If you want to hear fingerpicked acoustic guitar played with delicacy and precision matched with a straight-ahead vocal delivery, then just start stacking up a pile of recordings by Norman Blake. The back cover of this new one quotes the Oxford American as saying, "Norman Blake is one of the most nuanced and quietly influential acoustic guitarists in this whole great land," and you're inclined to agree by the time he's finished the opening track. His playing -- even when flailing on a six-string banjo, like he does on the title track -- always displays a stateliness and gentility missing in most instrumentalists mining the same turf; it's ornate, yet drills to the heart of the song every time. Not that Blake is one to toot his own horn. Instead, in a move that spells out "let the music do the talking," there's not a smidgen of liner note hype on Far Away, Down on a Georgia Farm. There's no typewriter razzmatazz telling you some tortured artist story about how Blake holed up in a cave for two years to produce this little gem. Nope, just a printout of the lyrics to the songs -- most of them penned by Blake -- and a short list of what type of guitars he used on this session for the pegheads in the crowd who still cling to the belief that what you play is as important as how you play it. Although the guy plays old-time vintage acoustic guitars, mandolin, and Dobros to die for, he could probably pick your cousin's 100-dollar cheapie and sound like God on it, he's that good. This is finger-style guitar music at its apex, music of substance and form.
What makes Far Away stand out as a fine work is the wealth of original tunes aboard, arguably the strongest material on the album. There's a bone-chilling line in "Whiskey Deaf and Whiskey Blind" that goes, "Can't stand the government/can't stand the law/can't stand the dark days/a' comin' on us all," that sounds more like a prophecy of Y2K doom than a genteel folk ballad about the wickedness of the demon alcohol. Yet for all the surrealism, there's also a refreshing dosage of honesty running straight through all of Blake's work that ties all of these performances together beautifully, from the traditional instrumentals to Blake's heartfelt originals. This is music that works in a variety of listening settings, and let's face it, CDs like that are worth their weight in gold. Norman Blake shines like gold on this one.