The late Tony Rice influenced multiple generations of acoustic and bluegrass musicians with his exceptional instrumental skills, warm voice, and wide-ranging musical interests. When he passed away on Christmas Day 2020, many felt it as a personal loss. To some, like me, he was a hero. To the five exceptional musicians who make up the Punch Brothers, he was not only a hero, but a friend.
And that’s how the band’s Hell on Church Street tribute album to Tony Rice, to be released on Friday January 14th, came to fruition: five musicians wanting to honor a friend. Before we dive into the background on this project, let’s begin this Saturday Soundtrack with a bit of a teaser, as the Punch Brothers play their version of the title track.
The Bluegrass Situation provides some basic background on how the record came into existence.
Recorded at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio in November 2020, during a time of great uncertainty, Hell on Church Street is the band’s reimagining of, and homage to, the late bluegrass great Tony Rice’s landmark solo album, Church Street Blues. The record features a collection of songs by Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Bill Monroe, and others. It was intended as both its own work of art and a gift to Rice, who died that Christmas.
Church Street Blues is a tune by Norman Blake that came from his equally influential Whiskey Before Breakfast album. Blake is right up there with Rice on the Mount Rushmore of acoustic roots guitarists, and this album is one reason why. Released in 1976, it is a compilation of traditional fiddle tunes and Blake originals. Church Street Blues was, to many ears, the best of the latter category.
Rice always covered a much wider range of music than was typical for bluegrass musicians of his era, but Blake’s tune was pretty close-to-home. In fact, Rice and Blake famously produced two duo records together, the subtle and yet powerful in its own way Blake & Rice in 1987, and the 1990 follow-up Norman Blake & Tony Rice 2, which featured guest appearances by Doc Watson. Their wonderful take on New River Train from the first album shows the appreciation these two masters clearly had for each other.
For Church Street Blues, Tony took this simple down-on-your-luck song, backed up his unique vocals with flawless solo guitar, and made it his own. I love this video, because it provides closeups of the incredible right-hand and left-hand technique that made Tony such an original.
Other musicians have been inspired by Tony’s take on the tune. Mandolinist Sierra Hull shows her guitar chops with a recently released straightforward rendition, while Billy Strings and Bela Fleck put their own unique stamp on the Blake classic.
Hell on Church Street is more than just the title tune. With this album, the Punch Brothers covered all the songs on Rice’s seminal work.
“No record (or musician) has had a greater impact on us, and we felt compelled to cover it in its entirety, with the objective of interacting with it in the same spirit of respect-fueled adventure that Tony brought to each of its pre-existing songs.”Punch Brothers
On the band’s website, each member discusses the impact of the record on their formative years. Here are comments from banjoist Noam Pikelny and mandolinist (and band leader) Chris Thile.
Pikelny cites the importance of “Tony’s direct performance. On the song, ‘Church Street Blues,’ what he’s playing is so complicated, but it doesn’t feel that way, it feels elemental … like falling off a log.” During Thile’s younger years as a member of Nickel Creek, folk music legend Alison Krauss sat him and his bandmates down, turned on Church Street Blues, and said, “‘This is how you make a record.’ Every time I make a record I think of Church Street Blues.”
As of today, only a few of the tracks have been pre-released. Until Friday we’ll have to be content to listen to how the band reimagines the old Jimmie Rodgers classic Any Old Time as a honky-tonk tune while playing Cattle in the Cane as a straight-ahead fiddle tune.
To close — and circle back around to the master — I always found Rice’s rendition of the Bill Monroe/Kenny Baker classic Jerusalem Ridge to be otherworldly. While there are multiple YouTube versions of Rice playing this tune solo and in a band configuration, my favorite is still the one from the Church Street Blues album.
Thanks to Tony and the Punch Brothers for bringing this wonderful album to life.
More to come…
Image of Punch Brothers from Merlefest 2012 by DJB.
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