Throughout his life – and certainly throughout his extraordinary career – multi-instrumentalist Ron Block has been something of a musical Huck Finn, a tireless adventurer exploring various styles yet rooted firmly in the bluegrass-country tradition. Now the longtime member of the Grammy-winning band Alison Krauss and Union Station discovers a whole new area of uncharted terrain, with the release of his fourth solo album, Hogan's House of Music, his first-ever all-instrumental collection. Whether it's the fierce, passionate bluegrass of "Smartville," which incorporates pentatonic, string-bending electric guitar-inspired left-hand banjo work, or his hopped-up take on the classic "Clinch Mountain Backstep," Block's myriad influences are on display throughout the new collection, from Flatt and Scruggs to Larry Carlton to a lifetime of memorable experiences which the consummate musician pours into each track, resulting in 16 unique and compelling wordless stories.
Supplementing Block's own banjo and guitar playing on the album is a host of celebrated musicians, including his Union Station band mates Barry Bales, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, and Jerry Douglas, as well as Stuart Duncan, Sierra Hull, Adam Steffey, Sam Bush, Tim Crouch, Rob Ickes, Clay Hess, Mark Fain, Byron House, Lynn Williams, and Jeff Taylor. The backing tracks run the gamut from a simple banjo and mandolin duet ("Seneca Squaredance") to the "free-for all" of "Mooney Flat Road," which spotlights two guitars, mandolin, octave mandolin, two fiddles, banjo, snare, bass and accordion.
"I tried to distinguish the songs from one another, to have songs with a few instruments and then songs with a lot more instrumentation," he explains. "You can also vary the material with tempo and with the kind of song that it is, like on 'Clinch Mountain Backstep' with string bends or the pretty 'Spotted Pony,' or the slow and pretty 'Gentle Annie.' You get all these different feels together and you can put a record together."
Comprised of seven original tunes and some of his favorite covers, the self-released Hogan's House of Music follows Block's three acclaimed solo albums released on Rounder Records, Faraway Land (2001), DoorWay (2007) and Walking Song (2013), and the five studio albums and live LP recorded with Union Station. In addition, Block's guitar and banjo have been heard on albums by Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, Dailey & Vincent, Dolly Parton and many others. He was also featured, with Krauss and Union Station, on the multi-platinum soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou and can be seen playing banjo in the 2000 film.
Many of the stories told throughout Hogan's House of Music were inspired by snapshots of Ron Block's young life. Born in suburban Gardena, California, Block's parents were divorced by the time he was 6 years old. His mother remarried a widower with six kids at home, meaning he went from being the youngest, with two older brothers, to being a middle child. The family soon moved to Northern California, to a rural town called Smartville, setting him on his Huck Finn-inspired path, for a while.
"We lived on a rural road with maybe five houses and every house backed up against the creek," Block recalls. "The backyard was hilly and went down toward the creek. My stepbrother that was the same age, John, any decent day we'd be out at the creek playing or going out fishing at a place where they used to strip-mine. There was a small lake where there were tons of catfish. Most of our spare time was spent outdoors."
Block's rural existence was interrupted when he was 13, but the move to Torrance, California, where he lived with his dad, Hogan's House of Music store owner Chuck Block, proved invaluable when it came to the youngster's future.
"I got my first guitar when I was 11," he says. "I liked playing it but I liked it just about as much as I liked anything else. I liked to read, I liked to play guitar, I liked to go out and play catch with my brother. It was that kind of thing, really, until I heard bluegrass. When I heard Lester Flatt play on TV, I went nuts for it. For Christmas I got a banjo. My dad says he got me a banjo at 13 and I didn't come out of my room until I was 21, which is partly true."
This was the mid-1970s, a time when FM radio could be counted on to expose listeners to a number of musical genres, from experimental jazz to hard rock. Thanks to the countless hours spent at Hogan’s House of Music in Lawndale, Calif., he was exposed to music of every stripe, from his fellow employees at the shop, where he began working in 1980. He soon joined his first band, playing banjo and guitar and singing harmony. After forming the group Weary Hearts with Butch Baldassari, Eric Uglum and Mike Bub, Block was soon to meet young singer and fiddle player Alison Krauss and the members of Dusty Miller, Adam Steffey, Barry Bales and Tim Stafford, who would soon join Krauss in Union Station. After a stint with Uglum, Dobro player Rob Ickes, and his wife, Sandra Block, in New Wine, Block, now living in Nashville, played with Virginia's Lynn Morris Band.
In October 1991, Ron Block joined Alison Krauss and Union Station, with members Barry Bales, Tim Stafford, and Adam Steffey. The following year, the group recorded the album Every Time You Say Goodbye. Now considered a modern bluegrass classic, the album earned a 1993 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, the first of an astounding 14 Grammys Block would take home thus far. Other early highlights of Block's tenure with AKUS include touring with megastar Garth Brooks, and, of course, the O Brother, Where Art Thou phenomenon, which would put the banjo player on the big screen and also on concert stages with the Down from the Mountain Tour, featuring performers from the O Brother soundtrack. In 2009, the group performed for the President of the United States at the White House. With more than 20 years of touring as part of Union Station, Block most recently went "on the road again" with the legendary Willie Nelson for a 2014-15 tour that continued to expand the group's diverse and enthusiastic audience.
Fascinated by music from an early age, Block recalls the classic LP that made an impact on him: Marty Robbins' 1959 masterwork, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. An avid reader and history buff, Block discovered heroes in books and on vinyl, and found he could tell vivid stories with his own style of playing – and writing – songs.
"Early on, when was first learning how to play guitar and banjo, I learned that I could put a feeling across within a song," he says. "I start with an image or a feeling. I wrote my last record (Walking Song) with Rebecca Reynolds. As we wrote the songs she would always call me back to the image, musically. She taught me that my strength is staying centered on a feeling or an image and playing or writing from that."
It's no coincidence that all the images captured for his latest record became part of an LP titled Hogan's House of Music. The influence of the store, the people he met working there, and the experimental, free-flowing music of the era have all had on Block are incalculable. And they are all represented on the album in one way or another.
"I heard an awful lot of music when I was in that store," he says fondly. "The other guys who worked in the store would be listening to Eric Clapton or Leslie West. That was parallel with me going home to listen to the Stanley Brothers, Larry Sparks, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin – all this sort of hardcore bluegrass. I would go home and listen to that stuff and practice and play. I got an electric guitar when I was 18 or 19 and started experimenting with that. Eventually, my study of guitar began infecting and informing my playing banjo. When I started playing with Alison it began to develop into a stylistic thing where I did string-bending and my left hand was often more like an electric guitar player. My right hand was often like a traditional bluegrass banjo. That's the thing about this record being called Hogan's House of Music: I realized it is kind of the clashing of those two worlds."
Like a true adventurer, Block has learned something from every avenue of exploration, whether as a member of one of the most successful bands (in any genre) of all time, or as a solo artist expanding his musical horizons. But being able to share the experience with other artists borne of that same pioneering spirit has made his musical journey one that is as indelible for music fans as it has been for Block himself.
"Making an instrumental record is a whole different deal, especially one featuring me a lot more," he explains. "There's a whole different thought process that goes into it. It's been a great experience to track this record with all these amazing musicians. To hear the end product and be thrilled with how everybody played on it has been a great process. I've learned a lot. I've started keeping a little notebook, just writing down the things I've learned or the things that I'll do differently next time."
Hogan's House of Music
Part of my childhood was spent up in Northern California, near Grass Valley, in a little community called Smartville. Actually, one city limit sign said "Smartville," and coming from the other direction the other one said, "Smartsville." I called it Smartville, and still do, and my brother called it Smartsville, and still does. In 2008 the state decided it was Smartsville. I don't care what they call it, it's Smartville. We were living on a country road, with creeks to swim, lakes to fish, and fighting like shielded knights with trashcan lids and sticks. I named this tune after the town also because I had a mighty smart mouth when I was a boy, which sometimes got me into trouble and an actual fight or two with my brother and cousin. The melody has a bit of the smart mouth in it, and also contains some of the feeling of riding bikes down the long, steep, winding way to Englebright Marina in Smartville.
Hogan's House of Boogie
I’ve always played "Foggy Mountain Special" by Earl Scruggs, and finally recorded it on an Earl Scruggs tribute record. At the same time, I've always loved the guitar playing of Leon Rhodes in Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours, and the wacky double-tracked guitar inventions of Les Paul. This is the clashing of those worlds, reminiscent of the clash of being a traditional bluegrass player working at my Dad's rock-and-roll music store.
I was digging through my collection and found this on an Earl Collins recording. I think it was made in California. He's an old fiddler. I wanted something a little more uptempo for the record that would sound Flatt & Scruggs-ish. It was a quick one and I felt like I could do it in the style of something on Foggy Moutain Banjo, where the banjo is not playing the strict melody, but it's playing something like the melody, like Earl did. Something along the lines of "Cumberland Gap" is what I was looking for. Earl Collins does a howl in his version, but I opted out of that.
The Spotted Pony
I first heard "The Spotted Pony" years ago on a Bob Carlin clawhammer banjo record. I started learning clawhammer early in my banjo life but became so focused on Scruggs-style I let it go. "The Spotted Pony" is a perfect example of the sweetness and longing inherent in some of these old tunes, and the twin fiddles of Stuart Duncan and Alison Krauss sing it perfectly. It's just one of those beautiful old-time tunes that has hope in it. It's fun but there's sweetness and hope to it. I heard that more and more as we mixed it. At the end, it's a free-for all. It's also got Adam Steffey playing mandolin and Sierra Hull playing octave mandolin on it. The banjo solo isn't a rolling, Scruggs-style, it's a little more single-string style, like what a Celtic player would do with a pick. Some of those old tunes are so simple but they're not. I don't know if it's ever been done quite this way.
Clinch Mountain Backstep
I’ve been a Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley fan since I was about around 16 years old. I played in a band with a mandolin player named Eric Grace, and he showed me a lot of great music, including the Stanley Brothers, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and Larry Sparks, all that more edgy bluegrass, what way back when they would have called "less uptown." I used to drive all over California blasting the Stanley Brothers. I’ve played "Clinch Mountain Backstep" in my own peculiar way for years, starting in Weary Hearts with Eric Uglum and Mike Bub, and I'm glad to finally record it. I think this was a first take.
Stephen Foster's tunes have the sort of heartfelt simplicity I've always loved in music. When you listen to one of his songs you hear somebody that listened to classical music. You hear the principles that he's using to make these beautiful melodies. There's something very rooted about his songs. It came about for this record because I needed a really pretty, slow tune. I remember hearing Vern Williams do "Gentle Annie" in a bluegrass style years ago. This version comes from a piano-vocal version that sounds very true to the way Foster wrote it. Tim Crouch's strings complement the melody perfectly. There's a little bit of Pat Metheny in the touch, where I'm playing pretty; trying to have the prettiest tone possible.
Mooney Flat Road
We lived on a street with five houses just off of Mooney Flat Road, right on Deer Creek at the lowest point of Mooney Flat. That road was the way in and the way out to anywhere. My brother Johnny and I would walk left from our street up Mooney Flat Road about a mile toward Highway 20 on a summer's morning, and trespass through a barbed wire fence on the right. There was a small lake, or large pond, up through the woods there, where the hill had been strip-mined in the 1800s. We'd use grasshoppers for bait and catch catfish until the noonday heat was too much. In the other direction, as we walked right on Mooney Flat from our street, we would cross the Deer Creek bridge and go up to the creek's swimming hole. It was at least 10 feet deep, most of it, and perfectly cool on a hot summer day. This tune holds some of the joy of Mooney Flat Road, and the sorrow at having that Huck Finn phase of my life eventually come to end at 13. But, of course, that's when I started playing bluegrass. There's a lot going on with that tune – Barry Bales on bass, Dan Tyminski on rhythm guitar, Adam Steffey on mandolin, Sierra Hull on octave mandolin, Stuart Duncan and Alison Krauss on fiddles, and myself on banjo and lead and rhythm guitar.
Mollie Catherine Carter
Mollie Catherine Carter was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. I have a big family tree that my cousin and others traced all the way back to the 1700s. On one of the branches was the name Mollie Catherine Carter. Mollie was born in March of 1874 in Iowa, married my great-grandfather, and died in May 1908, when my grandfather was only four years old. According to my aunt, my grandfather was four in the kitchen with his mother when she fell down on the floor, said "Be a good boy, Lowell," and died. I wonder what that was like, and what havoc that wrought in his young life, and also the life of my great aunt, who was only eight. Mollie is buried in Hadley Cemetery in New Providence, Hardin County, Iowa.
I took our kids to a family reunion in North Carolina a few years ago and found a lot of our family tree on that side lived there in the 1800s. The family tree is my connection to that southeastern North Carolina area.
Also, I always loved listening to Stuart Duncan play with the Nashville Bluegrass Band and thought up this tune as a remembrance of the great music I've heard from them through the years. The track has Stuart on fiddle, Dan Tyminski on rhythm guitar, Barry Bales on bass, Adam Steffey on mandolin, and myself on banjo and rhythm/lead guitar.
Seneca Square Dance
When I was co-producing Sierra Hull's first record, Secrets, at my house, we would work for a while then stop to pick. I would get tired of being an engineer and I'd want to play. This was one she got from a Butch Baldassari book of fiddle tunes for mandolin. We worked it up and have played it ever since. It kind of evolved into what it is now. Whenever I've done a show and had her along, we end up doing that tune. I figured it was a no-brainer to put it on the record. It's different from all the other stuff, too.
Several things are rolled together in this original tune. The first record I ever remember was Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins. He was dressed as a gunfighter on the cover, and that image fit those songs. I always loved Grady Martin's lead guitar work because it evoked hot Texas towns down near the border, cantinas and gunfights and riding the dusty trails of the West Texas countryside. Secondly, I used to play at Calico Ghost Town, outside of Barstow, in my first band and later in Weary Hearts. Calico, the town and the tune, is in the desert, in the West, and tinged with that little bit of lonesome inherent in all ghost towns.
You Are My Sunshine
One of my favorite records is Jimmy Martin's Big and Country Instrumentals. J.D. Crowe plays several tunes on it, as well as Bill Emerson and Vic Jordan. I've played along with those tunes hundreds of times in the past 30 years. "You Are My Sunshine" has long been one of my favorite cuts on the record. On the original the other instruments take a bluesy section after playing the melody, and I wanted one of those too, so I did a little bit of J.D. Crowe-meets-Sonny Osborne there. I just played straight solos on the rest of the tune, and added a guitar solo near the end.
Lonesome Road Blues
Foggy Mountain Banjo, the quintessential banjo instrumental record by Flatt & Scruggs, has always been a favorite of mine. I used to play "Lonesome Road Blues" in my first local band, and occasionally in later bands. I've played that tune since I started. A tune like that, you don't want to take it too far out. You want to be respectful of Earl Scruggs's version. I didn't play it note for note, but I played along the same lines. I kind of sat with it for an hour and played it note for note but then for the recording I just played it how I played it. But it's with the spirit of what I wanted from that record. Tunes like that I like to stick fairly close to what was done, but without being a slave to copying it exactly.
'65 Mustang Blues
I wanted to play football in high school. My Dad said, "You can play football and possibly hurt your hands, or I can loan you money for a car and you can work at Hogan's to pay it off." Owning a car meant going to bluegrass festivals and jams, so I chose Door Number Two. The car we found was a 1965 Mustang, not a souped-up version, just a three-speed, simple automobile, gold-painted, with a big trunk. I loved it because it represented freedom. The first thing I did was put a good stereo in it, with a separate equalizer and JBL speakers. That was my car for four years or so until I sold it. I still notice Mustangs of that vintage and feel a little pull to get one, but I never do it. This tune has some of the feel of driving the Mustang to school, blasting bluegrass, with an occasional lurch forward as I shift gears.
Brushy Fork of John's Creek
I always loved Art Stamper's fiddling with the Stanley Brothers and I bought one of Art's solo records years ago. This tune was on it. This has that combination of bluegrass feel with an old-time tune that I love. Some bands, like the Country Gentlemen, put folk or whatever into bluegrass music. But, to me, it feels like the Stanley Brothers put bluegrass into old-time music. They heard Bill Monroe and said, "We want some of that." I've had that Art Stamper record for years. I pulled it out to listen and thought this one would really work. Stuart Duncan is a catalog of fiddle tunes and when he came to play on it, he said that was one of Art's dad's tunes. Art's father was a fiddle player and taught it to him. But Stuart said it was mis-titled on Art's record (The Lost Fiddler). He called it "The Long Fork of Buckhorn." This cut shows my love for that old-timey sound.
Carter's Creek Pike
Carter's Creek Pike is one of the roads I take to get home. It starts as Main Street, which in my town looks about like Disneyland's Main Street USA. Main Street runs past many historic homes, most dating from before the Civil War, and eventually turns into Carter's Creek Pike, winding through the green hills, fields, and trees of the Tennessee countryside. G.K. Chesterton wrote, "The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land." This tune has a sort of plaintive longing and joy in it that speaks of heading home and seeing the home roads with new eyes after a long road trip. I recorded Carter’s Creek Pike with the sort of simplicity found on Jimmy Martin’s Big and Country Instrumentals, with Barry Bales on bass, Dan Tyminski on rhythm guitar, Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Lynn Williams on snare, and myself on banjo.
Home Sweet Home
I've always liked this melody, and especially the way Earl Scruggs played it on Foggy Mountain Banjo, so I tried to do the banjo as closely to Earl as I could. I decided to take a left turn with the mandolin and twinned guitar solo later. For the guitar solo, I studied a 1930s slow version of the song to get the exact melody. I copied it note for note, as much as I could. The way he played it, to me, that's the way it has to go. In order to make it mine, instead of another Dobro break, I had half a mandolin break then the chorus is played by two acoustic guitars sort of playing a twin harmony with each other. This was the second take, I think.