Blake was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and grew up in Sulphur Springs, Alabama. He listened to old-time and country music on the radio by the Carter Family, the Skillet Lickers, Roy Acuff, and the Monroe Brothers (Charlie and Bill Monroe). He learned guitar at age 11 or 12, then mandolin, dobro, and fiddle in his teens. When he was 16, he dropped out of school to play music professionally.
Most of the music that Norman Blake plays could be described as neo-traditionalist Americana folk and roots music (folk, bluegrass, country, blues), and many of the songs he plays are traditional, but he plays this acoustic type of music with a style, speed, and quality that has evolved and progressed in the modern age. Though probably best known for his fluid renditions of classic fiddle tunes transcribed for the guitar (“Fiddler’s Dram/Whiskey Before Breakfast”), Blake has also written songs that have become bluegrass and folk standards, such as “Ginseng Sullivan”, “Slow Train through Georgia”, “Billy Gray”, and “Church Street Blues”.
Although known as one of the most prominent steel-string guitar flatpickers, Blake is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. Other instruments he plays include the mandolin, 6-string banjo, fiddle, dobro, banjo and viola. He is known for his loose, right-hand guitar technique, which arose out of his mandolin technique. Also well known is his devotion to 12-fret guitars, including Martin 00s, 000s, D18s, D28s, and Gibsons, like his 1929 12-fret Nick Lucas special.
Folk musician Nancy Blake was born Nancy Short in Independence, MO. She took up cello at 12 and moved to Nashville, where she performed on the instrument with the Nashville Youth Symphony. In 1972, Nancy and her band, Natchez Trace, opened a show for virtuosic acoustic picker Norman Blake, who had performed with such luminaries as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. The performance led to a partnership, which in turn led to marriage. Eventually, Nancy moved on from cello to instruments such as the fiddle, acoustic guitar, bass, and accordion. In 1986, Nancy’s first solo recording, Grand Junction, was released on the Rounder imprint. Nancy went on to accompany Norman on many Grammy-nominated releases throughout the 1990s, such as Just Gimme Somethin’ I’m Used To (1993) and Hobo’s Last Ride (1996). In 2001, she performed with her husband at the landmark O Brother Where Art Thou concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Norman and Nancy Blake received Grammy nominations in the Best Traditional Folk Recording category for Blind Dog, Just Gimme Somethin’ I’m Used To, While Passing Along This Way, and The Hobo’s Last Ride. In 1986 Norman Blake was chosen Best Multi-Instrumentalist by the readers of Frets magazine.