Music to Write By: Ron Block’s Walking Song

“This is getting wilder and wilder,” said Syme, as he sat down in a chair. “Who are these people who provide cold pheasant and Burgundy, and green clothes and Bibles? Do they provide everything?”

“Yes, sir, everything,” said the attendant gravely. “Shall I help you on with your costume?”

“Oh, hitch the bally thing on!” said Syme impatiently.

But though he affected to despise the mummery, he felt a curious freedom and naturalness in his movements as the blue and gold garment fell about him; and when he found that he had to wear a sword, it stirred a boyish dream. As he passed out of the room he flung the folds across his shoulder with a gesture, his sword stood out at an angle, and he had all the swagger of a troubadour. For these disguises did not disguise, but reveal.[1]

You can’t judge an album by its cover.  But there’s at least one detail on the cover of Ron Block’s Walking Song that actually says something about its content: Ron’s hat.

As Ron tells the story of the outfit he wore in the video for Alison Krauss and Union Station’s “Paper Airplane,” when first the costume designer set out the clothes he was to wear – flat cap included – he balked.  Was it was really him?  Could he pull it off?  The costume designer knew her art, though: when he’d put the outfit on, Ron found, to his delight, that it suited him well.  In fact, since Paper Airplane’s release, I don’t recall even once seeing Ron without a flat cap.

RB Walking SongSometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to see things about ourselves that we cannot see in a mirror.  Ron probably wouldn’t have worn the flat cap on the cover of Walking Song had the costume designer not seen something about Ron’s features that he could not see himself.  More profoundly, Ron wouldn’t have written Walking Song had Rebecca Reynolds, Ron’s friend and lyricist, not seen layers of Ron – the musician, the composer, the creator – that he couldn’t see himself.  The result is that Ron has never sounded so good – not in his playing for Alison Krauss and Union Station (a.k.a. AKUS), not on his two previous solo albums – as he sounds on Walking Song.

Collaboration, of course, is nothing new for Ron Block.  He’s been a member of AKUS, one of the world’s great bands, for over two decades.  His exquisite musicianship on guitar and banjo has become an essential part of the band’s signature sound, and he’s written some of the best songs in the AKUS catalogue.  It is impressive that there could be undiscovered layers to a musician whose work had met success and critical acclaim and, more importantly, achieved deep artistic integrity.

Ron’s achievements, though, great as they had been, narrowed the scope of his artistry.  In a way, his three solo albums capture stages on a journey out of a beautifully-tended, but rather small, garden, out into more open pastures.  His solo debut, 2001’s Faraway Land, is a collection of well-crafted songs, impeccably played – all of which would fit comfortably into an AKUS playlist.  His second solo effort, 2007’s DoorWay, is a very different album.  About half of the songs would sound at home on an AKUS album; the other half sound like attempts to break out of the garden.  Much as I love DoorWay[2], as a collection it suffers from unevenness. Perhaps as a result of over-exertion in conceptualizing and composing the album, the recording sessions didn’t quite catch fire.  With one notable exception: the two-part instrumental suite, “Secret of the Woods/I See Thee Nevermore,” did catch fire in the recording.  The suite is a stunning musical interpretation of Anodos’s encounter with the spirit of the beech-tree in George MacDonald’s Phantastes.  As lyricist, Ron always had the ability to distill the great themes from MacDonald and C. S. Lewis, and capture them in brief but profound statements that confront the will and reform the imagination.  But “Secret of the Woods/I See Thee Nevermore” highlighted for the first time Ron’s ability to paint a picture, in music, of another author’s images. It was a sign of a unique gift that would develop more fully on Walking Song.

As it turned out, the development of Ron’s gift for painting in music needed a lyricist – a very good lyricist, who could sketch in words pictures for Ron to apply colors to, and also serve as a reliable friend and muse, suggesting which colors to apply where.  Rebecca Reynolds was, and is, exactly that lyricist.  Rarely will you hear a composer and lyricist so fluent in one another’s images and idioms.  For example, on “Walking Song,” Rebecca’s lyric tells the story of a bachelor farmer, embarking on a courtship.  The lines – like “a freckled girl makes a friendly sight / might I borrow half your smile? / You’re soft as stars on a lonely night / you’re as light as a valley mile” – are gorgeous in their own right.  And Ron’s musical setting – melody, arrangement, playing, and singing – sounds like a man rediscovering a long-forgotten grasshopper lightness in his step, perfectly matching the lyric:

For the way grows young

When a freckled girl

Shares a walking song with you.

To take another example, the sixteen bars of instrumental introduction to “Chase Me to the Ocean” sound as refreshing as a sea at peace.  The perfection of the sea-painting extends down to tiny details: like in measures seven and fifteen, where Ron plays a fragile little down-slide, making his guitar sound like the breaking of a tiny wave upon the shore.  The sea-in-strings intro prepares the listener perfectly for the lines that follow:

All we know is growing new, in the turning of the tide.

Genre-wise, Walking Song ranges from bluegrass to Celtic to acoustic art song.  Yet none of the songs sounds contrived, nor does any one sound the least bit out of place or character.  The cumulative effect of Walking Song’s genre spectrum is curious.  Given that Celtic music lay at the roots of bluegrass, Ron shows here the organic unity of the genres, and does for the whole of bluegrass’s family tree what Treebeard could do for the trees of Fangorn: rouse them root, trunk, branch and twig.   Such are the wonders that a man given a new outfit, who feels in it “a curious freedom and naturalness in his movements,” may perform.

In a nutshell, then:

Album: Walking Song

Artist: Ron Block

Year of release: 2013

Genre: Bluegrass/Celtic/Acoustic art-song

Mood: Brisk-reflective

Pathos: Yes

Good for: Driving, walking, sitting at home, painting, writing. (Usually an album with well-crafted words isn’t good for that last purpose, but Walking Song, though not the least bit muzaky, is unobtrusive enough that it’ll let you write.  Sort of like a friend that knows when to speak, and when to hold silence.)

Availability: Available for order or download here.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, ch. xiv (1908).

[2] It helped me through some of the most trying and pivotal months of my life.


Posted on September 2, 2013, in Art, David Mitchel, Music Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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