LIKE DOC Watson, Norman Blake is an astoundingly facile guitarist but something of a droll singer beset with a lonesome tenor. It's a combination that works surprisingly well on "Nashville Blues," partly because Blake chooses -- or writes -- material that takes advantage of his skills and limitations.
The title song is a Delmore Brothers country classic from the '40s, while "I Was Born 4,000 Years Ago" and "My Name Is Morgan (But It Ain't J.P.)" are old-timey string-band staples from an era when the focus was on instrumentals, not vocals. Even Blake's originals fit the mold: "In the Spring of the Year" is a melancholy ballad about an American crossing and infidelity on the plains, while "We're Living in the Future" is really a throwback to the New Lost City Ramblers. You sometimes feel Blake would have preferred livng in the Great Depression, where his music would have helped to lighten the despair. Maybe he knows something we don't.
While there is little of the chamber-folk experimentation of recent Blake albums, "Nashville Blues" is a parade of pickers. Blake, whose award-winning flat-picking gets a workout on "Columbus Stockade Blues," is joined by his wife Nancy on cello, Peter Osatrouchko on mandolin and Charlie Collins on guitar and fiddle. The album's loveliest moments come when tenor banjoman Mick Moloney and fiddler Eugene O'Donnell join in on the closing medley, "The Banks of Good Hope/The Green Field of America." These two timeless Irish tunes -- the first an elegiac air, the second a sprightly reel -- close the album on a slew of good notes.
NORMAN BLAKE -- "Nashville Blues" (Rounder 0188); appearing Friday and Saturday at the Birchmere.