If you’ve followed me for the past several years you may have noticed some big changes lately. Here’s why:
I’ve played with Alison Krauss & Union Station for 24 years and have been content to remain in the background. I’ve always been committed to the band for as long and as far as we go, and I still am. That band will always be my first priority in music. I love the chemistry of AKUS, the push and pull of those personalities in the music. Each one of us has a strong musical identity, and somehow those personalities create a unique chemistry. I have been a solid believer in the band, in its members, and in Alison in particular, for my entire tenure. They’re great people and some of the best musicians I know.
As time goes on, our band’s touring ebbs and flows. Time passes. And in that vacuum, I find myself still wanting to play music. I love playing, singing, and writing songs and tunes, and even after all these years I’m not tired of it; there is so much to learn I’ll never get bored with it.
So, awhile back, I started talking to Josh Petersen. I’d met Josh several times in my dealings with Andrew Peterson and his Behold the Lamb of God show. Josh has worked in the music business for years, and is good at a lot of things I have no idea how to do. I have focused for 30 years on music, not business.
We talked about what I wanted, who I was, what I had accomplished, and what I still wanted to accomplish. Why am I here? What are my purposes while I’m in this world? In all that stirring of the pot, the idea began swirling around about making a bluegrass instrumental record.
I began thinking through what I loved about playing. Two instrumental recordings that have always stuck out to me are Foggy Mountain Banjo by Flatt & Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin’s Big and Country Instrumentals, which features J. D. Crowe, Bill Emerson, and Vic Jordan. I have loved those records and learned from them since I was a teenager, along with many other recordings by both of those artists. When I was about 17, John Hickman gave me a box of reel-to-reel tapes containing live music from J. D. Crowe and Red Allen, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and many others. I wore those recordings out. They are my foundation for playing banjo. The passion, the drive, the precision, the relentlessness of those records have formed and informed what I do.
At the same time I was listening to and learning from Clarence White, Larry Sparks, George Shuffler, Tony Rice, and other great guitarists. The syncopation, the bluesiness, the straightforward simplicity, the tone and strong identity — these became my guitar foundations as I tried to emulate and imitate.
“But,” some would say, “You don’t sound anything like Earl Scruggs or J. D. Crowe, or Clarence White, or George Shuffler.” Well, my music, like my childhood, is often about the clashing of worlds. I grew up from 8 to 13 years old with Mom in a rural area of northern California called Smartville, with creeks, rivers, lakes, and woods. I fought my brothers with sticks and trashcan lids. We swam in the swimming hole, stuffed ourselves on dusty wild blackberries at Deer Creek’s edge, fished for catfish, rode our bikes down the burning summer asphalt of Mooney Flat Road to Englebright Marina in Smartville to jump off the docks and swim from houseboat to houseboat.
But I was also a suburban and city boy. From 13-21 I lived with Dad in the suburbs of southern California, in Torrance. Public high school with 2000 other teenagers was my lot. At 16 I started working at my Dad’s music store, Hogan’s House of Music, in the city of Lawndale. I learned to navigate the southern California freeways to pick up gear and guitars as the warehouse man, getting stuck in five o’clock traffic on Hawthorne Boulevard going home.
As I worked at the store, going from cleaning boy to salesman to warehouse man, there was a continual undercurrent of music clashing with my musical world of traditional bluegrass. Lynyrd Skynryd. Eric Clapton. AC/DC, Pat Metheny, Larry Carlton. I heard the passion of those burning electric guitar solos. I began to love those sounds, too, though never losing my love for what we call “traditional bluegrass.” (An aside: A tradition is simply something that we’ve gotten used to. In the beginning, bluegrass was just as innovative and out-of-the-ordinary as the beginnings of jazz. Christmas is a tradition, but in the beginning it was a radical divine intrusion. Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and the rest were not traditionalists; they were radical innovators).
The electric guitar sounds were affecting me long before I joined AKUS, but it wasn’t till I began playing with them at 26 or 27 that things began fitting together. The amazing way Barry Bales, Adam Steffey, Tim Stafford, and later Dan Tyminski and Jerry Douglas played together pulled on me to make certain sounds, to go for certain ideas.
So this record, Hogan’s House of Music, is the combining of all those sounds. There is a strong emphasis on tradition. That’s the undercurrent. I am at heart a rural boy. But I love visiting cities. This record is a clashing and melding of the jaggedly different worlds I grew up in. There’s rural and there’s city; there’s relentless banjo rolling and bendy single-string. There’s the twisty, winding road to home called “Carter’s Creek Pike,” and there’s the bluesy, bendy, city fun of “Hogan’s House of Boogie” and “’65 Mustang Blues.”
I picked the players for this record because each one of them, first of all, is one of the best. Secondly, each one plays not only with skill but with passion, the same passionate drive that yanked me into playing bluegrass in the first place. And each has his or her own unique musical stamp, a personality; you can pick them out of a crowd. Their names are well known because their musical personalities are so big.
That’s the Why behind the changes, and the Why of making Hogan’s House of Music.
Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he’s not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin’ on audiences around the world, he’s taking care of his donkey named “Trash” and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.