One look at Ron Block’s resume, and any artist would grow green with envy. An in-demand musician, Block has accompanied a who’s who list of artists throughout his illustrious career and is most well-known as a member of Union Station, the longtime backing band for Americana/country singer Alison Krauss. Alongside Union Station, Block has garnered his share of accolades from GRAMMYs to International Bluegrass Awards to a Dove Award. Never one to shy away from his faith, his latest solo endeavor enlists friend Jeff Taylor, a member of The Time Jumpers, as the two put their stamp on timeless hymns, as well as a few originals. Trouble Go Down also features guest vocals from Ellie Holcomb and Suzanne Cox. We recently posed some questions to the bluegrass troubadour himself in an effort to discuss life, faith and art. We found him to not only be a stunning multi-instrumentalist but also a hybrid poet and theologian.
TSO: What’s been your most memorable moment as a member of Union Station to date?
Block: I don’t really have a single moment, but the thing I like best is playing with the band and feeling right in the center of the timing. Playing music is a powerful thing, and to get to do that with such a band for so long a time that every nuance together becomes intuitive–well, that’s really special. We’ve done a lot of memorable things: played all over the U.S., England, Ireland, Scotland, Europe; played the White House; met a lot of high-level musicians. But what I have when all that settles is, “Did we play well? Did we make great music?” That’s the thing, to me.
TSO: How did you originally come to faith?
Block: My mother had a lot of serious abuse in her childhood, and when I was 2 years old, she discovered how much God loved her, how He wanted to be her Deliverer out of all that junk she felt. So I grew up with a mother who had just recently discovered the Gospel, the Good News. I grew up in her love that came from knowing she was loved. When I was 6, I went forward at a church service; she bought me a Bible and “The Family Bible Library,” a set of Bible storybooks. I was already a big reader, and I wore those out and still have them.
But until around 18, my concept of God was still somewhat legalistic and fearful. God was not immanent to me; He was transcendent. At that time, I had my first real revelation of grace. When a good friend said, “Ron, we’re not saved by what we do or don’t do; we’re saved by trusting God,” a lot of Bible verses I’d read for years clicked down into their proper slots. It was revelatory; I went home and had what seemed an entirely new Bible. It’s amazing how much we can’t see in the Word until it is revealed–that is, until we are burned out on our own way and are ready to accept God’s precise and accurate estimation of reality.
TSO: There are a lot of avenues you could have explored on your solo records. What’s prompted you to create music around your faith?
Block: I tended in my teens and twenties to get my self-worth from playing music. I was a Christian; I trusted God to save me at the end of my life; I trusted Him for food, shelter, and clothing. But I trusted my playing to help me feel good about myself. A few years after joining Alison Krauss & Union Station that self-worth began to wobble, and it was in that downward spiral I found my real identity and sense of worth in Christ. Finding that is a continual and ever deepening journey.
TSO: What’s one instrument you can’t play but wish you could?
Block: When I was a teen, I generally wanted to play everything. I love all the instrumentation in bluegrass and other music. When I bought a record I didn’t just listen to the banjo or guitar, I loved the fiddle, mandolin, Dobro, bass, and vocals. So I tried everything except fiddle. These days, I limit myself pretty much to acoustic and electric guitar and banjo, because time is limited and those are my favorites.
TSO: What current artists are inspiring you these days?
Block: Yorkshire’s Kate Rusby and Damien O’Kane both have records out this year. In a nutshell they both take the traditional roots music of the U.K. and make it new again. Damien came out with Areas of High Traffic earlier this year, and it’s one of my favorite records. He’s a great banjoist, guitarist, singer, songwriter, and producer originally from Northern Ireland. He’s married to Kate and produces her records. Kate’s new record is called Life In A Paper Boat, and I love it. They’re both remarkably talented and have tons of artistic integrity, and these two recordings are each a unique sonic world I can go into, with its own topography and terrain. Many of my favorite records have that uniqueness.
TSO: The music you make with Alison Krauss & Union Station seems timeless. What is it about your music that makes it have longevity?
Block: I think it has a lot to do with the songs themselves. Alison has a knack for finding great songs that have depth, that are timeless. And we play in such a way that the songs won’t be dated–that is, we generally don’t follow the modern flow of what may be popular at a given time. I think that is one reason some music ends up sounding dated. A lot of my favorite music–artists like Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, Bonnie Raitt, Fernando Ortega–never sounds dated, except maybe in recording techniques.
TSO: What advice would you have for someone who is just starting their journey into the music business?
Block: If a person has a strong desire to play music for a living, like I did and still do, do it with everything you’ve got. There has to be a strong desire, but there also has to be faith that you can do it. Listen to music that stimulates your desire, and read things that grow your faith. Learn the technique of your instrument well, but don’t let technique be the end-all. We work on technique to give clearer and better expression to beauty and meaning. It’s like cleaning the lens of a telescope.
Dorothy Sayers said in an essay called “Why Work,” that is well-worth reading, that work “…should be looked upon, not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.”
She goes on to say, “The only Christian work is good work well done. Let the Church see to it that the workers are Christian people and do their work well, as to God: then all the work will be Christian work, whether it is church embroidery, or sewage farming. As Jacques Maritain says: ‘If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart; do not adopt a Christian pose.’”
TSO: You’ve been playing for a long time. What is it about music that keeps you coming back?
Block: For one thing, music is endlessly fascinating. It is as infinite as God; think of the variety of sounds and styles that are already in existence. Secondly, music has a great capacity to give us a cathartic experience–to feel emotions we may bury, or sift through events and sorrows we may not have thought about in a long time.
And also, I’ll close with a favorite quote, from Robert F. Capon, that sums up my feelings about being a musician and why I love to practice technique: “Mere facility, of course, is no more a guarantee of good taste in cooking than it is in music; but without it, nothing is possible at all. Technique must be acquired, and, with technique, a love of the very processes of cooking. No artist can work simply for results; he must also like the work of getting them. Not that there isn’t a lot of drudgery in any art–and more in cooking than in most–but that if a man has never been pleasantly surprised at the way custard sets or flour thickens, there is not much hope of making a cook of him. Pastry and confectionary will remain forever beyond him, and he will probably never even be able to get gravy to come out the same way twice. Interest in results never conquers boredom with process.” Robert F. Capon, Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection
For more info, visit www.ronblock.com.