I’ve seen Rory Block perform many times. I’ve listened to her albums even more. I’ve never ceased to be amazed at her talent.
For decades, she’s been a one-woman force in the preservation of traditional county and acoustic blues music. She’s done that with power and authenticity and an obvious passion for the music she performs. Despite her faithfulness to this great American music, her voice and guitar style are unique and instantly recognizable as her own.
She does all of those things on her latest album, “Ain’t Nobody Worried,” but with a twist. This is the third album in her Power Women of the Blues series, and the first two — “A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith” and “Prove It On Me” — were pretty much traditional blues, all expertly done.
This time out, Block pays tribute to more contemporary women of American music, from Mavis Staples to Koko Taylor. Why? As she puts it: “I do these songs because I play the music I love the most.”
All are done with her distinctive acoustic guitar and vocal work. Where she wanted something extra, she recorded additional guitar and percussion herself. And did her own backup vocals.
She opens with a spirited version of the classic Staples Singers gospel-flavored “I’ll Take You There,” then turn sensuously secular with “Midnight Train to Georgia,” the soulful Gladys Knight hit, and then layers her distinctive style onto “My Guy,” the Smokey Robinson opus given wings by Mary Wells.
Then she adds eight more tracks that range from Tracy Chapman’s groundbreaking “Fast Car” to the Etta James masterpiece “I’d Rather Go Blind” to Bonnie Raitt’s glorious “Love Has No Pride” to Koko Taylor’s deeply tough blues, “Cried Like a Baby” to some serious Motown on “Dancing ln The Streets” by Martha and The Vandellas.
Block also includes her own “Lovin’ Whiskey,” the song she says launched her career, plus a cover of “Freight Train,” by the very talented and influential guitarist Elizabeth Cotton.
(You can find the complete track list, with Rory’s comment on how and why she chose each song below the video at the end of the post.)
Those few paragraphs above don’t really do justice to this excellent Rory Block album. You know, “words can’t begin to describe,” and all that. The results are impressively imaginative, highly creative and, best of all, thoroughly enjoyable.
Here’s “Cried Like a Baby”
Track Listing and Comments by Rory Block
“I’ll Take You There” — The Staple Singers (featuring Mavis Staples)
Not much explanation needed. This is one of the all-time great and powerful crossover gospel songs
with an immense rhythm track, graced by the matchless voice of Mavis Staples. Mavis proved that
gospel is a force in pop music. “I’ll Take You There” was the first track we recorded and is the first track
on this CD. It just felt right.
“Midnight Train To Georgia” — Gladys Knight and The Pips
Who can say “Midnight Train to Georgia” wasn’t one of the most soulful songs of its time, and who
didn’t try to learn to sing listening to Gladys Knight’s superlative rich vocals? Who didn’t try to learn
backup vocals and dance moves from the Pips? This song was a must-do, and the second track we
“My Guy” — Mary Wells
Mary Wells nailed this perfectly crafted song by Smokey Robinson, giving it passion, charm, and a wry
sense of humor. I recorded it in the same key as the original, but then was dismayed to find my natural
vocal range was deeper, so I thought about slowing the track or re-recording it. In the end,I sang it in a
somewhat jazzy head voice and went with it. I could have given it a bit of growl in a deeper key, but
maybe it didn’t need growl. After all, it is a spirited and fun song, and I had a great time singing,
especially on the outro.
“Fast Car” — Tracy Chapman
Remember when this song came on the radio and blew our minds? lt was a trendsetter, with a
stereotype busting, cutting edge approach that was almost unheard of at the time. It was, however, (if I
can pat myself on the back), an idea I had always cherished -taking an acoustic song and suddenly
applying an earth shaking drum track when least expected, taking the song, with its emotionally honest
and arresting story, to another level altogether. Tracy was one of the first to really turn this approach
into pure gold.
“Cried Like A Baby” — Koko Taylor
I met Koko Taylor on the road in Germany. I opened for her and her tighter-than-ever band for several
shows on that tour, including a TV show that ended up as a laser disk (remember those)? She dubbed
me `’Little Miss Dynamite,” a name I deeply appreciate and cherish. No one could nail the power of a
sexy full-out blues wail like Koko. On the outro,I ad lib one of my conversations with her, including her
worldly wisdom and advice.
“Love Has No Pride” — Bonnie Raitt
Greenwich Village in the `60s was a hotbed of immense musical talent, with the likes of Bob Dylan living
just two doors away from The Allan Block sandal shop, Joan Baez performing in local venues, Bonnie
Raitt making waves with her heart wrenching blues, and the list goes on and on. My first boyfriend,
Stefan Grossman, was friends with many of the pivotal players in the burgeoning scene. One of his good
friends was a great songwriter and musician named Eric Kaz, who, together with Libby Titus, wrote
“Love Has No Pride.” We always thought it was the best song ever written, performed by Bonnie, the
best singer on earth.
“I’d Rather Go Blind” — Etta James
This song led the way for the concept of this recording, establishing the theme celebrating great women
of song. I just kept saying, “I can’t wait to sing `l’d Rather Go Blind.” This song is one of the most
haunting and moving portrayals of heartbreak ever written, sung by the amazingly gutsy blues voice of a
woman who meant every word she sang. Etta, we got the tissues out.
“Lovin’ Whiskey” — Rory BIock
This is the song I thought no one would care about. This is the song that got me on an airplane. This is
the song that launched my career. This is the song I didn’t want to put on the record. This is the song
that earned me a gold record and has remained my most popular and requested song for over 3
decades. I have heard repeatedly that it’s because it’s about the hidden struggles of the heart, and
knowing we are not alone. More people say that it helped them through the hardest times of their lives
than any other I have written. Murphy’s Law, you never know. Oh yes, great guitar player Bud Rizzo
played the original heart-wrenching solo. I decided to follow it note for note, for better or worse, on my
acoustic version. I also stuck with the original drum pattern that I somehow constructed on one of the
first drum machines ever invented. It made no sense in that it wrapped around so the “one” beat was in
a different place every verse, but it somehow worked… and you know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
“Dancing ln The Streets” — Martha and The Vandellas
Great song, great performance from Martha and her Vandellas, great groove, solid gold, what’s not to
love? Had to do this one for the pure joy of it.
“You’ve Got A Friend” — Carole King
This song came on the radio in one of the hardest periods of my life. Waking me from a deep sleep in a
state of despair, hearing the vulnerable and unpretentious voice of Carole King made me sit up straight
in bed and say “Maybe I can do this!” lt was a life changing moment. She was the voice of every woman
“Freight Train” — Elizabeth Cotton
This could be the most influential guitar style ever created. Libba Cotton once was Nanny to the Seeger
children, until she was overheard sitting in another room singing this haunting tune. I celebrate her, not
because this song became gold, but because in the most unassuming way, quietly and without a lot of
fanfare, her guitar picking became one of the most influential guitar styles of all times.