Chris Thile and Michael Daves

Chris Thile has engendered minor controversy in the bluegrass community since he began to veer off the main road with Nickel Creek in 2002. Rightly celebrated as an enfant terrible in the ’90s, Thile’s unpredictable musical adventures often left his early fans scratching their heads, even as he captured new ones with each new venture.

Punch Brothers, his primary current performance vehicle, is his most conventional in some time, but with a twist. The format is the traditional bluegrass band that Bill Monroe gave us (mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass), but they use this familiar ensemble to produce music that Big Mon would never have imagined. Personally, I find them plainly brilliant, and never miss an opportunity to catch them live, though their music can be challenging for many bluegrass fans.

Now here comes Chris with a new project that finds him diving deep into the roots of bluegrass music. His partner for this album is Michael Daves, a Georgia boy who, like Chris, grew up playing bluegrass and was looking to branch out a bit in early adulthood. The pair found themselves in New York at the same time in 2005, and met at a jam session in the Village.

Michael recalled their first meeting…

“I was very surprised to see Chris show up; it had been kind of a dead night. He hung out talking to some people and we ended up playing a couple of tunes together. After everybody else had stopped playing and things were dying down, we went off to a corner and ended up jamming for a couple of hours. I knew he played the mandolin in a refined technical manner while I found myself more interested in basic, raw stuff. But once we started playing we totally hit it off and I realized he was a very adventurous musician. We went to places musically, even in that first meeting, that I had never gone to with other players, so it was really exciting just for that experience itself, to be so pleasantly surprised at how much Chris had to offer beyond his technical prowess, beyond the very clean presentation of Nickel Creek. He was really going for it.”

They quickly found themselves kindred spirits, and began to play together more regularly. Talk of a duo recording popped up early on, but they held off waiting for a concept that suited their “ragged but right” jams and live shows. Finally, it was decided that the best bet was to record live in the studio, and aim to capture the frenetic energy that these two bring out in each other. They spent 4 days in Nashville last year doing just that.

The vibe might be described as a highly-improvisational, 21st century version of the classic Skaggs & Rice record – minus Ricky and Tony’s slavish devotion to the pre-bluegrass duet tradition. These two clearly know and love the music and play it with reckless abandon.

Thile knew that he wanted to bring White Stripes/Raconteurs guitarist Jack White into the process, and tried to get him to produce. Though his schedule coldn’t allow it, he did produce two tracks and gave Chris and Michael free rein of his studio to complete the project.

Thile offered this brief synopsis…

“Mandolin and guitar and two male voices—it’s such a good sound. It was important for us was to get that brother duet thing, but with this Lower East Side punk energy. One of the most enjoyable things about this experience was to underline the slightly delinquent side of bluegrass.

It was awesome knowing that Jack White, whose music I love, was liable to poke his head in at any time.

Jack was really, really generous and let us cut the whole record at his place on his beautiful two-inch eight-track machines. It was just so much fun, man, like records ought to be—all ribbon mics and not that many of ‘em, and singing into just one RCA 77. It’s just like we do live, huddled around a microphone doing our best.”

The result is Sleep With One Eye Open, which will be released May 10 on Nonesuch Records. Of the 23 songs they recorded, 16 were chosen for inclusion, primarily songs that had been recorded by bluegrass pioneers like Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. In addition to the beloved Lester and Earl title track, they also perform Loneliness and Desperation, and Bury Me Beneath The Willow – also part of Skaggs & Rice in 1980.

The pair will do three nights at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York starting on May 10, but there is no official word about additional touring as yet.

Sleep With One Eye Open is likely to delight a wide swath of the bluegrass, old time, alt-country, and Punch Brothers fan base. Can’t wait.

UPDATE 11:50 a.m. – It looks like I spoke too soon… Just this morning, a slew of Thile & Daves tour dates were announced:

  • May 10-12, Rockwood Music Hall, New York, NY SOLD OUT
  • May 13, Down By The River Festival, Roanoke, VA
  • May 17, Smiths Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA
  • May 18, The Square Room, Knoxville, TN
  • May 19, The Southern, Charlottesville, VA
  • May 21, World Café Live, Philadelphia, PA
  • May 22, Rams Head on Stage, Annapolis, MD
  • May 24, Brighton Music Hall, Boston, MA
  • May 25, One Longfellow Square, Portland, ME

Tickets go on sale this Friday.

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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.