Ron Block has contributed banjo, guitar, and vocals to Alison Krauss and Union Station since 1991. He has also written 10 Alison Krauss and Union Station songs, including “In the Palm Of Your Hand” and “A Living Prayer”, which received a 2006 Gospel Music Association Dove Award for Bluegrass Song of the Year. Ron’s songs have been recorded by artists such as Randy Travis, Rhonda Vincent, and Michael W. Smith. Ron has also recorded with Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, Josh Turner and several other artists throughout his musical career.
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The Banjo Reserve recently interviewed Ron Block, here's what he had to say.
Q. How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
A. I use a lot of different materials and methods. Early on I started learning both by tablature and listening, and in those pre-internet days before you could search out tablature for songs, it wasn't long before I was tabbing out solos for myself. I go through different phases, but I'll list some of them out - these are in no particular order of importance:
1. Practicing with a drum machine or metronome. With a simple beat, kick-snare-kick-snare, boom-chick-boom-chick (four notes per boom, four notes per chick), and I play along as if it were bass and mandolin. This is probably my most common form of drum machine practice. But sometimes I will take out the chick and play eight notes per boom. Note: The metronome is constant and does not adjust to me. I must adjust to it.
2. (A) Practicing with recordings, usually old stuff like Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, J.D. Crowe and the New South, etcetera. This is great for feel. (B) Practicing with non-bluegrass recordings - blues, or old country, and occasionally jazz. Note: The recording is not constant and does not adjust to me. I must adjust to it.
3. Practicing solo and going only from my own sense of time.
4. Playing with other people. This is my favorite form of practice. Note: The other people adjust to me, and I adjust to them.
Q. During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo, what did you find most challenging?
A. Tuning the dang thing! No, actually I read some things early on about timing that really helped me focus in on that aspect of banjo, especially Hartford's liner notes on the J.D. Crowe and the New South record, Rounder 0044. I bought a metronome early, one I could use with headphones, and I'd sit in my room and try to lay my notes right in with it.
Q. What challenges do you still hope to master today?
A. As I've gotten older I've learned to recognize the body tension, especially in the shoulders, arms, and hands, that can creep in without being aware of it. I am much more aware of this when I practice now. Early on, as a teenager, I had no tension, but tension began to come in in my twenties. The more relaxed I am, the better I play.
Q. Based on your professional experiences as a Banjo Player, what advice do you have for beginners?
A. Robert Capon wrote, "Mere facility, of course, is no more a guarantee of good taste in cooking than it is in music; but without it, nothing is possible at all. Technique must be acquired, and, with technique, a love of the very processes of cooking. No artist can work simply for results; he must also like the work of getting them. Not that there isn't a lot of drudgery in any art - and more in cooking than in most - but that if a man has never been pleasantly surprised at the way custard sets or flour thickens, there is not much hope of making a cook of him. Pastry and confectionary will remain forever beyond him, and he will probably never even be able to get gravy to come out the same way twice. Interest in results never conquers boredom with process."
I think this a crucial point. Love the thing itself. Be taken up with the thrill of the music, with listening to great players, with learning a new tune. We can't simply want results - that is, we can't merely want good timing, tone, and taste as a product and rush through the process trying to "get there"; we have to also enjoy the process of getting there.
Watch out for tension in the body, shoulders, arms, hands. Tension generally comes from fear of some sort - the idea, "This tune is going to be really hard to learn - maybe I don't have what it takes" can sometimes make a person tense up. The fear brings a desire to control the outcome, which produces tension, which puts a cap or lid on your ability to get better. To model this:
1. This is going to be really hard. Maybe I'll mess it up. (Fear)
2. I can't let that happen. I've got to do something. (Desire to control)
3. The body tenses up to control the outcome. (Tension)
4. I can't seem to get the speed or ease or dexterity to flow! (A cap or lid on your ability)
If you run this backwards it will help you learn a lot.
1. I can't seem to get the speed or dexterity to flow. Why? Is there tension going on when I play this sequence of notes?
2. I notice tension when I go from rolling my middle finger on the first string to my thumb on the fifth string. Let me slow it down and relax as I do it to retrain my hands.
3. Am I trying to control the movement of my hands through tension? Or am I simply watching my hands and telling them to relax and play without tension? Am I trying to control my economy of motion by clenching muscles? Or by simply observing, and making subtle changes.
4. I wonder why I am trying to control my hands so much. Am I believing this is too hard? Am I believing I don't have what it takes? Am I trying to hard to be good at this? Maybe I should relax and enjoy the process more.
Q. Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A. I do hope to see young people in bluegrass remain anchored, to love and appreciate the early pioneers of bluegrass and study what they did. We can see what happens if a tree is cut off from its roots with a chainsaw. It falls over. Maintaining a strong connection to what the music originally was is the only foundation for real innovation. In writing stories or poetry in English, only someone who deeply understands the language can innovate; only the lover of the language can invent new words, new phrases, new ideas put forth in fresh ways. Bluegrass is a language with a context, and when people take the instruments of bluegrass out of the context of what the music originally was, you don't have bluegrass; you have other kinds of music played on the instruments formerly known as bluegrass instruments. A six-string banjo strummed in a country band doth not bluegrass make.
The original founders of the music grew up in tradition. They loved tradition and learned from it. They listened to Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, fiddle tunes at dances, blues, and all their local players. They were steeped in a tradition that affected their playing forever.
Having said that, another aspect of the original spirit of bluegrass is innovation. The founders of bluegrass grew up absorbing tradition and then after a time, though still loving tradition, they began to find their own voices - their own ways of playing things. They found new music to listen to - Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman - and for people like Crowe, 50's rock-and-roll.
So - love tradition. Eat tradition. Digest it. Know it. And then experiment. Listen to other music you love. Let those genres clash in you. I don't mean try to shove swing or rock licks into a bluegrass song. I mean find your own voice.
In my life, the love for the tradition - Jimmie Rodgers, Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, and onward - was an all-consuming obsession for about five years where I listened to nothing else. But then I began to hear blues, jazz, Larry Carlton, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, and other musicians, and all that music began to infuse itself into the bluegrass I play. It's possible to do that and still keep the original spirit of the music, to play appropriately and respect the music.
Q. You have written numerous successful songs for AKUS, your own solo albums, and many other popular Artists. When you sit down to write for your own banjo projects, where do you draw your inspiration from? Have you provided a song to another banjo player that you intended for yourself?
A. No, I've not written for other banjo players so far.
I wrote the tunes on my latest, Hogan's House of Music, with varied sources of inspiration. Carter's Creek Pike was inspired by listening to a bunch of songs by the Carter Family. They're often so simple but so enjoyable and memorable. Mollie Catherine Carter was fostered by growing up listening to The Nashville Bluegrass Band, and wanting to compose a tune I'd love to have Stuart Duncan play on. I named it after my great-grandmother. Smartville - I think I just started by goofing off with some bluesy stuff, and then I suddenly played that opening statement and followed where it went. Hogan's House of Boogie is my envisioning what it would be like if Flatt & Scruggs and the Texas Troubadours accidentally got locked together into a room with their instruments. Calico is my nod to the California ghost town it's named after, where I played festivals as a teenager - and also to the Marty Robbins record, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Songs like El Paso are part of my earliest memories.
Q. You recently released two new albums "Hogan's House of Music" ( September 2015 ) and "Carter's Creek Christmas" ( November 2015 ), almost back-to-back and both instrumentals with plenty of banjo focus. Given the banjo's resurgence seen across multiple music genres, did you experience noticeable differences in how these projects have been received today versus 10, 20, 30 years ago?
A. Well, let me tell you, playing banjo in 1978 during high school in southern California wasn't exactly the most popular choice. I believe I was often seen as an oddity. "Why do you want to play the banjo? Wouldn't you rather play guitar? Guitar is more popular."
There is a noticeable difference now in how the banjo is perceived. Some of that began to change in the 1990s, but two of the biggest aspects, especially in the mainstream, were The Dixie Chicks and the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. That said, I see a real hunger for rootedness in our culture; the continual use and abuse of technology and the continual newness and novelty seem to be driving some of that longing for tradition, the desire for something stable and rooted.
Q. Did you feel differently about doing these projects today than you might have in the past?
A. I joined Alison Krauss & Union Station in 1991, and we were so busy, in those early years especially, that it was not really on my radar to do solo projects. I always thought of it as "our band," anyway, so at the time I was already getting my intense need for creativity met through that. I didn't come out with a solo project until 2000, and then another one in 2007, and then 2013, but these were more song-focused. I've been for so long a song-focused player and singer that I didn't really think of doing an all-instrumental record. I own instrumental records I've enjoyed for years, but didn't think much about doing my own. After making both Hogan's House of Music and Carter's Creek Christmas I feel differently now. I found the whole process of making those records highly enjoyable, so there will likely be more in the future.
Q. You have been a band member of Alison Krauss and Union Station since 1991,you have an amazing list of notable album credits and solo accomplishments. As a highly successful professional musician and banjo player, what type of business advice can you offer to aspiring banjo players trying to navigate today's music industry?
A. It's smart for any musician these days to self-educate about the business aspects of music. There are a ton of resources out there, more than ever before; there are online classes, books, YouTube videos, and more for musicians who aspire to make a living at it. Study marketing; study booking; study whatever is necessary to help yourself get a leg up in the business end of it. The object is to make a living doing what you love. There is the doing of what you love, and then there is the intentionally making a living at it.
Q. At this point in your banjo playing career, what work or event are you most proud of?
A. I've gotten to do a lot of great things in my career, both with AKUS and with other people. But in the end really what I've really got is the music I've made - with the band, on other records, and on my own recordings. Those questions - "Did I do my best, or close to it? Does it sound good? Was I happy with it at the time?" Those are all very important questions.
Q. What other interests do you have?
A. My family is really important, of course. I tend to read a lot, everything from theology and fairy tales to historical novels, classic literature, books on music, philosophy, writing - lots of topics. I collect great quotes. I like shooting my bow, shooting guns, walking, making food, collecting rare books, photography, and, well, lots of other interesting things. I often get my love for traveling filled by band travel, in which I take lots of photos.
Ultimately, though, music is my job and my hobby. It is a lifelong fascination. Music is an infinitely interesting pursuit - the depth of it never ends. There is always more to learn, and there is so much great music in the world to hear I can't possibly ever get to it all.
Q. Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
A. I don't like liver and onions, and I am apt to end the life of any sort of undomesticated creature that enters my house unbidden by setting traps. 300 year-old stained glass in an Irish, Scottish, English, or European cathedral thrills me. Pure unroasted chocolate powder is a daily companion. I drink down greens blended with juice. I'm working on a book of banjo tabs for my record, Hogan's House of Music. Merle Haggard, Fernando Ortega, Kate Rusby, Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, and Bonnie Raitt are six of my favorite singers. Chai tea is great. I have no opinions on brain surgery, the luge, caviar, or Stilton cheese. Speaking of cheese, I always liked the Monty Python Cheese Shop skit. My first car was a 1965 Ford Mustang; I was 16, and the coolness factor was severely mitigated in the eyes of my Southern California high school peers by wearing a banjo belt buckle. I've shot a rabid skunk. My favorite guitar microphone is the Neumann KM-54. Roy Nichols, George Shuffler, Larry Sparks, Clarence White, Tony Rice, Leon Rhodes, and Pat Metheny are seven of my guitar heroes. When I was a boy I fell into a creek more than once, and I had a G.I. Joe, and a rat. I'm a big fan of the Chronicles of Narnia. I used to waterski a lot. I've been six feet away from a Mohave Rattlesnake, and I'm still not a fan of neurotoxic snake venom. When I wake up in the middle of the night and can't sleep I read the Bible so my mind will stop chewing on its own leg. The movie The Martian The Martian was great fun.