Category: Chris Thile

Chris Thile covers:
Josh Ritter, Jack White, Pavement, Wilco, Bach, Bob Dylan, U2 & more!

October 18th, 2012 — 12:07 am

By definition, receiving the MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant always comes as a surprise: candidates for the five year, no-strings-attached award are nominated through a secretive and anonymous process, and most tend not to know they have even been nominated until that call comes the day of the announcement. The five-year award, for “exceptional creativity, as demonstrated through a track record of significant achievement, and manifest promise for important future advances” is a bit like a Nobel Prize for general awesomeness, socio-culturally speaking, and those who win come from myriad fields: geriatricians, filmmakers, authors, historians, and social services innovators all find themselves eligible, and their ages range, in an average year, from under 30 to over 60.

But if evidence were needed to substantiate their selection criteria, class of 2012 MacArthur Fellow Chris Thile is ample enough in and of himself. Thile is only 31, but those of us who have been watching him since his adolescent emergence on the scene would be hard pressed to consider a worthier recipient of the half a million dollars that come to those named by the MacArthur foundation.

A major player in the progressive acoustic movement – his award cites him as “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” – Thile grew up in the midst of music; his father was an instrument technician, and the family started playing together with the Watkins family as Nickel Creek when Thile was eight, and cut his first solo album with major bluegrass label Sugar Hill at twelve.

With Thile, the band would go on to record five albums: though the first two are impossible to find, the melodic newgrass of Nickel Creek’s turn-of-the-century work was a natural pull for our ears, and we’re proud to say we saw them before their self-titled “debut” – featuring a redefined progressive trio sound, and produced by Alison Krauss – emerged in 2000. The jazz fusion and pop elements of Nickel Creek are as self evident as they are prototypical of the form; their unique sound led to full-band collaborations with Dolly Parton, Darol Anger, Glen Phillips (as Mutual Admiration Society), and more, and paved the way for an explosion of acoustic fusion music which continues in the bluegrass, indie, and folkworlds today.

Nickel Creek put out their last album in 2006; Sara and Sean Watkins have since found their own niches, both as collaborators and solo artists, and we’ve posted their more recent work here before. But since a time long before their dissolution, Thile’s work has been legion: solo albums that range from melodic pop to bouncy bluegrass; cross-genre collaborative work with bassist Edgar Meyer, cellist Yo Yo Ma, fiddler Mark O’Connor, banjo master Bela Fleck, and a veritable host of others; a mandolin concerto entitled Ad astra per alas porci which was commissioned jointly by over a half dozen orchestras internationally. His work with Brooklyn-based high tenor and bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves, which culminated in a 2011 album, has been an exemplary example of the early country duo form, demonstrating how closely and capably he hews to his roots. And, more recently, as heard thrice over in our recent 50-song tribute to Thom Yorke and company, his crossover band Punch Brothers, which combines accessible indiepop with the rhythmic underpinnings and instrumentation of bluegrass and jam fusion forms, has been a major vehicle for his continued evolution.

Throughout, Thile has pushed the envelope of what the mandolin can do, musically speaking, taking on Radiohead songs, traditional work, original compositions, and classical variations with equal skill and whimsy. His newest EP with Punch Brothers, which drops in mid-November, will feature covers of Gillian Welch, among others; below, dip into a mixed bag of coverage from Thile in his various incarnations and team-ups over a scant decade and a half span, culminating in the sweeping pace and majesty of the Punch Brothers’ brand new, haunting, crystal-clear take on Josh Ritter’s Another New World below, and then heard on over to their website to preorder Ahoy! and receive a download of the track as an early bonus.

  • Punch Brothers: Another New World (orig. Josh Ritter) [2012]

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1 comment » | Chris Thile, Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers

Tributes and Cover Compilations Week, Vol. 4: Countryfolk
albums of and from Laura Cantrell, Tom T. Hall, Michael Daves & Chris Thile

April 30th, 2011 — 12:07 pm

Our week-long coverage of this Spring’s fine crop of tribute albums and cover compilations comes to a close today with a trio of albums that fall square on the line between country and folk music. Enjoy!

Sleep With One Eye Open, the collaboration with ex-Nickel Creek founder Chris Thile which Brooklyn-based bluegrass musician Michael Daves alluded to back in February during his appearance at the Joe Val Bluegrass Fest, hits the ground running May 10, and I haven’t been this excited for a bluegrass album in a long, long while.

Daves is one of the best guitarists and vocalists in the business, a constant tour companion with banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka and Roseanne Cash who channels the high tenor tones of his forebears with exquisite deliberation; mandolinist Thile has had no small success bringing bluegrass to a younger, more indie-minded audience, first with Nickel Creek, more recently with his newgrass band Punch Brothers. Unsurprisingly, the combination is gleefully potent, making this a project sure to please fans of multiple generations. And, says Michael, though the male voice mando-guitar duet form is a staple of the bluegrass sound, it was important for us…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.

The set, which is comprised entirely of “traditional” oldtimey tunes and bluegrass standards made popular by Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, The Louvin Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and other bluegrass legends was recorded in Jack White’s Third Man Studios, and will drop on Nonesuch Records on May 10; a single with two more songs – Man In The Mirror and Blue Night – will follow on the 24th. preorder the autographed CD here, or merely pass on your email address at their website, and you’ll be entered to win a Martin guitar…but to be fair, as the promo two-fer below makes clear, the chance to hear these two virtuosos at the top of their game should be more than enough incentive to buy the album.

  • Chris Thile & Michael Daves: You’re Running Wild (pop. The Louvin Brothers)

Laura Cantrell has long been a darling of the countryfolk set, with fans from NYC, where her Saturday-afternoon country show The Radio Thrift Shop became an institution, to Nashville, where she is known among the Grand Ol’ Opry crowd for both her deep, deceptively delicate songwriting and her refined ability to resurrect hidden gems from the early days of acoustic country, and transform more modern pieces from the popular canon in her inimitable singer-songwriter style. And the critics agree, with kudos from Paste to Rolling Stone; no less than UK tastemaker John Peel called her debut, Not The Tremblin’ Kind, his “favourite album of the last 10 years – and possibly my life”.

Her new tribute to country legend Kitty Wells is Cantrell’s most country album yet, with a vividly colorful cover shot reminiscent of the gingham-and-whiskey era which she is here to revive, and instrumentation that suits a modern interpretation of the canon of a long-gone, almost forgotten queen of early country. But folk fans with a penchant for the country side will still find much to love here, most especially in Cantrell’s voice, which remains as sweet as ever, in the gentle, classic slide-and-harmony driven country balladry which pours forth from the speakers, and in the love she brings to what is clearly a project for the ages.

Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music is already out in the UK, while Cantrell tours the country in the wake of the wedding of the century; it will go global on May 17, and can be pre-ordered at her website. The title-track single, a tribute to Kitty herself, is the sole original on the album, making it tough to justify inclusion here, but you can download it for an address at her website; I’ve included her take on Kitty Wells’ 1952 chart hit It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, and a few older, almost-as-countrified covers here, but encourage all to check out the album, and our 2008 feature on Laura Cantrell’s coverage, to see what makes this one worth pursuit.

Bonus Tracks:

Singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall’s children’s album Songs of Fox Hollow was released in 1974, just a year after I was, and to be honest, I’m surprised that I had never heard of it, having grown up in a home full of kidfolk. But that’s the whole point of I Love: Songs of Fox Hollow, an album tribute which aims to introduce a new generation to a gentle, playful kids’ album which was, apparently, born of Hall’s attempt to explain the working of his Kentucky farm to his two young nephews after a memorable summer spent together among the chicken coops, goat herds, and hayfields.

The songs, which speak of conservation and care, fit as neatly into the modern movement towards agro- and eco-sensitivity as they surely did in the seventies, and their reimagining here in the hands of Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Bobby Bare, Elizabeth Cook and others is sweet and gentle. The result is an album as accessible as it is unabashedly country-slash-Americana, simple and direct in language and rhyme, a perfect album for kids of all ages. It drops May 25, but can and should be streamed in its entirety at the project’s website.

Previously on Tributes and Cover Compilations Week:

528 comments » | Chris Thile, Compilations & Tribute Albums, Countryfolk, Laura Cantrell, Michael Daves, Tribute Albums

Covered In Folk: Classical Music (Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, David Wilcox, Brooks Williams, etc.)

March 26th, 2008 — 02:05 am

Most people think of modern folk music as inherently coupled with the singer-songwriter movement. And it is true that, once upon a time, those who would grow up to become the folk troubadors of their own tomorrows learned their songs the traditional way, at the knees of their elders, that they, too, might pass old songs on to a new generation, and tell their own stories in familiar forms.

But the primary instruments of folk music turn out to be more versatile than the folk tradition would suggest. And though many modern musicians surely came to folk the old-fashioned way, through listening and picking, plenty others have grown up in modern home environments and schools where formal lessons are a norm. Today’s radio dial speaks in a variety of tongues and timbres. And a parent’s treasured record collection allows for a broad base of source material far richer than that which can be learned from the old folkie or bluesman next door.

The result has been a world in which the potential for early imitation can come from almost anywhere, and does. And as the ways we listen, store, pass along and learn our music change, so does the method by which musicians gain their craft, and stretch it out. It is a world of crossover, in which classical cellist Yo Yo Ma sits in with James Taylor in concert, The Kronos Quartet plays the hell out of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, and bluegrass musicians like Bela Fleck cut entire albums of classical music. And, since all these remain the music of the folk, for the folk, and by the folk, when the sound comes together just right, it’s still folk music if we want it to be.

On one level, then, like indiefolk, folk rock, and Celtic Punk, the inclusion of classical music in the folk musician’s repertoire is just another example of the hyphenate hybridization of genre which is so common in the world of modern music. But on another level, I think there is reason to celebrate this phenomenon as something very special.

For one thing, the ability to interpret classical themes and motifs effectively is not something that all kinds of folk musicians are even capable of. Doing so calls upon a kind of technical adeptness that is anathema to the strum patterns so prevalent in folk musicians who have learned their trade from blues or rock.

On an even grander scale, making classical music “come out” as folk collapses an exceptional historical dichotomy which presents classical music as the exact opposite of folk music. To take a form which its composers and its audiences have long maintained is so complex, so rarified, that it can only be fully appreciated after years of careful listening and quiet appreciation, and put it in the hands of musicians and instruments which are, by definition, “jus’ folk”, is a revolutionary act on a scale far beyond that of any other folk hybrid form.

In other words: it takes both skill and guts to do this. And perhaps this is why, though the passage of melody and theme from the commonfolk to the highbrow has been a common theme in classical music for over a century, from Bartok to Copeland, it remains rare to hear serious application of classical music to the instrumentation of folk, at least in the hands of musicians who themselves identify as coming from the folk tradition.

Today’s coversongs involve neither songwriting nor singing, for the most part. Instead, here’s a surprisingly diverse set of genuine classical music played on acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and other rude country noisemakers by a set of musicians from many folk traditions: contradance, “true” folk, flamenco, Klezmer, the bluegrass and appalachian camps. One hand, this is nothing more than another example of the same phenomenon that makes electronic folk a legitimate (albeit still very fuzzy) term in the hands of promoters and artists. On another level, this is more folk than anything else, a set of adept artists bravely trading on their popular cache to bring cake to the breadline. Relax, and enjoy.

As always here on Cover Lay Down, all song and artist links above go direct to label and artist websites, where you can and should purchase these and other incredible soundscapes. Because while buying your music instead of downloading it might be a classical model, supporting artists without the middlemen is most definitely folk.

210 comments » | Bela Fleck, Brooks Williams, Carlo Aonzo, Chris Thile, Classical, David Wilcox, Flamenco, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, Romero, Shawn Colvin, Shirim