Interview with Blues Guitarist Rory Block on the last of her Mentor Series ‘Hard Luck Child: A Tribute to Skip James’

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Five-time W.C. Handy Award winner Rory Block seems completely satisfied with her latest recording. Hard Luck Child: A Tribute to Skip James is the fifth and final album of her Mentor Series, which consists of paying homage to the blues artists whom she met in her teenage years and had a large impact on her years of performing. The Series has been a multi-year project that she felt was extremely important for newer audiences to experience in order to truly appreciate what the early blues artists contributed to the music world. The legendary blues guitarist/singer took time during a snowstorm at her upstate New York residence to talk about Skip, the Series, and her choice of guitars.

GGM:  This is the fifth album release of the Mentor Series. Was there any rationale on the choices or the order of artists to which you paid tribute?

RB:  The theme of the series is a tribute to blues masters who I have met in person, which distinguishes it from any other tributes that I have done or choose to do. I had done a tribute to Robert Johnson, but he died before I was born. However, after that, the idea to do a tribute to Son House became very real. I knew him, I spent time with him, he was mentored by Robert Johnson. The Son House tribute felt like a natural transition.

After that album was finished, I felt that it made sense to follow through on another blues artist that I met in person. I liked the energy that was there. So the next choice was Mississippi Fred McDowell, with whom I also spent time with. These meetings were all when I was about 15 years old, I basically ran away from home, and while in Berkeley, California, I was at a friend’s house and Fred was there. 

The next album was a tribute to Reverend Gary Davis, who I met a little later in the Bronx. My friend Stefan Grossman was taking lessons from him, and I would go to the Reverend’s house and watch and listen. After him, I followed it with Mississippi John Hurt. I met him at a concert on Long Island. I was already performing a lot of his tunes, like “Frankie and Albert.” Stefan and I would later go to his house in Washington DC and spend time with him.

After that, I met Skip James. Of the five, he was the one I spent probably the least amount of time with, but I was still very impressionable. Most of the time was spent with him in the hospital as he was battling cancer. It was very profound and touching to see the great blues player in this state of sorrow. He was the last one that I spent time with that had that direct-presence influence on me.. I feel complete with the series, I didn’t pick anyone who I did not think was a master of the blues.

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GGM:  In your liner notes, you state that you do not have much recollection of your first meeting with Skip James, but you do have strong recollections of the final times you met with him. Did this have an impact on the way you approached the recording?

RB:  It probably affected me in ways that I’m not even aware of. My personal experiences with all of these artists truly affected the way I performed the songs. I played it one way when I was 15, and find that the way that I perform them and have recorded them now has evolved. There are other elements, such as playing slide guitar, that I bring in now that I didn’t do back then. Maybe I’ll be even more aware of it when I look back on it at a later time.


GGM:  What was unique about Skip James compared to the others in your Mentor Series?

RB:  Each one of the artists covered is unique in his own style, and that made me lucky to experience. Skip was melancholy in the deepest way, with that beautiful falsetto voice. His style was chilling, very moving.

GGM:  Did you choose the specific songs on the album, or did you record a number of Skip’s songs and choose the best ones from the lot?

RB:  It’s rare that I record a lot of songs and then choose the ones that are the best. I record one song at a time, with no real plan. I like to be spontaneous. I listened to his material, and I had certain songs already picked out, but then I’ll pick a song that jumps out at me and go, “Man, that’s a good one.” Then I start recording it but let the song dictate its own direction. Afterwards, we listen and say that it’s good, and move on to the next song. Sometimes, that’s how the albums are already sequenced as I record. I may look at the list of songs and go for one with a refreshing difference, like a different tempo or change of key. Then as we record, it makes its own sequence.

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GGM:  Did you incorporate the D-minor tuning that Skip used?

RB:  I pretty much stuck with the open D tuning. I know that there are some performers who drop that G string into the minor modal to play like Skip James. I can still do the same notes that he played with or without a modal tuning. When I recorded the tribute to Robert Johnson, I did it measure-by-measure as accurate as possible, because I didn’t want any variation. Then with the Son House tribute, I started with the basic tracks, laying them down as close to the original songs as I could get them, to the best of my ability. Then I felt inspired to lay down some overdubs when it seemed to call for them. But the basic tracks on all of the Mentor Series albums has been an attempt to get as close to the original recordings as possible.

GGM:  The first song on the album is an original of yours, which is sort of a biography/tribute to Skip. Did you want to set up the sequence of the album with the first song being “Here’s Skip James’ life,” followed by a number of his songs as “Here is what he gave us”?

RB:  I don’t know if I did it consciously, but it makes sense. I did something similar with the Mississippi John Hurt album, and I wanted to introduce the artist from my point of view. There’s something about that structure that makes it work.

GGM:  The production of this album has a house-concert, “live” feel to it. You mention the dogs barking or phone ringing in the background in the liner notes. Did you ever consider recording this as a live album?

RB:  While that would have been a great idea, but the way that it was recorded, with new ideas coming, without a script, without knowing what’s coming next, that inspiration was moving the recording in a great direction.

GGM:  Let’s look at some of the songs. “Little Cow” has that old 78 record to it, with a quick fade out like back then. Do you think about those old recording techniques with your recordings?

RB:  Absolutely. I spin things my own way, and my background is those old recordings. Recordings ended abruptly, artists talked on their recordings, and I often do that. On the Son House album, I mentioned the “get out of town” ending in the liner notes, where you are in the studio, it’s spontaneous, they start the recording, you get one take through, then Boom, Bang, you’re out of the room. Now you have to go to your gig. It’s that spontaneous sound that I really like. I don’t worry anymore. When I started recording in my early performing days, the process was a lot more meticulous. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a different state of mind. But that has nothing to do with the way I record now, whether there’s a click, a rumble, a cat, a truck, it has nothing to do with the mood that’s being created. It’s consistent with the energy that is coming out.

GGM:  You approached “Jesus Is A Mighty Good Leader” as a much more modern interpretation, with multiple-layered Gospel-influenced vocals. Was that intentional or did this come about as the recording progressed?

RB:  I’m not sure that I thought about it in a conscious way. I do think that it has a 1970s-style Gospel sound to it. It’s not Skip James’ style, but not too modern, either. In Skip James’ day, they had some fabulous harmonies going on. The old recordings had some great Gospel-type singing, with the lead voice working around the background singers. There’s no time period of Gospel music that I don’t truly love. From all my years of listening to Gospel music, it always had that layered vocals with that cry out in front. So I started with the background vocals then have something to work with singing the lead.

GGM:  It has a true Gospel group sound, not at all like Rory Block overdubbing her own voice a few times over.

RB:  I’m glad of that. When I’m doing that, I don’t think about things like how it sounds with me singing to myself.

GGM:  “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” is probably the most well-known Skip James song now, especially with its appearance on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. People are starting to go back to an interest in acoustic country-blues. Have you noticed that resurgence of interest in your audiences?

RB:  The soundtrack to that movie was fantastic! I remember hearing all of that music while watching the movie and being really happy that this would be heard by mass audiences. The re-discovery of the blues artists back in the late 1960s was very regional, very local. There weren’t the mass audiences as of yet. There were people in the folk revival scene that were aware of it, but it never went big-time at that time. But to hear soundtracks like O Brother using this type of music is very uplifting. Over many, many years, this music still remains in the background, and those of us who have been passionate about this music have waited for the recognition. Robert Johnson finally got the recognition he deserved, when there were probably just a handful of people listening to him back in 1964. But once someone like him gets that recognition, you can only rejoice. People like Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs helped to turn bluegrass into a more commercially available format. There are a lot of great people like John Hammond and Bonnie Raitt who have helped to get acoustic roots music into the public arena. I’m happy to be a little part of that.

When I read a review of one of my Mentor albums, and it says that my work could bring more attention to this artist’s music, shine more light on the early players, bring more money into the estate to help the surviving family members, if that happens, that will make my cup overflow! When these original artists recorded back then, they had no thought of fame. There was no such term as “mega-star.” They were compelled to do this music because it was beautiful. It’s a different world today. There’s a different network and different resources available. Back then, the primary reason for performing and recording music was for the pure joy of it, and if it paid some expenses, all the better.

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GGM:  The song “I’m So Glad,” the music world is so used to the version recorded by Cream, but your version comes across as more of what the song is meant to say. You’ve dropped the minor and 7th chord progressions that are on the Cream version and stuck with major chords and harmonies.

RB:  I don’t think I consciously wanted the song to sound happy or purposely contrast it to a version already popular. I just launch into the recording of it. I may have heard a version of that song long before the pop version. Combine that with my strong background of Gospel music, these combine so that the song came out the way that it did. There’s nothing wrong with other interpretations of the song, they are important, but I just like to focus on the original version when I’m recording, and give it my all.

GGM:  What is the future of your Mentor Series?

RB:  These five albums will be put into a box set in the next year. My entire list of influences is way too vast, so with this project, I honed it down to these five great artists that I did get to meet in my early influential time and have been re-discovered. It feels like a way of saying “thank you” to these artists. I feel complete with this project.

GGM:  Let’s finish off with talking about your guitars. You have your Martin Signature OM-40. Any reason for the O size guitar over the more popular D size?

RB:  The Dreadnaughts are much too big for me to be comfortable with. My first guitar when I was a little girl was a Guyano. Stefan Grossman collected a lot of Martins, so I had the opportunity to try a lot of them back then. I remember holding Reverend Gary Davis’ sunburst Gibson, and it was huge! It just didn’t fit me. I always just felt comfortable with the O size, because I grew up with that size, which led to the Martin Signature model. I have been given many guitars to try out by different manufacturers, but nothing fit quite as well as the Martin OM.

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Rather than touring to promote the Mentor Series, Rory is going into semi-retirement after 35 years of being on the road extensively. Her autobiography “When A Woman Gets The Blues” details much of her time touring. There will be a few shows in February and a short European tour in April, but she says that she is loving staying at home for a while. She also plans to spend more time promoting wildlife preservation and environmental protection. She is also investing time, money and energy into restoring a church near her home as a building that can be used for many community activities, including concerts, workshops and artist networking along with church services.

Rory Block website: www.roryblock.com

Photo Credits:
Rory Block CD-Stony Plain
Sergio Kurhajec

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