Label: Rounder Records
Released: July 30, 2013
Reviewed: August 11, 2013
Ron Block is known by fans of Alison Krause Union Station as a twenty year veteran of the group. He’s also regarded as the rare bluegrass virtuoso on both banjo and guitar. Block has also earned respect as a songwriter, singer and producer. That alone makes him incredibly interesting.
What further sets him apart is the fact that he’s as comfortable in ruminative mode—whether it be blogging on philosophical matters or retreating to his home studio to be alone with, and capture, his musical thoughts—as he is participating in bluegrass’s congenial, collaborative pickin’ party culture.
Ron has just released his third album, Walking Song (Rounder Records), that showcases his singular mixture of sensibilities.
Block has averaged half a dozen years between solo albums (Faraway Land in 2001, followed by DoorWay in 2007), largely because of an enviable problem: there’s a lot else he could be doing. There’s his aforementioned work with Alison Krauss & Union Station, with whom he’s earned a sizable, genre-transcending audience and a collection of Grammy, IBMA and Dove awards. He’s also written many a gospel song for the band, and had his songs recorded by Union Station band mate Dan Tyminski, Michael W. Smith, Rhonda Vincent, Randy Travis, The Boxcars, April Verch, The Cox Family, Sierra Hull and The Forbes Family, too. Then there’s his production work on albums by Hull and the Forbes, as well as his sideman work with everyone from Dailey & Vincent, Bill Frissell and Andrew Peterson to Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson and Vince Gill.
The thing is, with a top-tier track record comes the pressure to keep it up. “You know, success can kill you,” says Block. “It can kill your creativity. When you go to write a song, suddenly you no longer have merely sound and lyrics in your head—you have what other people will think about this line or that melody. All that stuff begins to weigh on you if you’re not careful.”
But it’s clear that none of that stuff is weighing on Block anymore. There’s a newfound sense of freedom throughout Walking Song, thanks, in so small part, to the chance he took on a newfound co-writer, poet and teacher Rebecca Reynolds. Most other bluegrass songwriters would look for a collaborator with a proven track record in the genre, but Block and Reynolds began their partnership through an online forum focused on spirituality, not music.
Block explains, “I would write posts on the theological topics that I tend to write about, and Rebecca would be one of the commenters. Whenever she’d write something, I’d think, ‘Man, she’s smart. Smart without trying to be smart, with a very poetic way of putting things.’ I don’t know how it actually ended up happening, but she said, ‘Hey, would you ever want to try to write a song together?’”
“It’s funny looking back on it,” reflects Reynolds. “I still don’t know how I missed the magnitude of who Ron Block really was; but I’m glad I didn’t get it all, because I probably wouldn’t have approached him with such levity. I knew he had some connection to Alison Krauss, but because I had never been in the music business, I didn’t get how all that worked. I just liked his brain, I liked his character, and I figured his guitar playing would be fine if he played with a band.”
“We were a little ways into making songs,” she continues, “when I was Googling him, and I saw a Ron Block guitar. Then I saw a Ron Block banjo. I wrote him and said, ‘This is YOU, isn’t it? You have instruments named after you?’ I had that rare and beautiful joy of finding out that a dear friend and co-creator was Bluegrass Superman in disguise.”
Block and Reynolds embarked on a highly unorthodox yet extremely fruitful co-writing process that yielded some 50 songs, including all eleven of the originals on his new album. Boomoerocity favorites from Walking Song are:
Jordan, Carry Me. Listen to this song while driving out in the middle of nowhere – anywhere – and see where this song mentally takes you.
What Wondrous Love Is This? Block’s instrumental arrangement of this traditional elicits genuine, deep introspection of the heart and soul, provoking the listener to commune with God . . . and God is without the sounds of the instruments played in this cut. You can sense Him that strongly.
Let There Be Beauty. This tune evokes memories of John Denver and James Taylor but, yet, distinctly Ron Block. This is a song that earns repeated slaps of the repeat button, for sure.
Walking Song is now available online as well as finer music stores across the country.