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Ron Block makes bluegrass

By John Lupton, July 2013

As banjo player for 22 years in one of the most successful bands of the past quarter-century, Alison Krauss + Union Station, Ron Block has undoubtedly heard all the "banjo jokes" and has probably told more than a few himself. But as those who have seen Union Station live and bought the records know, he's also a gifted guitarist and songwriter whose contributions to the band and the catalogs of other artists are numerous.

Block is also an articulate and highly regarded commentator on a number of Internet sites devoted not only to the Christian theology he loves to discuss, but to the deeper and wider questions of philosophy and artistry as well. A chance meeting on one of these sites led to a songwriting partnership that led in turn to his third solo Rounder album, "Walking Song" (which, coincidentally, is set for release on Block's 49th birthday).

"Rebecca Reynolds wrote all the lyrics on the record. We are both on a site called the Rabbit Room, and it's really a community of artists…I've been one of the ‘charter writers' on the Rabbit Room for a long time now. I would put up these posts, and in the past four years, Rebecca would post in the ‘Comments' section, and I always noticed that she was pretty dang smart. And then we got to talking more in depth about some of the things that I talk about concerning Christianity,and then moved the whole thing to a Facebook discussion, you know, a ‘message' discussion with several other people. And then at some point she just said, ‘Hey, do you want to try and write some songs together?'"

Ron Block plays

"I had read some of her poetry," Block continues, "and it was amazing. It's been a process of her learning to strip some of the density out of the poetry to make lyrics… It ends up requiring that the poetry be stripped down a little to a central image…If you read poetry, you can read one line and think about it – it's like sipping port."

"When you read poetry, it's dense, and you have to really chew on it to extract the ‘scent' of it. But with lyrics, the listener's gonna give it several times to try and figure it out, usually, so you want to have it be a little bit more accessible. So, she learned pretty quickly to do that, and I feel like on tunes like Ivy, and Chase Me To The Ocean and some of those other tunes, she really learned to have a central image. But she has a great sense of rhythm and a great way with words that brings these images to life. As soon as you read them, you see the things she's talking about."

Though each sticks to their own turf, Block says, their creative process is very much a two-way street.

"When she hears a melody that I've come up with, she hears the ‘heart' of what it is. She listens to the way it makes her feel, and what sort of images it evokes in her mind. Then she writes the lyrics based on the melody. The same is true when I read her lyrics that she sends me without music. They evoke a certain kind of feeling that makes me come up with a certain kind of melody. This is really the first time I've extensively co-written with anybody, so it's been an interesting journey to realizing that you really have to pay attention to what the other person is doing, and what their heart is, and what they're attempting to do in order to come up with something that fits together. The object has been to write songs that sound like they were not co-written, that some guy sitting out on a back porch wrote these songs."

Block's previous solo releases have been explorations of his own Christian beliefs, and though they were well-received as thoughtful and thought-provoking, he agrees that "Walking Song" is aimed at a wider audience.

"To me," he says, laughing and noting the wide spacing between the albums, "this record is a milestone in breaking a creative block that I had, so the next record will come a lot sooner than every seven years…I decided to go a different direction, because when you make records that are exclusively Christian, that means people that aren't (Christian) often don't want to listen to it, and I want to make music for people, not just Christians. But I do feel like I had things to say that I needed to say in those other two records. And now…that's all a background for what I'm doing now with this record. I'm working on one (now) with Jeff Taylor. So I'm already thinking of the next record…we're already writing songs for the next thing, so it's going to be every couple of years that I come out with a record. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, that's my heart."

Block is part of a long tradition of top-notch banjo pickers who are likewise superb guitarists, starting with the late Earl Scruggs, whose finger-style picking on the Flatt and Scruggs gospel recordings was as integral to the band's sound as the trailblazing three-finger licks. Block recalls "watching (Earl) play banjo or guitar, the ease with which he played."

"These days," Block continues, "I think (playing multiple instruments) is necessary…people will sometimes say, ‘Oh, if it doesn't have banjo, it isn't bluegrass.' Well, that's never been what bluegrass is, that it has to have banjo all the time, because Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, all that stuff, they used the variety of putting down the banjo for a few songs, and it gives the listener's ear a break from one particular sound. And there were tunes where the fiddle didn't play, like on the gospel numbers, and it brings everything to a different place for a few songs, and then they go back into the banjo, and the banjo is fresh again, and the fiddle is fresh again…In Union Station, I feel like we fulfill in some ways that same function of having songs that have more guitar base, and there's not much fiddle, and it gives a different feel."

"And then," he adds with a laugh, "we go into the bluegrass stuff, and it's like a party. But if I played banjo only, it would be every song, and played as hard as I do, when I do play banjo in Union Station, it would be completely fatiguing to the listener. There has to be that variety, and I think it's more and more for banjo players to recognize, you know, I need to be able to at least play rhythm on another instrument so that I can contribute in a band situation, and it's not just about the banjo – it's about the greater whole of the band."

Block has been an observer of the longstanding and still ongoing Internet arguments over what is or is not "bluegrass", but he has more than a little experience and authority behind him as he concludes, "The point is to stop talking and start doing. Go practice. If you want bluegrass to continue as a traditional music form, don't be a critic, be a doer, and go make sure that that music form continues to survive by playing it. It's not by talking about a thing that we accomplish much, it's by doing the thing…Of course, we need to have critics, because that stimulates thought, but I'm just saying, (there's an) excessive amount of time spent sometimes talking about what bluegrass is, when we could be actually making bluegrass." \