Chris Thile — MacArthur Fellow, “Mandolin God” (Rolling Stone Magazine), successor to Garrison Keiler and multi-Grammy Award winner — is stuck in a rut. Not artistically and spiritually, but literally. As we discuss his upcoming tour with his bluegrass Americana band Punch Brothers, he’s dealing with the tundra-like conditions of Conway, Arkansas after a solo show at Reynolds Hall.
Careerwise, he’s still plowing ahead.
In June, Thile released his sparse solo album “Laysongs” (Nonesuch Records, 2021) — just his mandolin and his voice on delicate, meditative and spiritual songs. This followed his heavyweight string quartet collaboration “Not Our First Goat Rodeo” with stalwarts Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma (Sony Masterworks, 2020), a decade-long follow-up to their first collaborative Grammy-winning effort. He also reunited with his first band, the incredibly popular and ubiquitous bluegrass trio Nickel Creek for several live-streamed concerts last February.
Until June 2020, he also served as the host of “Live from Here with Chris Thile,” a millennial take on “A Prairie Home Companion,” which ended due to the difficulty of bringing in musicians for live recording sessions during the pandemic. (While he admits “Live from Here” will not return in its same iteration, he remains hopeful: “I definitely could see pursuing something like it. I really enjoyed getting to regularly commune with other musicians.”)
And there have still been festivals, one-off concerts and small tours, too, like the kind that can get you stuck in a snowstorm.
But today, as Thile navigates icy roads we discuss Punch Brothers’ newest record “Hell on Church Street.”
Punch Brothers — who last played at The Anthem in September 2018 while on tour for “All Ashore” (which later won the 2019 Grammy for Best Folk Album) — wanted to record their sixth studio album. But because of the pandemic, they didn’t have their usual time of writing and rehearsing together. They wanted a solution that wouldn’t require the band to quarantine together away from their families for long periods of time during the recording processes.
“Noam [Pikelny], our banjo player, brought up a set we had done at the RockyGrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado, where we covered Tony (Rice)’s whole record,” Thile recalls. “Fireworks started going off in my head thinking if we were able to have a couple days experimenting in the studio, we might be able to do something really interesting with that.”
Thile explains when traveling to bluegrass festivals, Punch Brothers will sometimes opt to do a thematic set to surprise audiences who travel from afar to see them perform. At the 2019 festival, they covered Tony Rice’s “Church Street Blues.” Thile says it “was our best instinct” to perform this classic folk album and it “yielded a lot of interesting moments.”
Thile and his bandmates — Gabe Witcher (violin/fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass) — were just little lads when this paragon of Americana songs was recorded in 1983, but Rice was a true hero of modern folk music as well as a friend and mentor to several of the bandmates. Eldridge studied under Rice.
Rice’s “Church Street Blues” displays his virtuosic acoustic guitar playing across a series of cover songs from the likes of Norman Blake, Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe and Gordon Lightfoot, in addition to traditional folk songs. His DNA is in every note of that album, so much so that the works all transcend the concept of cover songs.
Likewise, Punch Brothers’ “Hell on Church Street” is not covers from Rice’s interpretations either.
“The album is this opportunity to enter into real conversations with these musicians whose work you’re interacting with,” Thile says in reference to Rice and Dylan and Lightfoot (and so on), “but it’s no kind of conversation at all if you’re just repeating back what they already said.”
Punch Brothers create their own distinctive takes complete with rich harmonizing, twangy strings and jangly plucking, and in the closing “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” go full-on mid-2020 sea shanty while embracing what Thile admires as “Tony’s spirit of adventure.”
With the limitations of time and the spark of inspiration, the band embarked on a quick recording session at Blackbird Studio in Nashville in November 2020.
“We fully intended to have the nerve-wracking experience of presenting and playing the album for him,” Thile shares, but Rice died suddenly on Christmas Day. “We were all crestfallen.”
“Hell on Church Street” is now a memorial to one of the greats of American music.
Thile states, “He was always chasing the music he was hearing in his head that he wasn’t hearing out in the world. Never content to just recreate things that have always already happened, but hell-bent on creating new sounds.”
Punch Brothers, one of the great acoustic bands of this generation, will slow down, stop by and pay tribute to Rice at the Lincoln Theatre later this month. And what’s next for the always on-the-go Thile?
“I’ll just keep following my ear,” Thile laughs. “The wider I can open my ears, the better my life becomes and the more opportunities for making good music happens.”
Punch Brothers play a sold-out show at Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, February 26. Tickets remain available for the Sunday, February 27 show and may be purchased for $40. Doors open at 8 p.m. Haley Heynderickx opens. For more information about the show visit here. Follow Punch Brothers here and on Instagram @punchbrothers.
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