Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
Throughout his life – and certainly throughout his extraordinary career – multi-instrumentalist Ron Block has been something of a musical Huck Finn, a tireless adventurer exploring various styles yet rooted firmly in the bluegrass-country tradition. Now the longtime member of the Grammy-winning band Alison Krauss and Union Station discovers a whole new area of uncharted terrain, with the release of his fourth solo album, Hogan’s House of Music, his first-ever all-instrumental collection. Whether it’s the fierce, passionate bluegrass of “Smartville,” which incorporates pentatonic, string-bending electric guitar-inspired left-hand banjo work, or his hopped-up take on the classic “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” Block’s myriad influences are on display throughout the new collection, from Flatt and Scruggs to Larry Carlton to a lifetime of memorable experiences which the consummate musician pours into each track, resulting in 16 unique and compelling wordless stories.
Supplementing Block’s own banjo and guitar playing on the album is a host of celebrated musicians, including his Union Station band mates Barry Bales, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, and Jerry Douglas, as well as Stuart Duncan, Sierra Hull, Adam Steffey, Sam Bush, Tim Crouch, Rob Ickes, Clay Hess, Mark Fain, Byron House, Lynn Williams, and Jeff Taylor. The backing tracks run the gamut from a simple banjo and mandolin duet (“Seneca Squaredance”) to the free-for all of “Mooney Flat Road,” which spotlights two guitars, mandolin, octave mandolin, two fiddles, banjo, snare, bass, and accordion.
“I tried to distinguish the songs from one another, to have songs with a few instruments and then songs with a lot more instrumentation,” he explains. “You can also vary the material with tempo and with the kind of song that it is, like on ‘Clinch Mountain Backstep’ with string bends or the pretty ‘Spotted Pony,’ or the slow and pretty ‘Gentle Annie.’ You get all these different feels together and you can put a record together.”
Comprised of seven original tunes and some of his favorite covers, the self-released Hogan’s House of Music follows Block’s three acclaimed solo albums released on Rounder Records, Faraway Land (2001), DoorWay (2007) and Walking Song (2013), and the five studio albums and live LP recorded with Union Station. In addition, Block’s guitar and banjo have been heard on albums by Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, Dailey & Vincent, Dolly Parton, and many others. He was also featured, with Krauss and Union Station, on the multi-platinum soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou and can be seen playing banjo in the 2000 film.
Many of the stories told throughout Hogan’s House of Music were inspired by snapshots of Ron Block’s young life. Born in suburban Gardena, California, Block’s parents were divorced by the time he was 6 years old. His mother remarried a widower with six kids at home, meaning he went from being the youngest, with two older brothers, to being a middle child. The family soon moved to Northern California, to a rural town called Smartville, setting him on his Huck Finn-inspired path, for a while.
“We lived on a rural road with maybe five houses and every house backed up against the creek,” Block recalls. “The backyard was hilly and went down toward the creek. My stepbrother that was the same age, John, any decent day we’d be out at the creek playing or going out fishing at a place where they used to strip-mine. There was a small lake where there were tons of catfish. Most of our spare time was spent outdoors.”
Block’s rural existence was interrupted when he was 13, but the move to Torrance, California, where he lived with his dad, Hogan’s House of Music store owner Chuck Block, proved invaluable when it came to the youngster’s future.
“I got my first guitar when I was 11,” he says. “I liked playing it but I liked it just about as much as I liked anything else. I liked to read, I liked to play guitar, I liked to go out and play catch with my brother. It was that kind of thing, really, until I heard bluegrass. When I heard Lester Flatt play on TV, I went nuts for it. For Christmas I got a banjo. My dad says he got me a banjo at 13 and I didn’t come out of my room until I was 21, which is partly true.”
This was the mid-1970s, a time when FM radio could be counted on to expose listeners to a number of musical genres, from experimental jazz to hard rock. Thanks to the countless hours spent at Hogan’s House of Music in Lawndale, Calif., he was exposed to music of every stripe, from his fellow employees at the shop, where he began working in 1980. He soon joined his first band, playing banjo and guitar and singing harmony. After forming the group Weary Hearts with Butch Baldassari, Eric Uglum, and Mike Bub, Block was soon to meet young singer and fiddle player Alison Krauss and the members of Dusty Miller, Adam Steffey, Barry Bales, and Tim Stafford, who would soon join Krauss in Union Station. After a stint with Uglum, Dobro player Rob Ickes, and his wife, Sandra Block, in New Wine, Block, now living in Nashville, played with Virginia’s Lynn Morris Band.
In October 1991, Ron Block joined Alison Krauss and Union Station, with members Barry Bales, Tim Stafford, and Adam Steffey. The following year, the group recorded the album Every Time You Say Goodbye. Now considered a modern bluegrass classic, the album earned a 1993 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, the first of an astounding 14 Grammys Block has taken home thus far. Other early highlights of Block’s tenure with AKUS include touring with megastar Garth Brooks, and, of course, the O Brother, Where Art Thou phenomenon, which would put the banjo player on the big screen and also on concert stages with the Down from the Mountain Tour, featuring performers from the O Brother soundtrack. In 2009, the group performed for the President of the United States at the White House. With more than 20 years of touring as part of Union Station, Block most recently went “on the road again” with the legendary Willie Nelson for a 2014-15 tour that continued to expand the group’s diverse and enthusiastic audience.
Fascinated by music from an early age, Block recalls the classic LP that made an impact on him: Marty Robbins’ 1959 masterwork, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. An avid reader and history buff, Block discovered heroes in books and on vinyl, and found he could tell vivid stories with his own style of playing – and writing – songs.
“Early on, when was first learning how to play guitar and banjo, I learned that I could put a feeling across within a song,” he says. “I start with an image or a feeling. I wrote my last record (Walking Song) with Rebecca Reynolds. As we wrote the songs she would always call me back to the image, musically. She taught me that my strength is staying centered on a feeling or an image and playing or writing from that.”
It’s no coincidence that all the images captured for his latest record became part of an LP titled Hogan’s House of Music. The influence of the store, the people he met working there, and the experimental, free-flowing music of the era have all had on Block are incalculable. And they are all represented on the album in one way or another.
“I heard an awful lot of music when I was in that store,” he says. “The other guys who worked in the store would be listening to Eric Clapton or Leslie West. That was parallel with me going home to listen to the Stanley Brothers, Larry Sparks, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin – all this sort of hardcore bluegrass. I would go home and listen to that stuff and practice and play. I got an electric guitar when I was 18 or 19 and started experimenting with that. Eventually, my study of guitar began infecting and informing my playing banjo. When I started playing with Alison it began to develop into a stylistic thing where I did string-bending and my left hand was often more like an electric guitar player. My right hand was often like a traditional bluegrass banjo. That’s the thing about this record being called Hogan’s House of Music: I realized it is kind of the clashing of those two worlds.”
Like a true adventurer, Block has learned something from every avenue of exploration, whether as a member of one of the most successful bands (in any genre) of all time, or as a solo artist expanding his musical horizons. But being able to share the experience with other artists borne of that same pioneering spirit has made his musical journey one that is as indelible for music fans as it has been for Block himself.
“Making an instrumental record is a whole different deal, especially one featuring me a lot more,” he explains. “There’s a whole different thought process that goes into it. It’s been a great experience to track this record with all these amazing musicians. To hear the end product and be thrilled with how everybody played on it has been a great process. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve started keeping a little notebook, just writing down the things I’ve learned or the things that I’ll do differently next time.”
Hogan’s House of Music will soon be available for preorder in the Rabbit Room store.