It was a rainy Tuesday morning when Josh Blake showed me around Echo Mountain Studios. He talked casually about working with Marcus King and Snarky Puppy and Warren Haynes without ever once sounding like he was dropping names. He lead me past tools and instruments I’d never seen before. We walked by memorabilia into an office adorned almost entirely with tributes to others.
That was my first real interaction with Blake and it’s that sense of humility, that ability to be comfortable with the gifts he has been given, which permeates the entirety of his new folk album (available Tuesday, May 14), formally credited as Nothing’s in the Way by Josh Blake’s Acoustic Band. From the first few moments to the final song, Blake has created a cohesive and powerful record that drips with lyrical depth and positivity, all while remaining accessible. (He’ll celebrate the release of the album with an 8 p.m. show Thursday at Ambrose West.)
Blake is a veteran of the jam, funk and and rock music scenes, and he’s a pillar of the Asheville music community as a longtime engineer and affiliate of Echo Mountain, a founder of the popular independent media group IamAVL and a standing member of assorted musical outfits including the iconic Granola Funk Express, Asheville Music Hall’s Tuesday Night Funk Jam house band and the leader of his own Josh Blake Organ Trio (JBOT). But it’s Blake’s worldly sense of humility that helps drive this record.
The title track and first song announces itself with Matt Williams’ soaring fiddle licks as it sets the tone, lyrically, for the rest of the album.
“It’s never too late… to wake up to a world, a world that’s improving,” Blake sings in the first verse, an idea that he will approach from several different angles over the course of these 10 songs. With a pre-White Album Beatles country-pop vibe and a voice that is clearly speaking from experience, the song draws you in. He’s letting you know that you’re not alone and that the world is not always a dark place.
He follows with When I’m With You, a love song that somehow sonically bridges the gap between James Taylor and the sad pop-punk ballads of the mid 1990s. Some of this comes from his voice – scratchy and scarred in the best way possible way, probably from endless nights in smokey clubs and smoking dubs in back alleys – and some of it through simplicity and overt harmonies. Whatever it is, the feel is nostalgic and heartwarming, the kind of song you imagine a 20-year-old-self crying to with someone special at a Blue Ridge Parkway overlook.
From there the album moves into Here Comes the Fool, a side-mouthed romp through the comedic side of unrequited love. It’s groove is immediately endearing. As with Nothing, the message is made palatable by the songwriter’s clear admission of his own experience.
In fact, it is evident early on that each of these songs is written from Blake’s own interactions with the world. This vulnerability makes the album what it is. The listener can relate without feeling judged. And the listener can digest the music for what it is without having some sort of knee-jerk reaction.
The fourth song on the album, Pinwheels, is the one track that, for me, doesn’t seem to jump the bar. The inspirational tune, which is calling for peace and unity, is the only song on the album where Blake’s lyrics border on trite. Phrases like “The fabric of our lives” and “A hand in the wind” end up falling flat, and the chorus conjures up vivid images in my head of Cartman and Kyle and Stan singing the tune while holding pinwheels and swaying side-to-side in front of an American flag. Then again, maybe that is what Blake wants us to feel. Maybe, like South Park, he wants to sugar coat the truth just enough that you don’t realize you swallowed it until it makes you sick to your stomach.
It’s just this type of bait-and-switch that he pulls on Prohibition, the fifth and most overtly political statement on the album. It starts with the sultry smooth pedal steel guitar of Marcus King and carries a Hank Williams Jr. peanut-shells-on-a-dirt-floor vibe. Blake’s rustic voice is perfect and you can almost hear the sound of bong water bubbling as he meanders his way through “But if you got something worth rolling, all sticky and gooey and green, let’s step out back…”
Of course, the laughs give way to direct questions at the end, questions of what freedom really entails, questions of whether we are truly free in a country that regulates herbs that grow in the ground.
He follows it up with a good-old road song about running from the cops and missing your true love. “It killed my buzz when they busted in… they set me running for that open road, all I ever wanted was to be left alone,” he croons in the first verse of Big Trucker, setting up the story of the road-weary driver missing his love but loving his freedom.
“This open road it’s got me moving on,” he sings at the end, the perfect segue into the seventh song on the album, Tizzy McDoogal.
“I want to take you everywhere,” are the first true lyrics to McDoogal, furthering the idea of loving someone from miles away, and maybe wishing they fit your lifestyle a little bit better. Once again, Blake’s vulnerability is showing. He’s a husband and father who has made his living in the music industry. At times, he’s been on the road full time, but even when he’s not, the demands of making a living in this scene leave all of us with plenty of 4 a.m. nights, trying to dial in the feeling we’re trying to create.
Blake isn’t shy about discussing the side effects of his chosen craft, nor is he shy in expressing his discontent with the way things sometimes have to be. Still, in the end, the dynamics don’t take away from the overall inspirational feel of the album. Having bled a little on his guitar, so to speak, he comes back with Rasta Box.
“If we could see that we are all the same, and stop all of the fighting, then the world could live as one and put an end to the suffering,” he calls out as the song begins. The tune, a folk spin on a very traditional-style island sound, speaks to the heart of the matter – the lack of vision, the trees in the way of the forest, the incessant self-sabotage of the human race. Still, like Three Little Birds, the vibe is warm and cheery, even while subtly addressing our shortcomings.
With space for two songs left, Blake takes us into Undertow, a true indie-folk standard that draws on a wide range of influences that all lead to the catchiest chorus on the album.
“Cause ya can’t run away from yourself… can’t spend your whole life trying to swim against the tide,” he calls out before heading into what can only be described as a “heady” bridge.
“Cause the rocks don’t lie when they are breaking the waves,
Your heart is gonna die if you make it a slave,
The world will keep spinning, sun will keep rising
And soon you will see it on the horizon…
Just give into the current, watch all your troubles turn into peace.”
It is acoustic folk rap in the vein of Trevor Hall and Nahko Bear. Were the album to end right then and there, I doubt that anyone would argue. But with a track still left on the album Blake has taken us on a journey that has stretched “10,000 miles and 40 states,” from peace to strife and back to peace again.
Still there is one place left to go: home.
“Blue ridge mountains paint the landscape of my history,” he leads off on the final track, Time Warp, before “after all this time I’m coming home.” The song is a ’90’s grunge tribute to Western North Carolina, and it does feel like a homecoming. It’s the end of a journey, one that he has sketched through it’s failures, insecurities and obstacles. A journey to finding himself, and looking back, and realizing it was always all right there in front of him.
Josh Blake will celebrate the official release of Nothing’s In the Way by Josh Blake’s Acoustic Band with an 8 p.m. show Thursday at Ambrose West.
Caleb Calhoun is a poet, author and journalist living in West Asheville. He can be reached at [email protected]