Traditional blues is a musical field in which women are typically woefully underrepresented. One of the modern-day titans of the genre is guitarist/vocalist Rory Block. In her teens, the New Jersey native made her way to California via the South—a road hard-worn and rugged, yet abounding in life lessons of the blues greats who passed before her. Block’s skillful fingerpicking and slide work make for a constantly smoldering foundation above which her muscular and intensely emotive vocal style effortlessly careens.
Block’s newest album Avalon: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt pays homage to one of her greatest influences (the fourth in a series dedicated to significant influences in Block’s musical development). Ten of the album’s eleven songs are interpretations of Hurt songs, while Everybody Loves John, written by Block, expresses her feelings for the blues giant.
Ms. Block spoke with Guitar Girl Magazine about her life in music, from influential mentors to her choice of slides.
GGM: Who have been your biggest guitar influences?
Block: I always credit Robert Johnson with being the pinnacle of greatness and thus the number one inspiration to me; however, there were many other country blues players who were major inspirations to me as well. Son House and Mississippi John Hurt, both of whom I have gratefully acknowledged in my Mentor Series, were phenomenal guitarists and exceptionally important to me. Reverend Gary Davis was also a genius though I hadn’t focused on his technique as closely until I recorded “I Belong to The Band,” my tribute to him. Also Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton and Skip James were among the guitar giants; Tommy Johnson being my favorite proponent of the Mississippi strumming styles, Charley Patton the best thumping, percussive guitarist, Willie Brown an expert in the snapping of bass strings. And there were countless others, extraordinary in their own right, who were inspiring and phenomenal.
GGM: You spent a significant time during your early years on the road (especially your cross-country trip to California); what was the most important lesson you learned?
Block: I almost want to recommend my autobiography “When A Woman Gets The Blues” for the answers to these good and interesting questions. I’m not sure I could encapsulate anything that could really address those years and travels better than the chapters I wrote about falling in love with the music, running away from home and traveling cross country. Info about the book can be found by clicking here.
GGM: What was the hardest lesson?
Block: So many tough lessons—and still learning as I go! One thing I know about now that I didn’t know then… gratitude. Gratitude for life, my family, for still being here, for the music, for being able to do what I love, for my animals, for nature, the list goes on.
GGM: How do you feel about the blues music scene today, and its up-and-coming artists?
Block: Today I think there is an incredible list of talent that seemingly grows daily. More and more people know about the old music and a boggling array of great artists, young and old, are out there touring, recording, and making quality music.
GGM: How did you settle on using a socket as a slide?
Block: My old friend John Hammond was the one who recommended I use a socket wrench. He said “they come in all sizes.” I had searched for years, never finding anything suitable, particularly because wine bottles, one of the first slides of choice among the male guitarists I knew in the 1960s, were always too large for my hand. Years later various slides began to appear in stores, but everything was still made for a man’s hand and thus way too big for me. The socket was the perfect solution for various reasons- both because of the size options, but also because the weight and tone fit in nicely with the way I like to play.
GGM: When developing your slide technique, how did you work on your intonation and vibrato?
Block: In my autobiography “When A Woman Gets The Blues,” I talk about how Bonnie Raitt—when she recorded on my “Confessions Of A Blues Singer” CD—demonstrated through her amazing playing, exactly what I was doing wrong, and what I needed to do to get started in the right direction. As we soloed her part in the mix session, I heard this relaxed, funky rocking sound that she was getting and I realized my playing had been too stiff and too rushed. I began to practice anew, keeping Bonnie’s example in mind- trying to get an easier, more relaxed feel- and that was when it seemed to finally fall into the pocket, and I was able to start practicing for real. I thank Bonnie for this.
GGM: Do you use alternate tunings? If so, which do you like?
Block: Country blues was written in so many innovative tunings- open G, open D, drop D come to mind as my favorites- plus numerous modal variations as in the case of Skip James, for instance- but there is really no limit to the created tunings that come about in the natural course of recording and writing. I don’t read music so everything I come up with is by ear, and remembering these tunings afterwards is always daunting. Sometimes I have to go back and try to figure out my own songs.
GGM: Aside from the fretboard and headstock inlay, what unique features did you request for your Martin signature model?
Block: I wanted a design that would work for everyone; a medium body size that would be right for a man or a woman. We also braced the top of the guitar for additional impact and pounding, and used a stronger fret material to resist the wear and tear of a thumping slide and a capo.
GGM: How did you get the great guitar tones on Avalon?
Block: My husband Rob Davis is my engineer, bus driver, road manager and dog walker. Since 1997 he has been doing my live sound and recording my CDs, and he has developed a deep knowledge of what I do and how to present it – not at all an easy task as the thumbing and banging can create major challenges. Though he changes equipment and experiments, his approach is always to keep it simple, natural, and to capture the spirit of material as we both endeavor to honor the early music. For Avalon, the guitar was recorded with a Demeter tube DI, a Radial DI and a CAD E100 condensor mic.
GGM: Your vocals on this album exhibited a wonderful richness and clarity. Do you prefer a particular vocal mic?
Block: At the moment Rob records my vocals with a Shure KSM44, and for live sound he uses a Shure Beta 57C.
GGM: What upcoming projects/tours do you have planned?
Block: We are currently auditioning material for the next in the Mentor Series, but until I make a final decision it’s not possible to say for sure. I try to wait until we have begun recording before announcing the direction of the next tribute. I expect to include one, maybe two more in this series, and eventually to put them in a boxed set.
We have also begun recording an audio version of my book that doesn’t yet have a known release date. Every day we do a little bit more. I’d like to see it released by the end of the year. Also trying to organize a store page where I sell instruments, stage clothing, paintings and so on- but that’s at the end of the list while these other projects are underway. It’s currently on my website without prices but can be perused. My website shows the upcoming tour dates (click here) , as well as everywhere I have played since the site was founded in 1997, though my touring has been going on since some time in the early 1980s. A journalist recently joked that my schedule reminded him of the Grateful Dead… many dates, indeed! We go back on the road by the end of August.
For more on Rory Block, visit her website at www.roryblock.com.
Photo credit: Sergio Kurhajec