Historically the most common place for women in the blues is the "my baby done left me" line that's become a staple of the form. But for the past twenty-plus years, Rory Block has been one of a handful of female artists who have broken the stereotype in a genre that is predominantly male, especially when it comes to its guitarists. "The most-asked question is how a young white girl from New York City gets into blues of the black rural South," says Block, who grew up in Greenwich Village during the Sixties. "People kept saying, 'You should be doing folk music,' or 'You should be doing rock and roll,' or 'You should be doing something we expect you to do. Why are you doing blues?'"
Truth be told: It's because she feels like it, and she's damn good at it. During her distinguished career, she has proved herself as an axwoman whose grit and slide-guitar technique parallels that of the old blues masters, while her powerful voice conveys years of living through impassioned, personal songs. Block has remained loyal to a tried-and-true recipe of Delta blues, although previous efforts have landed along the adult contemporary and R&B spectrums. And on this year's I'm Every Woman, her fourteenth album, Block experiments with R&B zeal -- something that emerged when she was preparing to cover Ashford and Simpson's "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," for which she specifically hand-assembled a band. (Covers of Al Green, Ann Peebles, and Teddy Pendergrass follow suit.) "That got me excited," she explains. "So we said, 'Let's do Curtis Mayfield, let's do Chaka Khan,' and we just had this rip-roaring session, and all of a sudden that's the direction we went in. I always wanted to get back into R&B. When I was first listening to Motown in the Seventies, it was a huge influence on me."
Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Block spent her first years in a house with no running water in the woods. She later moved to the Village, where she would walk down the streets strumming her guitar when she was ten years old. Two years later she made her recording debut accompanying her fiddling father and his band, the Elektra String Band Project. At fourteen she was going to Washington Square Park for Sunday jams, and Block's father began hosting open- mike sessions on Saturday afternoons at his sandal shop. (Among the musicians who dropped by was an unknown by the name of Bob Dylan, as well as Joan Baez.) She eventually got to meet some of her influences, including Son House and Reverend Gary Davis. When she was fifteen, she and fellow guitarist Stefan Grossman, who originally turned Block on to the blues, embarked on a trip across the South, where Block learned from blues artists such as Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, and on to Berkeley, California, where she learned her slide-guitar technique (which she adapted by using a wrench socket).
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One night during a performance at a Berkeley club, someone from the audience remarked that Block "plays like a man." The memory stuck with her. "In a weird way I've always been in a different place doing a different thing than I was expected to do as far as categories go," she says. "But I think people have since realized that you should do whatever inspires you. You can be inspired by anything, and you should do what comes from the heart. I feel that it's finally been accepted, but it's taken many years." When Block and Grossman returned home from their trip, they collaborated on the How to Play Blues Guitar instructional record in 1965, Block playing under the alias of Sunshine Kate.
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But soon after she decided to start a family and take a break from music. "I thought I could do without it, and I tested those waters and did other things," Block reflects. "But then again I began missing it to the point where it drove me back. It's a big part of me." She returned after nearly ten years of silence with 1981's High Heeled Blues on Rounder Records, which has been Block's label ever since. Other albums included 1995's When a Woman Gets the Blues, named best acoustic blues album of the year at the W.C. Handy Blues Awards, and 1998's Confessions of a Blues Singer, winning the same category at the Crossroads Music Awards.
"This is way more than what I thought would ever happen," Block says. "I never thought that there would be any acclaim or any success at all. I just feel a sense of satisfaction." Her Best Blues and Originals album, which went gold in Belgium and Holland, prompted Block to start regular touring in Europe -- a region not particularly associated with the blues. "One side of the ocean is always interested in what the other side has already approved of," she says. "There are musicians who move overseas because they didn't get appreciated in their own country. Now I feel that American audiences are equally aware of the music that comes from [overseas]. There was a time when Dutch DJs and fans knew more about American blues than Americans did. And that was strange."
As she works both sides of the pond, Block's touring schedule doesn't ease up. "I love it that way. The success that I feel comes when I talk to the audiences," she says. "A woman came to my show and she was sitting there watching me sing 'Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down.' She had been diagnosed by three different doctors and they told her she was dying of cancer, and that she only had a few months to live. And when she heard me sing that song, she [later said] she made the decision that she was going to live. That is important to me more than record sales or money."
It seems no grave can hold Block's career down either. "'This is my last album,'" she laughs. "I've been saying that for the past ten albums, and I always keep going. But I haven't said that about [I'm Every Woman]. I feel like this album opened up the world in a weird way. I see all these experiences that I've had. All the pain and different kinds of experiences: Some of them are suffering, some of them are joyous. They all go into an experience bank that makes you suddenly sit back and say, 'It's all for a reason.'"