Ron Block is a 14-time GRAMMY-winning member of Alison Krauss + Union Station. Trouble Go Down, available today, follows his five acclaimed solo albums—2015’s Hogan's House of Music and Carter’s Creek Christmas, as well as the Rounder Records releases Faraway Land (2001), DoorWay (2007) and Walking Song (2013)—in addition to his recordings with Alison Krauss + Union Station. A prolific banjoist and guitarist, Block is one of the most celebrated musicians of our time. With Alison Krauss + Union Station he has also garnerd multiple International Bluegrass Music Awards, a CMA Award and a Dove Award. The group was featured on the multi-Platinum soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and also appeared in the 2000 blockbuster film. In addition, Block has contributed to recordings by Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire and Brad Paisley, among others. Ron recently took some time to share with us about Trouble Go Down and answer a few of our questions.
Congratulations on your upcoming release of 'Trouble Go Down'! When did you first get the inspiration for this project?
Jeff Taylor and I were playing for a denominational gathering at Billy Graham’s Cove in Asheville, North Carolina. Jeff is a textbook of songs and tunes, and one morning they asked us to play some hymns as people were coming in. Jeff started kicking them off on piano and I’d join in on guitar, and when we finished we both said, “That was fun! Let’s record some of those.” Through the process we also decided to write some new songs that fit with the older hymns, and since I’ve been writing with Rebecca Reynolds for several years, we brought her in on the lyrical side of things.
What selection process did you use for choosing which songs to include on 'Trouble Go Down'?
Jeff had some melodies already, as did I, and Rebecca and I had already written a couple of the songs. We did a lot of collaborating back and forth to pull the project together. We ended up with too much vocal material, because the original idea was to mix new vocal songs with instrumental versions of old hymns. But Jeff and I added a few more instrumentals, and we had the bulk of the record.
'Trouble Go Down' is full of collaborations - Ellie Holcomb, Skye Peterson, Suzanne Cox... Can you tell us how a few of these came about?
I have a long history with most of the musicians and singers on the record. Having known the Cox Family for probably 30 years or so, Suzanne has long been one of my favorite singers, ever; it’s always a no-brainer to call her. Skye Peterson is Andrew Peterson’s daughter, and I’ve worked with Andrew on and off for years. We needed a young singer for "His Love Will Bear You On," someone with an innocent quality of spirit and voice, and Skye came immediately to mind. She did a super job. I do love the collaboration of the whole Rabbit Room/Square Pegs crowd on Skye’s song; it’s a big congregation. I’d met Ellie Holcomb through Andrew Peterson and thought her a great singer. When she came to the studio and sang I realized what an absolute pro she is. She sings lead on "Alight Thou In Me" and harmony on "Everything Broken and Everything Beautiful," and also sings in the congregation on Skye’s song. She’s got a unique and lovely voice. Jay and Lisa Forbes also sang excellently— Jay has a huge bass voice, and Lisa is one of the best gospel singers I know. The musicians are tops as well— Stuart Duncan, Barry Bales, Sierra Hull, Mark Fain, Tim Crouch, John Mock— these folks are all high-level pros, and I’ve known and played with most of them for years.
Which track is the most personal for you on 'Trouble Go Down'?
It’s hard to say, maybe "I Am Hidden Away In The Bosom of Christ" and "Everything Broken and Everything Beautiful," but I love all the songs, and I’m always thrilled to be playing hymns. I went to a Baptist church with my mom when I was very young, and most of all I remember singing hymns.
What is one message you want listeners to take away after listening to this project?
We’ve got a tough world out there right now, full of unrest and fear; we’re living in the middle of a culture of outrage. I want the record to be a reminder of Jesus, the source of peace. If someone is on the way to work at a tough job, or dropping the kids at school after they were fighting in the car, I want them to be able to put in the album and feel a sense of rest and assurance.
Is there something in this album that you can identify that sets it apart from the other's in your 20+ year musical career - musically, spiritually, or both?
I’ve never made a record with a piano player before, or written songs with Rebecca on lyrics, with guitar plus piano. I’ve played on records other people have made with various pianists, but never one of my own. The combination of a great piano and a 1938 Martin D28 guitar on lead— or piano and banjo, which is tonally a bit like piano and harpsichord together— is beautiful, so it was fascinating to explore those sorts of tonal characteristics with a completely adept player like Jeff. We would sit quietly in my studio and cut these instrumental tracks, and they had such a reverent, peaceful feeling. It’s been a tremendous experience.
As you are a member of Alison Krauss + Union Station, what is the biggest difference when you work on a solo project compared to one with the band?
I love being part of a band where it is constantly a musical team effort, where my job is to support and help attention go where it is needed in the moment— to Alison’s voice, or Jerry’s or Dan’s solo, or on my own solo if that’s what is necessary. I love the trading back and forth, the musical conversation that we have in that band. When I work solo, I have to figure out how to make a record my own. It is very easy for me to get other people to play so much that I barely take solos. Some of my early records were like that, because I was so heavily influenced by our Alison Krauss + Union Station attitude toward a band sound. But these days I am a little more apt to push a record to make it my own, as well as keeping it a collaborative effort. This record with Jeff Taylor combines the best of those worlds. There's a lot of musical sharing and conversation going on with others, but the bulk of the playing is done by me and Jeff.
Which artists are you currently drawing inspiration from?
I am a huge fan of Kate Rusby and Damien O’Kane. They’re U.K. artists based in Yorkshire, though Damien is originally from Coleraine in Northern Ireland. These folks take traditional music from the U.K. and put the body, soul and spirit of it in new clothes. They’ve made a new record that really does it for me, called Life in a Paper Boat. I was thrilled to play banjo on four of the songs. Damien also came out with one this year called Areas of High Traffic, and it is stellar as well. I got to banjo up a song on that one, too.