Critter comes to Oberlin – Chris Eldridge as visiting professor

Chris Eldridge, guitarist with Punch Brothers and noted soloist and educator, has been named as a Visiting Associate Professor of Contemporary American Acoustic Music at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The appointment begins with the Spring 2021 semester, running through the Summer and Fall semesters.

Chris, know as ‘Critter’ to his family and friends, has been active in bluegrass music since he was in high school. His skills on the guitar became such that his dad, Ben Eldridge, would invite him to join Seldom Scene on stage while Chris was still in high school. That was a very different look for the burgeoning guitar hero, with long straight hair half way down his back.

He came by the nickname in the grassiest way imaginable, being called ‘Critter’ by the one and only Tony Rice, for the way he was always scampering around when the adults were picking and socializing. The name stuck.

When we caught up with Chris this morning, he was in Nashville with his Punch Brothers, working on material for their next recording, and their two live stream concerts this week and next.

“Everybody just came in… we circled up to start working on a record, so we’re doing these live streams while we’re all in Nashville. We haven’t seen each other since we played a private gig in January. It really feels nice.

Punch Brothers is a crazy band, but there’s something really comfortable about it. It pushes you in uncomfortable ways.”

Eldridge is an Oberlin graduate (2004), so he jumped at the chance to return as a visiting professor. He will start offering classes and lessons virtually in January, hoping to spend time on campus when things open up again.

We asked what led a bluegrass kid from Fredericksburg, VA to attend Oberlin, all the way in Ohio.

“I enrolled in the college to study math. They have such good academics, a great faculty, and a lot of brilliant students. When we visited in high school, my mother and I saw the Oberlin Orchestra performing. They played a piece by Stravinsky with a piano soloist, and they were incredible. The soloist was a star student… it was this amazing, crazy, dense music, and at that moment I thought, ‘if I could go to school here where people are playing music like this, I would love it!’

When I was young, I had no intention of being a professional musician. I grew up in the paradigm of the Seldom Scene, where all the guys had fairly intense day jobs, but also had this band which was really great. I always figured I would follow in those footsteps.

Once I got to Oberlin, I ended up not even studying math, and immersed myself in music.”

As it happens, this opportunity to be a visiting scholar came by way of Ed Helms, who has endowed the Oberlin Conservatory to enhance its music program with more roots music. Helms, the famous actor, is himself an Oberlin grad, and a major supporter of bluegrass, folk, and Americana music.

“Ed went to Oberlin (’96), and he and I have become good friends over the years. At a certain point about seven or eight years ago, he created some funding to bring Americana roots music to the Oberlin Conservatory. That led to Punch Brothers coming in several times one year, doing small concerts, and teaching lessons. It was a really great experience, and we got a lot out of it.

There’s something really energizing and invigorating being in that environment. We would not only teach, but use the time together to write and work on music. It’s a charged environment being around these bright, switched-on kids.”

And what of the instruction he will offer at Oberlin?

“I’m putting together a syllabus now, and having conversations with the associate dean, Peter Swendsen. I’ll probably do a class that explores bluegrass and related music over a certain time period – somewhere between music history and music appreciation, introducing them to American string band music.

These courses will be open to both college and conservatory students, and I’m hoping to keep class sizes small.”

But a big part of his desire for working with Oberlin students is to impart the lessons he has learned from spending the past 16 years as a professional musician. Shortly after his graduation in 2004, Critter left his first full time band, The Infamous Stringdusters, to be a part of Chris Thile’s vision for a new kind of bluegrass ensemble, one that would eventually morph into what we know today as Punch Brothers.

“I also want to teach a class on musicianship, the different things I have learned as a pro musician that helped me grow and thrive. Cultivating musicianship, cultivating your best self… it’s very easy to get in our own way, with the common universal traps we fall in to. Focusing in and trying to understand these things have helped me in many ways in my music.

This will be fundamental, basic musicianship stuff – kind of through mindfulness. I think these can hopefully be of value to anyone in music, looking at the human potential side of things.”

His animation built the more he talked about returning to the old school, this time as an educator. The excitement clearly was bubbling up.

“I’m excited for the chance to interact with these students, offering a different perspective than what they are getting from the conservatory. These students are smart, curious, and driven. I’m super-psyched to spend some time with them next year.

Just incredibly excited about it. Oberlin is such a great school… a great bubble, it’s own little bubble in the middle of Ohio.”

The students there are quite fortunate for this opportunity.

Let’s finish with another look at Punch Brothers during their time at the Conservatory in 2014.

Congratulations, Critter. You’ve earned this moment.

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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.