Category: Punch Brothers

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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