Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail – Noam Pikelny

Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail, the latest recorded offering from banjoist extraordinaire Noam Pikelny, is available today (10/25) on Compass Records.

Yesterday’s hilarious Funny Or Die video notwithstanding, this is an almost-entirely instrumental project, with two lone vocal tracks, featuring the haunting voice of Aoifé O’Donovan on the one, and Tim O’Brien’s soulful singing on the other.

Noam is supported by a who’s who of monstrous superpickers, including his Punch Brothers cohorts Chris Eldridge and Gabe Witcher, who produced. A primary rhythm section is used throughout, giving the album a true band feel. Jerry Douglas in on reso-guitar, Mark Schatz on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Tim O’Brien on mandolin on the bulk of the tracks.

Special guest spots include appearances by Chris Thile on mandolin, David Grier and Bryan Sutton on guitar, Paul Cowert on bass, and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle. Plus Steve Martin pops in for a cameo on a clawhammer/3 finger banjo duet.

I had a chance to speak with Noam at some length about this project, and as with our previous discussions, he comes across as a very thoughtful and serious musician. Hearing him describe the way he sets goals for himself as a soloist – quite lofty ones, I should say – and then dedicates himself to achieving them in a year’s time, sounded a bit like a world a class sprinter trying to shave a few seconds off their best time. In this case, however, Noam was working to expand the capabilities of the five string banjo in modern string music in ways it hasn’t been attempted before.

But all seriousness aside, anyone who has caught Noam with Punch Brothers knows that he possesses a a wicked wit and a whimsical sense of humor, offered with a stone-cold deadpan delivery. For further verification, I refer you again to the video released yesterday.

Our discussion started with my curiosity about the album’s name.

“I have been saving that title for a few years. When I was living in Nashville and working with Chris Thile as The Tensions Mounting Boys, we found ourselves looking for a new band name (at the request of our label and management). I went to the big city library and found this book of mostly southern regionalisms.

Searching through the book, I came across ‘beat the devil and carry a rail,’ an old expression for a handicapping practice where the favorite in a race was expected to carry a rail to slow them down.

It must be either extremely antiquated or aprocyphal. Its meaning is either to triumph against all odds, or a very decisive end. I loved the imagery of it, and have been waiting for a chance to use it.”

We also talked about a number of the songs and tunes on the album, starting with another catchy title, My Mother Thinks I’m A Lawyer, co-written with Gabe Witcher.

“This is one of the last things I wrote for the record. I had all these tunes finished and figured I needed something else in a triple meter. So I sat down to write something with a jig feel, and came up with a little melody idea that worked in both B and E.

The tune started with an Irish feel, but the more I played it, it was becoming this strange, ragtime feeling thing. I had been listening to a bunch of Vess Ossman recordings, and was really inspired by that I guess. I hadn’t intended to go in that direction.

My Mother Thinks I’m A Lawyer: []

The solo was largely improvised. I was thinking of how a steel player like Speedy West or Joachim Murphy might approach it. I had a few ideas about how I would start it out, but the rest came to me in real time.

The title is a joke, of course, which came from when I was trying to figure out what to name this album before I remembered ‘beat the devil.’

I had a few other names floating around… ‘the expanding banjo universe,’  ‘I am dark energy.’ I sent a few of these silly ideas to some folks, including Steve Martin. He felt strongly that I should not have a joke as the album title.

Then he wrote back to say maybe you should call it My Mother Thinks I’m A Lawyer.”

One of the strongest tracks to my ear is Fish and Bird, a plaintive love song written by Tom Waits, which he composed for the play Alice. It uses a deceptively simple allegory to tell the story of star-crossed British literary lovers, Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell.

When I first heard this on the CD, John Hartford immediately came to mind, which Noam says was no accident.

“I only recently stumbled upon Tom Waits in the past few years. At Telluride in 2010 we closed the show at the Sheraton Opera House, and I went over to some friends’ house after the late night show. We got to talking about Tom Waits, and I admitted I had not listened to his music.

So we put on Alice at 5:00 a.m., and listened all the way though. The album really spoke to me, and I started pursuing his other recordings

Fish And Bird really struck me from the first. I saw Aoifé a few weeks after Telluride, and I told her about encountering the music. Her thought was that she and I should work up a version of that tune. We came up with a simple duo version, and when it was time to do this record, and I was deciding whether to do all instrumental or include some vocals, thinking about this one made the decision much easier.

Gabe had encouraged me to include a couple of vocals, saying that one of my strongest skills was playing behind a vocalist. We cut it mostly live, except for the accordion part which was added later.

Fish and Bird: []

The song is really special to me as well because I was playing one of John Hartford’s Deering banjos. I asked Béla if I could use one of Hartford’s banjos that he owns, and he graciously offered me the instrument. I was afraid to even change the strings.

We were looking for the right key, and I tried several different tunings, ending up with open Eb (G tuning lowered 2 whole steps).

I wasn’t specifically trying to quote any exact licks of his, but the Hartford feeling came through. John was at the top of my list of favorite players, and I only found him after I had been playing for many years. It took me a long time to get to his music, but he is probably my favorite to listen to now.

I think he’s the gold standard as far being an artist and entertainer in our world – plus a true virtuoso on his instrument.”

Th aforementioned banjo duet with Steve Martin also showcases Noam’s strengths as a banjoist. His skills as an accompanist are evident when he’s supporting Steve’s banjo, and his improvisational chops shine when the focus turns to him. The synergy between the two banjos is captivating throughout.

“I wanted to do some small pairings for more traditional tunes, and thought that a double banjo thing would be fun. This last couple years as I’ve gotten to know Steve, make music with him, and be around him, we would always seem to find ourselves playing a clawhammer/bluegrass banjo duet.

When this record was starting to come into focus, I asked if he would like to do this one. Our tones and approaches are so different that hearing them side by side really illuminates the differences in a very beautiful way. The Cuckoo was another tune we considered, but we settled on Cluck Old Hen. It was the first one we recorded for the album.

I was a bit nervous about how we would pull it off. This tune has been recorded a million times… how are we going to make it special or relevant?

We were very careful with the arrangement. We got into the studio and played it a bunch of times, and tried to keep the most spontaneous cut. Steve laid down a perfect rhythmic base for the improvisation. ”

Cluck Old Hen: []

Bear Dog Grit is another tune of Noam’s whose title suggested itself from that big book of southernisms. He told us that the phrase is a colorful term for tenacity.

The piece has a fierceness to it that suits the title, and a structure that seems to wander back and forth between chordal and atonal forms.

“That tune started with just an A and B part I wrote, knowing that it would be a duet with Thile. I went over to his house so that we could collaborate on a bridge. He is so creative harmonically… he was able to take fragments of the melodies I had, and suggest all these other zones where we could go with the bridge.

As we were playing it, I thought ‘We should get Bryan Sutton to play on this track.’ We hadn’t played together since he filled in with us in How To Grow A Band several years ago, and it seemed obvious that we needed Bryan for this one.

This was the last thing we recorded. Chris and I finished writing it at Telluride, and recorded it a few days later in Nashville.

I took some real liberties with this one during my improvisation. It’s such a joy to play with these guys, and I felt the freedom to go for it.”

Bear Dog Grit:[]

Let’s take a quick look at two more tracks before we send you over to the Compass site for more information.

Pineywoods is a banjo/fiddle duet with more than a passing resemblance to Temperance Reel, played with Stuart Duncan.

“This is taken from Art Stamper’s version, which I learned from Jason Carter. He and I would play it backstage for fun back when Leftover Salmon was touring with Del McCoury. My solo is almost an exact transcription of Art’s fiddle playing.

It was probably the most traditional track I have ever played in the studio, and I was terribly nervous before we started. If I’m going to play a song like that, it’s me throwing my hat into the ring playing a straightahead song. It may not be as technically difficult as something from The Blind Leaving The Blind, but that stuff had been something that my career had been leading to, whereas here I was inviting comparison with the great traditional players.”

Pineywoods: []

And lastly, All Git Out, another tune of Noam’s that demonstrates his remarkable agility playing in closed positions near the top of the neck. It’s not only demanding technically to pull this off, but it requires a degree of concentration possessed by very few to maintain tonal consistency as he does on this track.

It’s a sign of true virtuosity, which Noam describes with his trademark humility:

“I didn’t want it to sound as difficult as it is to play.

This was certainly influenced by cool country Telecaster-style playing.

I guess I was trying to write a breakdown in my own voice for the banjo. It became something of a monster. I guess its a modern banjo breakdown, using the vocabulary of my style to create the melody of the song – the same way that Scruggs’ vocabulary of rolls and licks would supply the basis for Shuckin’ The Corn.”

All Git Out: []

Whew… This record is a powerful statement of Pikelny’s technical prowess, vision as an arranger, and cleverness as a composer for the banjo.

Don’t miss Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail if you care about where the five string banjo is headed, both in and outside of bluegrass.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.