to be sensational, but this time out I was most blown away by Block’s singing. She fearlessly tackles the vocal gymnastics of some of the greatest singers of the modern era, and more often than not honors the originals while adding her own particular brand of spice. In her liner notes she faces the challenge head-on: “Why attempt to resurrect such untouchable greatness? I suppose the answer is the same reason I dare to do Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, and other early blues legends. I do not do these songs to create a better version than the original. Those versions are enshrined in the halls of Musical Heaven. I do these songs because I play the music I love most.”
That passion can be felt throughout Ain’t Nobody Worried, from the simmering soul showcase “I’ll Take You There” that opens the album to the delicate fingerpicked version of Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” that closes the set. Against the odds, Block really pulls this off. That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that I wish there were a lot more and longer guitar solos, just to open up the tunes a bit. I say, let it rip, Rory!
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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.