“I think I see myself as the little match girl standing outside in the cold looking through a glowing window at the happy people inside.”
“In my opinion, it’s impossible not to get inspired by Bessie Smith. She was everything great – powerful, compelling, influential, fascinating, funny, sexy, and bold.”
For decades, Rory Block has lived and breathed music. Very early on she dug her heels deep into the blues tradition and has since been recognized as one of the finest acoustic blues guitarists of the modern era.
With a style similar to that of Robert Johnson’s Delta blues recordings of the 1930s, she has undoubtedly become a dominant figure in the world of slide guitar – playing the blues the way it was meant to be played. With her Mentor Series, comprised of albums that pay tribute to legendary blues artists, Rory is unrestrictedly preserving blues traditions – one song at a time. She’s been called one of the most impressive contemporary blues artists. But because she is so deeply rooted in country blues traditions, it’s hard to call her contemporary. The word “genuine” is more accurate.
Rory took the time to fill us in on her beginnings, her signature model guitar, and her blues heroes, and give us insight into what it means to play the blues.
Your work has been recognized by countless groups – from being inducted to the Capital Area Music Association (CAMA) to being nominated for Acoustic Blues Album of the Year — you’ve seen a lot of well-earned acknowledgements. When you were first starting out, did you ever think your music would be so appreciated?
I started out as a country blues artist in my teens, but in the 1960s, there was almost no encouragement from the industry. I was essentially told that I would never make it doing blues, and that to succeed I would need to embrace the “commercial” trends. As a result, I went in a different direction for a while but eventually became discouraged and decided to go back to blues, and that’s when things started to make sense. At that time, I recorded High Heeled Blues, thinking I would keep a copy for myself and give a couple to friends – I certainly never thought anyone would care. But then Rolling Stone gave it a wonderful review saying, “… some of the most singular and affecting country blues anyone, man or woman, black or white, old or young, has cut in recent years,”… and I was blown away. In fact, I am always amazed when anything good happens. That’s just my mindset. I think I see myself as the little match girl standing outside in the cold looking through a glowing window at the happy people inside.
Speaking of beginnings, you were born in Jersey and soon after moved to Manhattan, where you’ve said sightings of musicians such as Bob Dylan and John Lennon were not uncommon. How did a childhood in the Big Apple lead you towards a career in music, and in particular, the blues genre?
There was an acoustic music revival in New York City that probably started in the late 1940s, but I became aware of it in the mid-60s. People were listening to early American music styles – old-timey Appalachian music, country blues, folk, and songwriters such as Phil Ochs, John Sebastian, Bob Dylan, Donovan, and, of course, the Beatles. The Village was a hub, a meeting place and melting pot for some of the best musicians in the world. I was just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time as an impressionable youngster growing up in a musical family. My friends were musicians, record collectors, music historians, and music fans. Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Bukka White and others were rediscovered and brought back into the limelight, and I was able to meet and spend time with many of them as they came through the city to perform.
What can you tell us about your first encounter with a guitar?
My parents were both accomplished musicians, and both played guitar throughout my childhood. When I was 10 years old I began teaching myself by picking out simple melodies and chords. Immediately, the guitar became my life – my best friend, and my full-time obsession.
It’s hard to count many modern musicians who can play the slide guitar as well as you. How did you pick up this technique?
I avoided slide for years because at first it seemed like Robert Johnson’s playing was too clean to be slide. So, I played the same notes but with my bare fingers. Years later I realized that I just couldn’t continue to avoid the slide any longer. This led to several years of frustration: not being able to get the sound I wanted, lots of buzzing, intonation problems, and a frantic sounding vibrato. Then Bonnie Raitt put a solo on one of my records and as we were mixing, we soloed her iconic playing in the speakers. That’s when I heard things that informed me and opened doors. Her technique was relaxed. She was taking a stroll up the neck. When she got where she wanted to be she hesitated for a moment, and then the vibrato was funky, slow, and super cool. I said “Oooh, I’m doing it all wrong!” So, I started working on it anew – I finally found “the pocket,” and from there kept expanding the options. For the sake of space that’s another article, but I soon developed a list of unexpected moves a slide could make. I teach these in my workshops and to my students. Slide is one of the most versatile tools out there.
The slide guitar can be rather intimidating to many guitarists. Do you feel more comfortable playing with the slide, or is conventional fretting more your style?
Sometimes it seems I am forgetting how to play without a slide. It seems like practically everything I record calls for slide – slide is really the way I hear music at this point. If I can’t find my slide, I get really freaked out. I have one favorite that just works for me … a nice heavyweight socket wrench.
You’ve collaborated with so many great artists, such as Stevie Wonder, Mark Knopfler, and Bonnie Raitt. Of the many well-known artists you’ve worked with, which one has had the most impact on you?
As per above, I have explained some of the inspiration from Bonnie. Her singing too has always inspired me. Mark Knopfler was another kind of revelation when I heard his gorgeous bent notes and outstanding tones. “WHO is that?” I said. Someone said, “That’s Mark Knopfler,” and he later put an amazing solo on my song “Faithless World.” Ry Cooder has also been a huge inspiration as a great slide player. Stevie Wonder … what can I say – who would not be inspired by Stevie Wonder? The story of how he came to play on my record is in my autobiography, When a Woman Gets the Blues.
What is it about the blues that really speaks to you?
The incredible soulfulness of the music. I think this was particularly intense as it was played by the blues artists in the early 20th century. They were living the words they wrote, in some of the worst of times, and it doesn’t get any more compelling and powerful than that.
Blues lyrics can be very personal, yet universally relatable. Where do you find influence for your music?
Yes, blues is universal, but as you point out, it’s also a personal matter for each artist. Life … life is where inspiration comes from. No one escapes suffering. No one avoids heartbreak. I don’t mean to be flippant when I say, “read my book” (that’s where I wrote most of it down), but that’s where it starts – from birth to the present, our life experiences translate into the music.
From the time you first recorded an album to the point you’re at now, how significantly have you progressed as an acoustic blues guitarist?
Sometimes I listen to my earliest records from when I was a teenager, and with the notable exception of slide, I think I haven’t actually advanced or changed a lot since then. From 14 to 16 years old, I had researched and transcribed most of the music I play today. Perhaps I play more aggressively now, perhaps I’ve added more improvisation, and some people tell me I have developed my own style. I just think that slide has added another dimension for me that I hadn’t discovered at first, but now it seems to have given me a way to keep on celebrating the music in a new way.
Speaking of your guitar skills, what’s one skill every acoustic blues musician should master?
DRIVE. If there’s one thing I try to teach my students, it’s to put more energy into their playing. The original masters put amazing power into every note, which is one reason we love them so much. You need to stomp, you need to put your body into the playing and rock around like Mississippi John Hurt, you need to slam into the frets like Robert Johnson, and roll your head like Son House. Blues is not timid. Drive is needed. You can’t have too much.
What’s the current state of blues in America – is it making a comeback? Was it ever really gone?
I like that you ask “was it ever gone?” No, it never was. It has been there simmering and percolating- sometimes appearing in bars and on small tent stages off to the side at festivals. I always wanted to turn acoustic blues into a main stage kind of thing, and I have succeeded in many ways. But it has been somewhat of a battle to bring the foundational music back into the public consciousness, to give credit to the original writers – credit where credit is due. This is a mission I have been on my entire life – to mention the names of the founding artists to prevent them from fading into the mists of time or being forgotten in the advancing tide of modern music. Now we see rare recordings turned into compilations, tribute concerts, documentaries, and celebrations of some of the great legends of blues. But when I first started playing in 1964, only a handful of people had even heard of Robert Johnson. I always hoped this day would come, and I feel a sense of joy to see how the early players are now being celebrated.
Let’s talk equipment: you know you’ve had some level of significant success as a musician when C.F. Martin & Company works with you to design your very own signature model guitar. How did the Martin OM-40 Rory Block Signature Edition come to be?
In the 1960s, I witnessed the resurgence of interest in old guitars – Martin guitars in particular. From abandoned instruments brought out of the back rooms of pawn shops to what I believe is the most widely beloved and esteemed of all acoustic guitars – I watched these same pre-war Martins go from undervalued to almost priceless within a couple of decades. Even though I had never owned one myself, I could only watch with despair as others collected them. Then one day I got a call from Dick Boak at Martin saying that they wanted to design a Signature Model guitar for me. I couldn’t believe it – I thought I had gone to heaven. You see, to me, Martin will always be the top guitar in the universe.
Dick took my husband Rob and me to a restaurant where we drew our designs on paper napkins. Later, he translated our concepts into sketches which were sent back and forth until we had completed the design. The neck would be a blacktop highway (an iconic symbol of the traveling life of a blues musician), complete with passing and no-passing zones in mother of pearl. We placed road signs – railroad crossing, stop, and yield – along the neck, and Dick created an artistic rendering of a Terraplane car on the headstock. Then came the wait for the manufacturing process, the testing of prototypes, and finally the release at one of the big industry conventions. I stood there next to my shiny new Signature Model guitar shaking hands and practically fainting from happiness.
One of your latest projects is your Mentor Series, a collection of tribute recordings dedicated entirely to the rediscovered blues masters that have had an impact on your career. As a musician deeply steeped in the blues, what does it mean to you to pay tribute to these legendary blues artists?
Aside from the obvious opportunity to say “thank you” to great artists like Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Bukka White, and Mississippi Fred McDowell, it gave me a fresh opportunity to re-examine and immerse myself in the playing of the original artists. One can’t help but be informed and deepen one’s understanding with each listening. I also thank the artists in my Mentor Series for the gift of personal interaction – for listening to me play, for supportive comments, for generosity and the willingness to share their music and insights, for their energy, their experience, and, last but not least, for politely putting up with a 15-year-old admirer. I knew I was sitting at the feet of the masters, receiving instruction directly from the source. It imparted a sense of being connected to history and something deeply meaningful.
Your new album, A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith, is receiving great reviews. What prompted you to single her out as part of this series?
The choice to start my new series “Power Women of the Blues” with Bessie Smith was a no brainer. Along with McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters), Bessie Smith was one of the first blues singers I heard growing up. In my opinion, it’s impossible not to get inspired by Bessie Smith. She was everything great – powerful, compelling, influential, fascinating, funny, sexy, and bold. Bessie was the voice of liberation in her day, proclaiming female sexuality without apology. She was gritty, intelligent, and had an utterly fabulous voice.
There are so many blues greats who, like Bessie Smith, paved the way for women like you. Do you have any other artists in mind for future tribute albums?
Top secret… no really, I just haven’t decided!
In 2010 you released your autobiography, “When a Woman Gets the Blues.” In the past eight years, you’ve been fiercely productive; whether its designing guitars, painting, or purchasing and restoring historical buildings, you keep busy. Is it time to add one final post-script to the Rory Block story, or are you nowhere near done?
I’m going to be doing way too much for the rest of my life. Every stage and step of the way is a new beginning, and I’m just beginning. I’ve got work to do, and that’s why I’m here. I absolutely love and celebrate every day.
Do you have any words of inspiration for up-and-coming acoustic blues guitarists?
I just produced a record for an up-and-coming young artist named Heidi Holton. She came to me and asked if I would produce her, and in pondering how I could fit yet another major project into my schedule, I only had to hesitate for a second. I love to pass on information and inspiration to other players – that’s part of my mission. I want others to succeed, I want others to carry the torch, to know and love the old music, and to keep it alive. I always say, “don’t stop until everybody knows who you are.” It’s really about persistence – and courage, too. Don’t listen to detractors, just do your own thing. If you value it, others will too.