Greg Blake- People, Places, and Songs review

Greg Blake People, Places, and Songs Turnberry Records

Greg Blake Makes The Final Ballot

The 2022 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year Nominees were a surprise.

Not that Danny Paisley (three previous wins), Del McCoury (six-time recipient, including ultimately in 2022), and Larry Sparks (two previously, but not since 2005—what’s up with that?!) were nominated, a deserved resurgence for the senior-statemen, perhaps.

What was significantly surprising was the inclusion of two less-heralded but deserving singers, Rick Faris (who had built a name for himself singing and playing with The Special Consensus for more than a decade) and Greg Blake.

Greg Who? some may have wondered.

Blake’s nomination was most appreciated by this listener. ‘bout time, too. Simply by being placed within the five nominees for this prestigious award signaled that Greg Blake’s career is most definitely on the rise, garnering more votes for Male Vocalist of the Year than frequent nominees and winners including Russell Moore, Buddy Melton, Shawn Camp, Junior Sisk, Tim O’Brien, and the Gibsons.

Not that this is a competition, but simply being mentioned within the company of those great singers would be an accomplishment. To be considered at their level? High cotton, as some might say. (I wouldn’t, because I’m Canadian.)

Who is Greg Blake again?

Greg Blake has been playing bluegrass as his full-time pursuit for less than a decade, but has jammed into those years a wealth of experiences building on a lifetime of playing and singing bluegrass music. After moving from his West Virginia home to pursue a career in the ministry, he started playing with bands in the Kansas City area. Years later, Blake teamed with Jeff Scroggins in his band Colorado, and over the next decade helped the group become a staple on the festival circuit.

Since Colorado disbanded in 2019, Blake has joined The Special Consensus and also plays with Jesse Brock, Jason Carter, and others. No shortage of high-calibre gigs for Blake, then. When he has time, he also fronts his own Hometown, who released a very impressive recording this past winter, The View From Home. His personable manner of singing, friendly demeanour, and larger-than-life grin makes Greg Blake a favourite from the first time encountered

Blake had previously released Fervor Coulee favourite Songs of Heart & Home in 2015, and returns now with his latest ‘solo’ project, People, Places, and Songs on Turnberry Records.

The path toward People, Places, and Songs

The genesis for the album was, as these things often are, a bit muddied. Despite being the lead vocalist folks at every festival leave talking about, Greg Blake’s name is not yet widely known outside the faithful circle.

Frustrated with not finding a label interested in his music (Blake writes, “…they didn’t seem to ‘know who I was’ and didn’t want to take a chance on me,”) fortuitous encounters with various song-writing friends, and shear dogged—and perhaps, hard-headed—determination led Blake to a unifying theme—the people we meet and those who support us, the places providing shelter along the way, and—naturally—the songs that bind us within this human experience. The result is as sweet a set of ten bluegrass songs one could hope to encounter as we head into Spring, 2023, a collection offering rebirth, renewed hope, and rejuvenation after a period of darkness.

Greg Blake- People, Places, and Songs review

People, Places, and Songs is a positive album, one that focuses (for the most part) on the more pleasant and uplifting elements of life. No murders here, although there is death (“A Miner’s Tale”) and romantic challenge (“Not Far From Hope,” “On Down the Road,” and “The Other Side of the World.”) But even those songs reveal the strength of human character, of hope and perseverance. The majority of these songs are fresh with three being co-writes with Blake.

It has been a long time coming.

The first single, the title track, was released two years ago, and since then Greg unexpectedly lost his wife, Tracey, to an aneurysm last year. With the support of his bluegrass community and family, Blake forges on as one must, and People, Places, and Songs is finally released mid-April.

The album kicks-off with the up tempo “I’ll Be Loving You,” a David Stewart/Taylor Corum song, one with a chorus as catchy as can be:

“If the Devil’s soul is black as coal,
if Kentucky’s grass is blue,
Just as sure as God made little green apples,
I’ll be loving you.”

Two songs feature his Special Consensus compatriots.

“A Miner’s Tale” is provided a stunning reading, and Blake’s voice carries the gravitas such a heavy song requires. Co-written by Becky Buller, Michael Cleveland, Deborah Payne, and Vicki Simmons, the song sounds as if I have heard it a hundred times, but I may not have previously encountered it: immediately familiar with a heart-wrenching narrative that captures the listener from the first lines.

“Cold Wyoming Morning” is a second Stewart song, this time co-written with Bobby Powell. Shades of Gordon Lightfoot abound. Both of these ‘Special C’ songs are memorable, and the instrumental and vocal interplay between the musicians is exactly what one expects within top-tier bluegrass recordings; I will never tire of Greg Cahill’s approach to bluegrass banjo.

A black shadow visits Blake within “When Lonely Came to Town,” a Brennen Leigh/Thom Schuyler song also not previously encountered. If any song ever deserved the designation ‘a killer,’ it would be certainly be this dark one. Jesse Brock provides his excellent mandolin touch to several songs including “When Lonely Came to Town,” the thoughtful and timely “From Me to We” (featuring another Blake amalgam, the vocal group HeartLande) a Blake co-write with Jeff Walter, and “On Down the Road,” an excellent song from Barbara Gordy, a friend from Blake’s Kansas City years; this song also features Tim O’Brien singing fine harmony.

“People, Places, and Songs,” co-written by Blake, Dawn Kenney, and David Morris, serves as the capstone for this meaningful collection of songs, each performed to the highest level. Blake even slips in a Johnny Cash reference, not surprising knowing his admiration for the singer. Long-time Blake supporter Claire Lynch provides harmony on the title track, while Mark Schatz, who plays bass on ¾ of the album, also offers some banjo notes here.

Blake is an excellent flatpicker, and his guitar playing is the drive behind each of these songs. His singing is absolutely stunning. I won’t go toward hyperbole, but will fallback on the words of Pete Wernick who captures my thoughts in his liner notes better than I ever could:

It’s nigh impossible not to like Greg’s singing. It makes me think of the great Mac Wiseman, whose amazing career, spanning the 1940s-2017, won him many fans as “the Voice with a Heart”. Greg’s distinctive singing, like Mac’s, has impeccable tone and articulation, and most important, communicates “from my heart to your heart” as Bill Monroe would say. There’s a friendliness and sincerity in Greg’s singing that pulls the listener in and has established him as one of bluegrass music’s top vocalists. 

People, Places, and Songs. The new one from Greg Blake, a singer as natural as he is gifted and determined. Listen to this one. Better yet, attend a show and buy it. I am certain you will be glad you did.

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