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…


Oh Happy Day! – Merlefest 25 Wraps Up

Sunday is “Go to Meeting” day in the South, so it figures that the final day at Merlefest has a heavy gospel flavor.

But because it is Merlefest – and therefore eclectic – you have your choice of shape-note singing, bluegrass gospel, Sunday blues (which should appeal to the non-believers and sinners alike), and black gospel.

I opted for the black gospel sound this year, mostly by default.  (Not surprisingly, I was “late” for church because I slept in after a night of the blues with the Tedeschi Trucks Band.)

But the Lord moves in mysterious ways.  And with the Benedict College Gospel Choir (photo at top of post) the Lord definitely moves!

By the time I arrived, the choir had an enthusiastic crowd at the Watson Stage swaying and singing to that gospel standard Oh Happy Day!  There was testifying by some of the best voices of the weekend (and that’s saying a lot).  It was the perfect way to kick off Day Four – the final day – of Merlefest 25.

The only band I saw all weekend that could hold its own with the Gospel Choir in terms of getting everyone to their feet was Scythian (above), and luckily they followed on the Watson Stage.  This is a band that blends all sorts of roots music together – one reviewer said the band brings first-generation authenticity to their unique hodgepodge of Irish, Celtic, klezmer, and gypsy influences. Whatever their influences, they bring tremendous energy that is “hard-kicking” and infectious.  It was barely past noon and the joint was jumping.

I left the Scythian set early because I wanted to catch Sarah and Christian Dugas at the Americana Stage. I last heard Sarah Dugas (above) at Merlefest as the lead singer for The Duhks, where they were tearing down the Dance Tent with an incredible version of Whole Lotta Love.  On Saturday, Sarah was the primary lead singer for the Hillside Album Hour, where she did a powerful version of Purple Haze, among others.  The band’s Sunday set was just as memorable.  She is an amazing singer with a great set of pipes.  It was turning out to be a happy day all around.

The energy continued with that “high octane hillbilly band” Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives (above) – the best band name ever. The crowd loved the hits (The Whiskey Ain’t Working Anymore) but I especially liked a quiet, acoustic version of Dark As a Dungeon.  That song has long been a favorite of mine, especially since I heard Guy Clark sing it in a workshop entitled “Songs I Wish I’d Written.”  Stuart, who was at the first Merlefest 25 years ago and traveled for a time with Doc Watson (who hasn’t Marty played with?), did a nice job of remembering his bluegrass roots while focusing on the songs that made him a country music star (with the hair to prove it!).

Stuart’s set was followed by a Cabin Stage appearance by Scottish folk legend Dougie MacLean, which was the perfect bridge to the day’s headliner.  The energy was ratcheted down, but the intensity and musicality were right at the forefront of this 25-minute set.  There was a haunting song written when MacLean realized he was becoming more like his father every day, and his performance won over a crowd that was clearly waiting for AK+US.

For the only time this weekend, the Watson Stage area was jammed packed as the crowd was ready for Alison Krauss + Union Station Featuring Jerry Douglas (above) – the longest band name ever. With more Grammy awards than everyone else at the festival combined, AK+US didn’t disappoint.  From the first notes of Paper Airplane, through Dan Tyminski’s rendition of Dust Bowl Children, to Jerry Douglas’ high-powered instrumental Who’s Your Uncle, all three “stars” in this band were shining from the beginning.

I actually have a theory about Alison Krauss that was supported again on Sunday.  Every note the band plays is perfect, and they generally stick to the arrangements they put on record.  So it is only in the stage patter that Krauss gets to improvise…and she often goes off the rails with crazy comments.  On Sunday, it was her rambling explanation of why Wild Bill Jones was the perfect “sad song” – because it had everything possible in it that could go wrong in three-and-a-half minutes, with the “cherry on top” of someone getting “jail time.”  I’ve heard that bit of patter before, but then she turned to Tyminski and asked him for his favorite “sad” verse of the song, and they went off on something about Celebrity Apprentice.  Wacko stuff, but she has the voice and musicianship that makes it all seem right.

With a long drive back home in front of me, I hit the road before the crowds, but thanks to “Radio Free Merlefest” at 90.9 I was able to catch the end of the show…and the official end to Merlefest 25.

What a ride it has been.

More to come…


A Jerry Christmas: Some Coal Mixed in With the Goodies

Last evening several friends (old and new)  joined me as we caught the last show on the short “Jerry Christmas” tour featuring Dobro master Jerry Douglas along with John Oates and Irish singer Maura O’Connell.  This was my first trip to the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, and while the room has much to recommend it (especially an intimacy that connects performer and audience), the sound mix wasn’t great and O’Connell’s mic was especially bad, with a buzzing and poor sound quality that should have been fixed after the first song.

That sound mix was a bother, but it didn’t stop the musicianship of Douglas and his band from coming through.  The music alternated between seasonal music and “palate cleansers” as Douglas described his regular tunes.  The best of the former was a beautiful In the Bleak Midwinter.  There was a tie for weirdest of the former – between a “spooky” Santa Claus is Coming to Town and a well-named Do You Hear What I Hear where Douglas, after announcing that Christmas melodies were sacrosanct, then proceeded to show “what he hears in his head” with an off-the-wall underlying arrangement.  In the palate cleanser categories, O’Connell sang a moving version of Nanci Griffith’s Trouble in the Fields, and Douglas and his band mates ripped through Whose Your Uncle? – the Douglas tribute to Dobro pioneer Uncle Josh Graves.  And in a merger of the two categories, the encore included a Douglas staple, Choctaw Hayride, renamed as Choctaw Sleighride.

As befits a band on the last night of a tour, Douglas, Oates and O’Connell were ready to cut up and joke – and they did.  On the music front, my favorite revelation was the introduction of young fiddler (and 2009 Grand Master Fiddling Contest winner) Alex Hargreaves.  He had a sweet tone, an inventive ear and he fit right in with Douglas’ hot band.

So as he did last evening, I’ll leave you with Douglas (this time with Alison Krauss + Union Station) playing that old Christmas standard Choctaw Sleighride. Enjoy!

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…


Terrific Roots Music Coming to Washington This Fall

Del McCoury BandWe’re into fall here in the Washington region and that means that the acoustic music scene is busy pointing toward those holiday concerts.  But before December arrives, there are a few highlights for lovers of bluegrass, Americana, and roots music in the District of Columbia.

This Monday, the Blue Moon Cowgirls and flatpicking champion Orrin Star are featured at the Institute of Musical Traditions concert in Rockville.  I’ve heard Star before, and he’s a treat for those who like the old flat top.

Country singer extraordinaire Patty Loveless will be at the Birchmere on November 1st.  She’ll no doubt be featuring tunes from  her new album, Mountain Soul II. The original Mountain Soul was a terrific album, and the follow-up begins with a great version of that old country classic, Busted. (Well the bills are all due and the babies need shoes, we’re busted…) Sure to be a great show.

For those who don’t mind a bit of a drive, folksinger John Gorka is playing on November 20th at the historic Avalon Theatre in beautiful Easton Maryland.  Gorka has one of the most distinctive voices in folk music and I believe I could listen to him sing the phone book.  (There’s also a nice Historic Hotel of America – the Tidewater Inn –  in Easton for those who would like to make a weekend of it.)

The next evening,  Saturday November 21st, the Del McCoury Band – just about the best traditional bluegrass band on the circuit today – will be at the Birchmere.   They also have a new album, entitled Family Circle, out later this month.  Del and the boys never disappoint.

As I wrote earlier, Irish harper Grainne Hambly will be at the National Geographic Society on Friday, December 4th, with the Irish band Teada.  They will be performing as part of their Irish Christmas in America tour.

Finally, Monday, December 7th, will pose a real dilemma, as both IMT and the Birchmere have top-notch Christmas shows.  I’ve attended the IMT Celtic Christmas show featuring guitarist Robin Bullock and husband/wife duo Al Petteway and Amy White for a number of years.  With Bullock and Petteway, you have two terrific guitarists and this show is always a treat.  But the same night, the Birchmere has booked my long-time favorite Jerry Douglas along with Irish singer and song interpreter Maura O’Connell for their own “Very Jerry Christmas.”  Few people can interpret a song the way O’Connell can and her newest CD is a collection of acappella duets entitled Naked With Friends. (Click on the link and read the great review at Fiddlefreak.) The friends include Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Mary Black, Kate Rusby and more.  I love hearing O’Connell live, so I expect I’ll be at the Birchmere on the 7th for that show.

To give you a hint of what you might hear on the 7th, I’ve included a video of Maura O’Connell in a duet with Nanci Griffith and with Jerry Douglas on Dobro playing the Griffith tune Trouble in the Field. Simply sublime.

More to come…


Sleep is Overrated When You’ve Got Music to Fuel the Soul

Open Back BanjoAt the end of a busy first day at the National Preservation Conference in Nashville, I took off to the Grand Ole Opry House with about 20 close friends for the taping of a PBS special celebrating 40 Years of Rounder Records.  (Look for the show on March 10, 2010.)  While it started late and ended even later, it was an amazing evening of music.

Here’s just a few highlights:

  • Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas playing that great accordion-driven dance music from Louisiana, where the “crawfish got soul and the alligators got the blues.”  My accordion-playing friend Jim Harrington would have loved it.  As my colleague and seatmate  Caroline Barker said, “If I could move my feet like Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas I’d be a dancer instead of a preservationist (perhaps).”
  • Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn singing and playing Keys to the Kingdom.  I heard them do the tune at Merlefest, but it was even better in the controlled setting of the Opry House.  Then Bela and Jerry Douglas played a duet just to prove they are two of the best musicians on the planet.
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter, a relative newcomer to Rounder, singing a great song, Grand Central Station, written just after 9/11.  As my friend and colleague Dolores said, she’s a preservationist.
  • Alison Krauss + Union Station Featuring Jerry Douglas (longest band name ever) were just perfect.  Perfect.  The harmony between Alison and Dan Tyminski is a wonderful thing to hear, and then Jerry Douglas just adds another voice with that heavenly Dobro.  Alison also has the wackiest stage humor ever, which was egged on last night by hostess Minnie Driver.

I knew all those performers and had seen all by Nathan Williams live.  The singer I didn’t know was New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas.  What a set of pipes!  What a stage presence!  What a band!  If you don’t believe me, just take a listen to the video below where she sings her first big hit (which closed out her show last night) You Can Take My Husband, But Please Don’t Mess With My Man.

Keys to the Kingdom indeed!

More to come…


Jerry Douglas, Travis Tritt, and the Fretboard Journal Cap First Day of Merlefest 2009

Douglas and TrittWith just a Dobro, acoustic guitar, and one great country blues voice, Jerry Douglas and Travis Tritt filled the North Carolina night with terrific music at the end of Day One of Merlefest 2009.

I left this morning and drove to Wilkesboro on a picture perfect spring day.  The Shenandoah was beautiful as I drove up the valley: red-buds were everywhere, and the hardwoods were just beginning to green.  Just another reason I treasure my 15 years in Staunton and go back as often as possible.

I arrived at the Wilkes Community College campus – home to Merlefest – in time to catch most of the Lovell Sisters’ act.  I’ve written about the Lovell Sisters before, but they continue to grow as musicians and as a band, with more complex arrangements and beautiful harmony singing.   They ended with a tune by that well-known bluegrass composer Jimi Hendrix.Wayne Henderson

Wayne Henderson followed on the Cabin Stage.  Wearing his Boston Red Sox hat (see photo at right) and finger-picking on a beautiful Henderson guitar, Wayne and his band-mates put some life into tunes such as the old chestnut Sweet Georgia Brown.  Henderson was also the subject of an earlier post on More to Come… as I wrote last January about his appearance in the Fretboard Journal.    Regular readers will know how much I love that magazine, so I was thrilled to walk into one of the store tents after Henderson’s set and walk straight into the Fretboard Journal table.  I had a chance to thank the editors for producing such a great magazine and to tell them of my quarterly blog posts when their current issue hits my mailbox.  They were kind enough to say they’d seen More to Come… in their Google analytics.

Peter Rowan pulled together a bluegrass band for the evening and featured Stanley Brothers’ guitarist George Shuffler on a few numbers.  Rank Stranger was the highlight – a perfect tune for Rowan’s voice and Shuffler’s guitar. 

The disappointment of the night was Dailey and Vincent.   They are the hottest new act in bluegrass, racking up awards right and left.  The playing was technically fine, but it was all just a little too canned and too contrived – even down to stopping songs, cracking a joke or two, and then picking up where they left off.   I finally wandered off to find some dinner, and only returned when I heard the beautiful voice of Tift Merritt.  Part of the “Tradition-Plus” part of Merlefest, she was new to me and brought a jazzy, singer-songwriter sensibility to the night.

The stars were out on a crystal clear night when the stars of the evening, Jerry Douglas and Travis Tritt, walked on stage a little before 10 p.m.   No band, no contrived jokes – just two very talented acoustic musicians.  After a short instrumental, Douglas and Tritt launched into the Allman Brothers’ Come and Go Blues, showcasing Douglas’ bluesy slide and Tritt’s bluesy voice.  They played for an hour-and-a-half, with each entertainer taking a short solo set in the middle, and the energy and musicianship were high throughout.  They played Tritt’s hits (Here’s a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares), a song to warm the heart of this preservationist (Country Ain’t Country No More – about the paving over of land for suburbia), and ended with the old Elvis hit T-R-O-U-B-L-E that Tritt has made his own.  Douglas’ electric dobro was making enough music for a full band as they left a satisfied crowd.

Time to put this one to bed and get ready for a full Friday.

More to come…