Acoustic Music is Alive and Well

Christ Thile

Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers at Red Wing 2015

“When you go to heaven and hear singing, it will sound like these three women.”

So opined Chris Thile after the Americana trio I’m With Her finished a short yet moving set in the first half of an incredible three hours of music last evening at the Kennedy Center.  The concert hall’s acoustics were ringing all evening as the sold out crowd not only enjoyed the beautiful harmonies from I’m With Her’s Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, but also the instrumental talents and music-making of mandolinist extraordinaire Thile and the Punch Brothers, along with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyers, virtuosi of the banjo and upright bass respectively.

The Kennedy’s Center policy against photography leaves me using old photos from other concerts, but that hardly matters. The music was the focus last evening.

Thile was invited to curate a four-day American Acoustic Music Festival, and Friday evening’s show was clearly the headliner.  The Punch Brothers  opened the first half of the show with a tight set capped by the raucous Rye Whiskey.  I’m With Her followed, with a beautiful set of tunes with interwoven harmonies that belied the fact that this group hasn’t played together for much of this year. Finally Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyers closed out the first half of the show by demonstrating the musicality, technique, and compositional skills that made them the trailblazers they are in this genre. (And yes, there were jokes throughout the evening about first playing with people when they were eight.)


Bela Fleck

Bela Fleck, performing at Merlefest, 2012

The generous 90-minute second half featured collaborations among all the musicians, and that was when the magic was really made.  Fleck joined the Punch Brothers to kick off that half with one of Bela’s tunes from the influential 1980s album Drive, featuring the first of numerous delicious twin banjo romps between Fleck and the incredible Noam Pikelny.

Punch Brothers

Noam Pikelny

Virtually every tune in the second half was a highlight, beginning with Meyer and Fleck joining the Punch Brothers to play Blue Men of the Sahara, their composition from Strength in Numbers: The Telluride Sessions – an album that helped transform acoustic string music in the 1980s. O’Donovan and Jarousz took turns singing striking leads with the Punch Brothers. Fleck and Gabe Witcher played a wonderful banjo/fiddle duet in honor of Dr. Ralph Stanley – the last of the original triumvirate of bluegrass (Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs) – who passed away the night before.  (That led Pikelny to quip that Stanley’s death led to the crash of the entire world economic order.)

Watkins, Jarosz, and O'Donovan

Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan at Red Wing Roots Music Festival on July 11, 2015

As the night came to a close, Sara Watkins led the entire crew in the first of several encores – John Hartford’s Long Hot Summer Days. Three tunes – and many more moments of high musicianship and amazing technique later – Chris Thile and his friends left everyone satisfied.

And I’ll leave you with a John Hiatt tune – Crossing Muddy Water – that was played last evening by I’m With Her.  Enjoy!

More to come…


The Sound of Genius

I opened the paper this morning to the wondrous news that Chris Thile – celebrated l’enfant terrible of the mandolin – was one of the 2012 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grants.

You gotta love it when a kid who starts off in bluegrass ends up being recognized as a MacArthur “genius” – the popular term for the winners of the $500,000, no strings attached annual award.

Here’s the description from the MacArthur Foundation website:

Chris Thile is a young mandolin virtuoso and composer whose lyrical fusion of traditional bluegrass with elements from a range of other musical traditions is giving rise to a new genre of contemporary music. With a broad outlook that encompasses progressive bluegrass, classical, rock, and jazz, Thile is transcending the borders of conventionally circumscribed genres in compositions for his own ensembles and frequent cross-genre collaborations. Although rooted in the rhythmic structure of bluegrass, his early pieces for his long-time trio, Nickel Creek, have the improvisatory feel of jazz; his current ensemble, Punch Brothers, evokes the ethos of classical chamber music even while adhering to the traditional instrumentation of the bluegrass quintet. The Blind Leaving the Blind, a song suite on Punch Brothers’ first album (Punch, 2008), extends the sound of bluegrass in its range of harmonies and polyrhythms. Thile further explores the symphonic dimensions of the string quintet in both the improvised and elaborately composed works of Antifogmatic (2010). Among his many collaborations, Thile has expanded the reach of the mandolin in Ad Astra per Alas Porci (2009), a three-movement mandolin concerto, and in his solo mandolin interpretations of Bach’s works for violin, which showcase his technical mastery and fluid, soulful phrasing. Through his adventurous, multifaceted artistry as both a composer and performer with various ensembles, Thile is creating a distinctly American canon for the mandolin and a new musical aesthetic for performers and audiences alike.

Chris Thile studied music at Murray State University (1998–1999). From 1989 to 2007, he was a member of the trio Nickel Creek, and in 2006 he formed Punch Brothers. His additional recordings include Here to There (1997) and Why Should the Fire Die? (2005) with Nickel Creek; Who’s Feeling Young Now? (2012) with Punch Brothers; and the solo albums Not All Who Wander Are Lost (2001), Deceiver (2004), and How to Grow a Woman from the Ground (2006).

That’s all true.  But for those of us who have been listening to this phenom for a decade or two, he’s simply otherworldly.

There are many musicians who paved the way for Thile’s genius to bloom. His current band, Punch Brothers, plays with the same configuration of instruments – with the mandolin at the center – that the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, established in the 1940s. Traditional music virtuosi such as Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs showed that roots music could include branches outside the strict confines of bluegrass and folk.  Monster string players such as Tony Rice and Mark O’Connor demonstrated that traditional musicians can play with a speed, tone, touch, and musicality that raised the bar in the acoustic music world to levels once thought to belong only in the jazz and classical genres. Dobro master Jerry Douglas and Newgrass pioneer Sam Bush bring a physicality to their playing that helped shaped this key aspect of Thile’s music. Composer and bandleader David Grisman almost single-handedly took the traditional string band instrumentation and showed how gifted players could play a wonderful blend of jazz, world, bluegrass, and classical.

Thile combines all of these talents, and more, in one incredibly energetic and creative individual.  Take, for instance, the Nickel Creek live classic, The Fox. In this version from a Merlefest performance that Claire and I saw a few years ago, Thile and his band mates take off on a traditional tune, and then find all sorts of ways to venture out into other music and genres, before meandering back to the original.

But Thile doesn’t have to be in a band setting to shine.  Listen to this wonderful Bach E Major Prelude, which Thile takes to the mandolin:

Jerry Douglas’ We Hide and Seek is a tune known to most fans of Alison Krauss + Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas.  However, in this trio version with Thile on the mandolin, you get more space to hear (and see) Thile’s work with one of the masters of Nashville.

Why not show TWO MacArthur genius grant recipients together?  Because, the talent here might just blow you away.  But if you are game, take a look at Thile and double bassist Edgar Meyer playing Farmer and the Duck.

This could go on for days.  So to wrap things up, let’s end with a fun tune by the Punch Brothers, Brakeman’s Blues, where Thile gets to channel his inner Jimmie Rodgers.

Congratulations, Chris Thile.  Well deserved!  And congratulations to the folks at the MacArthur Foundation for recognizing genius in some of the hidden places of American life and music.

More to come…


Bush and Skaggs: Coming Home, Coming Full Circle

Two recent releases by Sam Bush and Ricky Skaggs – two superstars of Americana, roots, and bluegrass music – show both artists coming home in ways that bring them full circle with their own artistic travels.

Bush’s Circles Around Me is a return to the bluegrass and early progressive newgrass of his youth in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  The album opens with the title track, a tune that celebrates “being thankful that you’re here” according to Bush.  His terrific road band – Byron House on bass, Chris Brown on drums, the amazing Scott Vestal on banjo and Stephen Mougin on guitar – plays on the majority of the 14 tracks, stretching out their musical chops on tunes such as the instrumental Blue Mountain and the old New Grass Revival song Souvenir Bottles. This latter tune, along with Whisper My Name written by original NGR bassist Ebo Walker and featured on their very first album, brings Bush back to the band where he made his name and helped shape a whole new genre of music – Newgrass.

But there’s also a strong traditional bluegrass strain on the album, especially on the tunes where Del McCoury joins in on vocals.  Roll on Buddy, Roll On is a fine piece of straight-ahead grass.  Songwriter extraordinaire Guy Clark, Bush and Verlon Thompson co-wrote the haunting Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle about the real-life tragedy of the murder of old-time country music star David “Stringbean” Akeman and his wife Estelle.  Midnight on the Stormy Deep and Out on the Ocean are solid bluegrass tunes where Bush keeps his newgrass tendencies in check.  In addition to McCoury, guests artists include Dobro wizard Jerry Douglas, McArthur genius and bassist Edgar Meyer and his family, and (posthumously) original NGR banjoist Courtney Johnson on the sweet fiddle/banjo duet Apple Blossom.

Sam Bush has put together a thoughtful yet entertaining album that should keep his fans happy while finding some converts among the traditionalists who are not as attracted to his recent solo work.

Ricky Skaggs, photo by Erick Anderson

Ricky Skaggs has been moving in a more traditional direction for a good many years since his dip into mainstream country stardom in the 1980s and 90s.  His band Kentucky Thunder is arguably the best band in bluegrass, with Skaggs showcasing some of the music’s best young talent much as his mentor, Bill Monroe, did through the years with the Bluegrass Boys.

But on his most recent album, Songs My Dad Loved, Skaggs goes solo.  That doesn’t mean you’ll just hear Ricky and a guitar or mandolin, because he plays and overdubs a dizzying array of instruments:  acoustic guitars, resonator guitar, round hole and f hole mandolins, mandocello, octave mandolin, steel string banjo, gut string fretless banjo, fiddle, piano, bass, Danelectro electric baritone guitar and percussion.

Songs My Dad Loved is an obvious labor of love for Skaggs.  There are old-time fiddle/banjo duets (Colonel Prentiss), Roy Acuff and Fred Rose-penned old country tunes (Foggy River), gospel (City That Lies Foursquare) and mountain bluegrass (Little Maggie) among the selections.  Songs My Dad Loved is dialed back from the breakneck bluegrass that Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder are known for.  But it is a little gem of an album, reminding me – as one other reviewer noted – of the classic Skaggs and Rice duet album.

Two great Americana musicians, circling back to their roots.  When you reach your 50s and have been playing professionally since you could hold an instrument, this isn’t a bad place to be.

And to give you a taste of the music, there’s a nice video of Sam and his band recording Circles Around Me with commentary by Sam interspersed.  Enjoy.

More to come…


I Believe Thanksgiving is my New Favorite Holiday

I’m not sure what has been my favorite holiday, but I think Thanksgiving has now taken over the top rung on the ladder.  I think it may be the fact that big business hasn’t yet figured out a way to commercialize it.  Or perhaps it is the fact that food plays a big role.  I like the focus on the act of being thankful for all we have in a country that’s been abundantly blessed. Then again, maybe it is just that we’ve figured out how to get together with people we really enjoy and have a very relaxing time.  Whatever the reason, it is my new favorite holiday.

Candice and I have always enjoyed Thanksgiving.  For many years we traveled over the mountain from Staunton to a wonderful inn, Prospect Hill, for a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner.  It was especially meaningful to us because we honeymooned at Prospect Hill while we were very poor graduate students.  Little did we realize that just a year after our wedding we’d move to Virginia and be an hour away. 

With the coming of twins it became more difficult to pack up and go to a great restaurant/inn that was 2+ hours away for Thanksgiving (even though we gave it a try one year).  That’s when our wonderful friends Margaret and Oakley invited us to join their extended “family” for Thanksgiving in Staunton…and we made the first steps to Thanksgiving becoming my new favorite.  Random thoughts on why I have come to enjoy Thanksgiving:

I love the slow pace of a Thanksgiving meal.  You talk, eat, drink, play a little music, eat some more, drink some more wine – and all of a sudden it is 11 p.m.  The pace gives you time to digest (and I’m talking about more than just food).

The friends we share with Margaret and Oakley Margaret and Oakley at Thanksgiving 2008are neat people.  And, of course, Margaret and Oakley are the neatest of all!  They moved from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in DC to Staunton a number of years ago, and have this great urban/rural/Minnesota/Dylan/gourmet/ natural foods/spiritual vibe that’s great to share.   I’m sure you see all of that in the picture.

When we go back to Staunton, it is like we never left.  We can begin conversations that began 15 years ago and that are ongoing. 

One of the great things about community is that people accept each other EVEN though they know all the faults.  One of mine is that I hear better music in my head than what comes out when I play.  But guess what?  The good musicians in our group still let me play and have a good time, even when I can’t remember the lyrics or get the chords right.  That’s cool.

We love the small town of Staunton, where we lived for 15 years.  It is always great to spend 4 hours wandering through the downtown to visit new shops and run into old friends.  We did a lot of both this past weekend.  This year it was even better because there’s this terrific new bass shop in town, called Fretwell Bass.  When I walked into a store with 25 or so upright basses for sale, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  My dream of playing an upright bass just came into focus!

Staunton’s restaurant scene is also improving.  On Friday Margaret and Oakley joined us for dinner at the Staunton Grocery, a wonderful restaurant where we enjoyed the food and company.   Candice and Margaret – the former catering partners – sat opposite the picture window looking into the kitchen and kept up a running commentary on the dishes as they were prepared and served.   How can you beat two nights in a row of great food, wine, and conversation?

So Thanksgiving is now my new favorite holiday.  During our music making on Thursday evening, I was reminded of the great Stephen Foster song Slumber My Darling.  Our friend Constance has a beautiful voice which mesmerized us all as she sang this tune.  Since I was playing guitar at the time and not filming the performance, I’ve instead posted this wonderful video of Alison Krauss.  And while Constance didn’t quite have the backup band of Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, and Yo Yo Ma that Alison enjoys, I’ll remember this highlight from Thanksgiving 2008. 

Sleep well darlings.

More to come…


Searching the Internet and Finding Miss Music Nerd

One of the unexpected joys of starting a blog is that as you move around the Internet to find information or connect links, you stumble across interesting blogs that catch your fancy.  These blogs may or may not be connected to your topic(s), but you find the writing or subject so compelling you want to share with others.

So every now and then I’ll share a discovery with you.  And the first such find is Miss Music Nerd!…because nerd is the new cool Last evening after posting a story on the new Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile CD, I clicked on the tag I established for Edgar Meyer and was taken to Miss Music Nerd’s blog.  There I found a wonderful posting entitled Music Vocab:  Catching Some Bass Here was a witty take on the "lowest instrument or voice part in an ensemble, whose name is spelled like a fish but pronounced like a foundation: the bass." 

Miss Music Nerd is classically trained, but lest you think she’s boring (or too nerdy), read some more from Catching Some Bass to see the musicians she’s listening to;

But enough with the jargon… let’s listen to some badass bassitude!

Some other posts I enjoyed on my perusal of the writings and music of Miss Music Nerd:

  • A delightful paen to organmaster shoes entitled Play a Mile in These Shoes
  • A wonderful collection of original short pieces called the 30 Days Project , where Miss Music Nerd wrote a new short piece of music every day for 30 days

And finally, a post about Mahler’s 9th, which lends itself to big thoughts:

Hearing a live orchestral performance brings to mind Many Great Truths — for example:

  • Despite what numerous naysayers, nervous Nellies, and nattering nabobs of negativism like to say, classical music is not dead and the symphony orchestra is not obsolete.
  • The sound of a live orchestra will never be equalled, even by the most audiophile’s-dream-come-true, money-no-object sound system you could imagine
  • It is possible to listen to a piece of music lasting nearly 90 minutes, with no intermission, without feeling bored or impatient even for a moment
  • The contrabassoon is frickin’ cool!

I’m sure you’ll find something on Miss Music Nerd to enjoy.

More to come…


Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile To Release First CD Together

Double-bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolin phenom Chris Thile are set to release their first CD together on September 23rd on Nonesuch Records.  Entitled – appropriately enough – Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile , the new release brings together two of the most amazing instrumentalists of their respective generations of acoustic musicians. 

My friend Scott Gerloff and I had the chance to see Meyer earlier this year when he played in Washington with Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas.  The show was terrific and Meyer was phenomenal.  We were both slack-jawed.  And I’ve written to countless friends through the years following Nickel Creek concerts with accounts of some amazing piece of musicianship from Thile.  Needless to say I’m looking forward to this collaboration.

The Nonesuch site provides a good background on both musicians:

Throughout a lifetime of performing and composing, Edgar Meyer has turned the double bass into a modern virtuoso instrument that is equally at home in classical music and in the American vernacular. In 1994, Meyer became the first bassist to win the Avery Fisher Prize. He is also a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award and three Grammy Awards. Meyer has found devoted audiences through a vast range of projects, from his own double bass concertos that he continues to perform regularly to recital collaborations with Emanuel Ax and Amy Dorfman and performance and recording projects with artists including Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mike Marshall, and many others. The New Yorker calls him “the most remarkable virtuoso in the relatively unchronicled history of his instrument.”

Widely regarded as one of the most interesting and inventive musicians of his generation, mandolinist Chris Thile has elevated his instrument from its origins as a relatively simple folk and bluegrass instrument to the sophistication and brilliance of the finest jazz improvisation and classical performance….As the San Francisco Chronicle asks, “Why didn’t someone think about mixing bluegrass, jazz and classical music together sooner? Chris Thile … is doing it with his new outfit, Punch Brothers, and the result is totally mind-blowing.”

There are a couple of good videos on You Tube of the Meyer/Thile duo.  Check out the one above.

More to come…