It was announced a few months ago that bluegrass’ own Chris Thile will be awarded a MacArthur genius grant. Congratulations. There isn’t a more deserving artist. But hold your applause. His award is eclipsed by the honor he is receiving this week: An Album Of The Week! (Now you can applaud, toss your hats, throw your babies in the air, etc.)
In 2006, Thile released a solo project entitled How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. The album was unveiled at the end of his Nickel Creek days, and marked the beginning of a new chapter in Thile’s amazing musical career. The project presented a new band featuring Chris Eldridge, Noam Pikelny, Gabe Witcher, and Greg Garrison. Originally dubbed “How To Grow A Band,” the band name was changed soon afterwards to what we know them as now: Punch Brothers.
It is hard for me to grasp that The Punch Brothers have been around for seven years! Maybe it’s because their music still sounds so ahead of its time. Their unique blend of bluegrass with elements from rock and classical music still seems odd conceptually, but in the hands of these masters it works beautifully. One of the biggest signs of Thile trying to separate The Punch Brothers’ sound from Nickel Creek, was by utilizing traditional bluegrass instrumentation. The guys are even known to play a “real bluegrass” tune now and then, and play it just as well as their progressive pieces.
The version here of Jimmie Rodgers’ Brakeman’s Blues proves to traditionalists that these fellas can perform old school bluegrass with the best. I would love to see them record an entire album of straight bluegrass songs like this one, just to prove the naysayers wrong.
Thile’s is a little different than Bill Monroe’s classic rendition. While it is one of the most traditional sounding songs in Thile’s repertoire, he still performs it his own way. The fervor and feeling with which he plays the mandolin is one reason he is an iconic figure in modern American music. The song showcased him with a grassier-edge than had found in the later Nickel Creek albums; however, his unique touch is not lost, making the track purely Thile. Chris Eldridge’s lead guitar playing also shines on this cut, which is a real treat.
Another song that bridges the gap between traditional and progressive schools of thought is the modern fiddle tune, Cazadero. Gabe Witcher’s fiddle playing is showcased. He implements a traditional flavor, while maintaining a contemporary touch.
The Punch Brothers also revamp a Gillian Welch tune, Wayside (Back In Time), which appeared on her 2003 release, Soul Journey. This is one of several Welch songs to receive a bluegrass makeover. Originally a slower, reflective piece, it is transformed here into an uptempo, full-fledged bluegrass number. Filled with memories of railcars, fresh peaches, and young love, this is a fun song to sing along.
Gillian Welch is not the only artist to see one of their songs “Punched.” The White Stripes’ Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground gets a facelift as well. Leave it to Thile to lay some Monroe-mandolin licks to a modern rock song. The band has a blast trading instrumental breaks and shouting along with the chorus. Chris seems to let loose, cranking his energy up to an unprecedented level. He plays and sings with aggressiveness, a far cry from Nickel Creek’s When You Come back Down.
Chris does revisit his sensitive Nickel Creek side a bit, most beautifully on his original, You’re An Angel And I’m Gonna Cry. His singing and mandolin playing are appropriate as always. Noam Pikelny’s beautiful banjo is the best decision on this track; his melodic playing strengthens the song’s sentiment. The amount of restraint shown by both Thile and Pikelny make this the most tender track on the album. In contrast to the “wide open” manner of Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground, You’re An Angel And I’m Gonna Cry is more subdued, taking the song to the brink of tears and leaving it there brilliantly.
How To Grow A Woman From The Ground was the perfect introduction to The Punch Brothers. By separating themselves, not only from Nickel Creek, but from other artists in general, they proved they were a force to be reckoned with in 21st century bluegrass and acoustic music.
How To Grow A Woman From The Ground is available on Sugar Hill Records (SUG-4017). It can be ordered from County Sales or the Classic Country Connection. It also available for digital download via iTunes or AmazonMP3.