In the annals of Rabbit Room-inspired collaborations, Ron Block’s new album Walking Song, co-written with Rebecca Reynolds, ranks just below Pete and Jennifer Peterson’s marriage.
Ron and Rebecca got to know each other online through Rabbit Room discussions. Rebecca thought Ron was a theologian; and though she had picked up on the fact that he played an instrument or two, she didn’t realize that he was a banjo superstar and a professional musician. Since Ron had always been complimentary of her writing, and since she had always wanted to try her hand at songwriting, she asked her new guitar-strumming theologian friend if he would be interested in writing some songs together.
Which reminds me of a story my wife heard when she lived in Aspen, Colorado—a story I earnestly hope is true. A fellow she knew was invited to a shi-shi party, and since his parents were in town from the Midwest, he brought them along. Standing by the punchbowl, his father struck up a conversation with a silver-haired man who looked to be about his age. “Hi, there,” he said. “I’m Herb Knudsen. From Iowa.”
“Hello, Herb,” said the other man. “I’m Ralph Lauren.”
Herb pushed up his glasses and asked, “So, Ralph, what do you do for a living?”
It was a mercy to Ron and to the listening public that Rebecca didn’t know better than to ask such a bluegrass icon to write with her. They were well into their writing partnership before Rebecca realized that Ron had guitars and banjos named after him, and that he had won Grammys and Dove awards. It made for real freedom, for Ron as much as for Rebecca. As Ron says in the album’s liner notes, “She gave me the freedom to fail. We were sitting there having a good time and writing a song, and there was no pressure. And if we didn’t come up with anything, it wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t waste the time; we learned something. At my age, to feel like I’m just beginning to understand what it means to write songs, that’s a gift. It’s a newness all over again.”
The music on Walking Song is as brilliant as Ron Block’s listeners would expect, and the lyrics are as brilliant as Rebecca Reynolds’ readers would expect. Rebecca has a gift for writing lyrics that sound old without sounding contrived. Of the eleven original songs on the album, six or seven marry traditional-sounding music with traditional-sounding lyrics. “Nickel Tree Line,” with its coal train shivering and whining, is my favorite. Imagine what Hosea’s friends would say about Gomer if they all lived in Kentucky. Then imagine that Gomer sings like Alison Krauss.
These traditional pieces build meaning from particular and concrete images in the way the best folk songs do. The poetry is ambitious while still remaining within the parameters of traditional bluegrass language and imagery (language and imagery which Rebecca identifies as more Aristotelian than Platonic; perhaps we could prevail on her to expand on this theme in the comments below).
In the less traditional songs, including “Let There Be Beauty,” and “Chase Me to the Ocean,” the poetry is freer and even more ambitious. The chorus from “Let There Be Beauty” demonstrates how far Ron and Rebecca can get from traditional Bluegrass tropes when they choose to:
So let there be beauty
For beauty is good
The made and the making
And the bliss understood.
So let there be beauty
For beauty is free
Come swim in the waters.
Come drink from the stream.
As for Ron Block’s music, anybody who has been listening to bluegrass in the last twenty years knows it’s going to be great, and it is. Ron’s playing is versatile, vibrant, and technically precise while still being incredibly expressive. His interpretations of three traditional tunes (“Devil in the Haystack,” “Shortnin Bread,” and “What Wondrous Love Is This?”) make you proud to be an American. His work on “The Fields of Aidlewinn” reminds the listener that Bluegrass, that most American musical form, owes plenty to the Scotch-Irish tradition (indeed, what could be more American than the Scotch-Irish tradition?).
The musicians on this record are precisely the musicians you would expect to turn out for a Ron Block project—on every instrument, they are among best to be found in Nashville or anywhere else. Buddy Greene on harmonica. Jeff Taylor on accordion. Sam Bush, Dan Tyminski, and Sierra Hull on mandolin. Stuart Duncan on fiddle. Jerry Douglas on dobro. Barry Bales on bass. And Alison Krauss, Kate Rusby, Evelyn Cox, and Suzanne Cox are positively angelic on background vocals.
Walking Song is a monument to great writing and great musicianship. But at least as importantly, it is a monument to friendship, which is one of the great forces of good in the world. This is what Rebecca wrote about this effort of friendship:
Even though I think we will grow as a songwriting team, developing out of our weaknesses, maturing in our strengths, we will never have another first album. This is our sweet, first spark of creativity, wrought in innocence. Just two friends making castles in the sand. That’s a rare catch in a world bent on achievements. No matter what bigger or better thing we make in the future, I will always love Walking Song for that. It is the core of what I think art should be. Friends reaching out to friends, offering some small good thing to a broken world.
Hear her, friends.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.