Released a little over a year after Chris Thile took over as host of the public radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, Thanks for Listening collects ten Song of the Week features from his inaugural season. Each song was an original written for that week and premiered live on the show. Finding a common theme among personal, societal, and political topics in some of the songs — namely, the art of listening — Thile headed to the studio with producer Thomas Bartlett to record selections for a cohesive album. On these versions, the mandolin virtuoso covers stringed instruments except bass and viola, and sings lead, though he’s joined on some songs by guest vocalists Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, and Gaby Moreno, all Prairie alumnae under Thile.
One of the album’s flashier mandolin performances can be found on the spare “Balboa,” whose multicultural wanderlust receives intricate and nuanced accompaniment. By and large, though, Thanks for Listening puts a premium on songs over chops, not that there’s any lack of instrumental proficiency here. An atmospheric track like “Feedback Loop,” for instance, uses a slow tempo, keyboards, and echo along with acoustic instruments. After setting an intentionally lethargic tone, lyrics get at our ability to filter unwelcome opinions on social media and elsewhere (“Feedback Loop, I play you to soothe my closed eyes/Closed mind/Open wounds/Open hate for anyone out of the Feedback Loop”). Later, the poppier “Falsetto” grapples with the constant derision, real and imagined, from a post-election Donald Trump, including what he might have to say about an activist musician. Other songs address fatherhood, family gatherings, and friendship in the context of the time’s technology and politics.
Despite its more collaborative origins, Thanks for Listening plays like a singer/songwriter album from Thile, one with moments of humor, poignancy, dread, and playfulness. Particularly “for anyone trying to hear through the din of a boorish year,” it captures the Zeitgeist of the first half of 2017 with a very human touch.
It’s hard to imagine a better producer for Chris Hillman than Tom Petty, who pledged a proud allegiance to the Byrds with his 1976 debut. That was the same year Hillman began his solo career, putting both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers behind him, and if that record didn’t burn up the charts, he wound up finding commercial success in the ’80s as part of the Desert Rose Band. Once that group ran its course, Hillman and fellow Desert Rose Band member Herb Pedersen settled into a groove where they’d record and tour in a variety of configurations. Pedersen produced The Other Side, the 2005 album Hillman assumed was his farewell, but Pedersen convinced Petty to produce a new record and Hillman agreed, winding up with the warm, wonderful Bidin’ My Time. Designed as an intentional stroll through Hillman‘s back pages, the album opens up with “The Bells of Rhymney,” one of several Byrds songs here. “She Don’t Care About Time,” a song written by Gene Clark, is here alongside the rarity “Here She Comes Again,” for which Hillman plays bass for the first time in decades. These are conscious evocations of the Byrds‘ signature jangle, but on the whole, Bidin’ My Time‘s heart belongs to the burnished folk and country of Hillman‘s latter-day records. It’s a cozy sound, one that feels as intimate as a front porch but is delivered with the precision of seasoned pros, and having old tunes — including sweet covers of the Everly Brothers‘ “Walk Right Back” and Tom Petty‘s “Wildflowers” — threaded in between the excellent new tunes from Hillman helps make Bidin’ My Time feel like an understated summation of everything Hillman‘s accomplished in his long, varied career.
Situated in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, there is a small town of Belcher. Listen closely and you might hear what is first thought to be the angels singing. It is the sweet, crystal clear, high tenor voice of Belcher’s own multi-talented son of Bluegrass. Add in his powerful and precise Mandolin, a few licks of his Guitar, Banjo, Bass and Dobro, you have the complete package of Kevin Prater. Kevin began his musical voyage at the age of four. Encouraged and mentored by his Uncle and biggest fan, Boone Estep. At age 10, he formed his first band “Elkhorn Grass” . Elkhorn Grass enjoyed 11 years of touring together. Now, over thirty years later, Kevin has traveled millions of miles, played in 49 States and 23 countries. Kevin has moved from being one of the best sidemen in Bluegrass to leading his own talented and unique band, from the hills of Appalachia, creating that Pure Kentucky Sound of the The Kevin Prater Band.
The Kevin Prater Band grew from a long musical association between Kevin Prater and Tom Timberlake. Beginning with the Timmy Cline Band in 1994 and continuing with Redwing in later years. Years into Kevin’s tenure with The James King Band, Tom began encouraging Kevin to do his own music, with his own band. Tom’s persistence paid off. He put the fire under Kevin to pursue his dream of fronting his own band. Soon they were forming The Kevin Prater Band. They started picking together again and working on new music with a couple of local musicians, playing their first show as “The Kevin Prater Band” in 2009. Kevin has been blessed to showcase his many talents through out his amazing career. His solid rythmn and lead is a driving force of the KPB sound. His vocals are the backbone of the group, which the music is built around. Kevin has surrounded himself with veterans of Bluegrass Music, enabling them to create their unique style of Bluegrass and Gospel Music they are quickly becoming famous for.
Danny Stiltner, is one of the most talented bass players in eastern Kentucky. Danny and Kevin have known each other since childhood, when they used to play local shows around their area. They always said they would love to play together in a band, but didn’t know so many years would go by before it would come to pass. Danny is carrying on a legacy started by his father Blake Stiltner. Danny also contributes to the band vocally.
Tom Timberlake, Is multi talented playing banjo and guitar and singing harmony and lead vocals. Tom knows how to accent the vocals and other instruments and make them truly shine. His harmonies are second to none. He goes out on a limb to make everything work perfectly in the band.
Jake Burrows, Jake, as well as his brother Adam, come to the band with a huge resume of Bluegrass knowledge and experience for their young age. Heavily influenced by Earl Scruggs style, Jake brings a firery
Banjo to the KPB as well as an emotion filled Dobro. Jake has a vast knowledge of Bluegrass music, which is evident in his ability to sing any part.
Adam Burrows, Older brother to Jake, Adam brings an energetic fiddle and the ability to dance the stage while playing and singing. His energy keeps his elder band mates on their toes and entertain crowds. Adam is a true Traditionalist when it comes to Bluegrass. Taking time to learn original styles of many legends in order to preserve the music the way it was mint to be played.
The Kevin Prater Band sound comes from a wide range of influences and musical heroes. The Original Seldom Scene, The Country Gentlemen, Osborne Brothers, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Red Allen, The Stanley Brothers, Boone Estep & The Ramblin Grass are among the different styles of music they have all admired and studied together throughout the years. Also steeped in the tradition of Gospel music, they pride themselves on the a capella hymns and great gospel songs that people have come to enjoy. The band also includes Classic Country and Vintage Rock in their repertoire, insuring no two shows of The Kevin Prater Band are the same.
Members of the band are great friends, enjoy making great music and look forward to a long future together. The band enjoys traveling, reconnecting with old friends, making new fans and hope their music will bring attention to the “Pure Kentucky Bluegrass & Gospel Music” they have become known for. Watch for Kevin Prater and The Kevin Prater Band at a show near you. Great things are happening and they want you to be a part of it.
3x IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year and daughter of bluegrass Dale Ann Bradley celebrates her musical heritage with new original tracks, a classic rock cover and a timeless tribute to Bill Monroe.
“I grew up in a tar and paper covered shack right near Loretta Lynn’s childhood home,” reflects Dale Ann Bradley on her rustic origin in the hills of east Kentucky as a hardscrabble preacher’s daughter. ”It was very different. It was not easy,” she says. And even as a girl, she knew she wanted more. With Somewhere South of Crazy (available August 30th), this three-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year shares what has shaped her life and music, by going deeper—deeper into bluegrass, deeper into her own musical passions, deeper into her own history as a veteran entertainer who spent years singing country music alongside her ‘grass at Kentucky’s venerable Renfro Valley.
The result is a set that ranges from first-generation bluegrass classics through long-cherished favorites to brand new songs from Bradley and her friends—but always, always with her incomparably rich voice and east Kentucky sensibilities right at the center.
The title track provided Bradley with some especially enjoyable moments. “We had the best time writing,” she says of writing—and singing—partner Pam Tillis. “I just love her. We sat down, and she had that title line and the idea, and I came up with the melody and some lines—we had worked on a few different things, but this was the one that we finished, and as soon as we did, I knew it was going to be the title track.” Bill Monroe’s “In Despair” may be more unexpected. “I didn’t plan it as a tribute,” Bradley says with a laugh. “But I hope people will think of it as one. I just wanted to showcase a more traditional side of what I do. But I’m glad it’s coming out on his 100th birthday!” The track “Come Home Good Boy” was more intentional and especially poignant, lending itself to Bradley’s first memory of a funeral, when, at age five, a neighbor boy who served with her uncle in Vietnam returned home in a casket.
A smartly selected crew of singers and players frame Bradley’s tender yet muscular singing to perfection. A couple of her regular bandmembers—harmony singer Kim Fox and banjo man Mike Sumner—make appearances, and so do supple, inventive musicians like the Infamous Stringdusters’ Andy Hall, ace studio fiddler Stuart Duncan, bass stalwart Mike Bub, producer Alison Brown (who doubles on guitar and banjo) and, perhaps most surprisingly yet appropriately, young mandolin phenomena Sierra Hull. All those elements come together in the partnership here with singer, guitarist, songwriter and friend Steve Gulley. “We grew up together,” Bradley notes. “Steve and me—we each know what the other one’s going to do.” Yet as strong as the supporting cast is, the focus is, as always, on Dale Ann and the songs she’s chosen—and as always, they’re a deliciously varied bunch.
To a listener unfamiliar with her unique ability to pull songs from the rock vaults and make them her own, Seals & Crofts’ ‘Summer Breeze,’ will undoubtedly be the biggest surprise, but Bradley sees it as a natural. “I’ve always wanted to do that song,” she says. “I don’t pick out a rock tune just for the sake of having one—it has to be one that I always grew up with, or one that I hear that strikes me as fitting into the mix. Sometimes a melody or lyric will just have that feel, just lend itself to the banjo or something like that—like this one, it almost sounds Celtic to me.”
Some songs, like “I Pressed Through The Crowd” and “Will You Visit Me On Sundays,” have been in Bradley’s repertoire for years, yet were never recorded until now. “I was so tickled when Alison gave the o.k. to ‘Sundays,’” she notes, “because it brings back the traditional country that Steve and I have been singing together for a long, long time. And of course, ‘I Pressed Through The Crowd’—I’ve been doing that one for a long time, and it just keeps getting more and more meaningful to me.” Others are more recent. ‘Leaving Kentucky’ was, ironically enough, started in Nashville, but finished after Bradley moved back to Kentucky.
She grew up in southeastern Kentucky and has lived in the Bluegrass State for most of her life; her father was a coal miner and Baptist minister. Bradley auditioned unsuccessfully for the New Coon Creek Girls in 1988 and then spent the next couple of years working as a solo artist in Renfro Valley. She finally joined New Coon Creek in 1991 and performed on the group’s 1994 Pinecastle Records debut, The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore. Bradley‘s first solo album, East Kentucky Morning, came out in 1997 and largely consisted of compositions by Dale Ann Bradley and New Coon Creek ally Vicki Simmons. The project also featured a celebrated take on U2‘s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which helped the album go Top Ten on both the Gavin Americana and Bluegrass Unlimited charts and earn high critical praise.
In 2004, Bradley released the gospel-themed album Send the Angels via Mountain Home Records. Bradley next signed with the independent label Compass Records, which would bring out her next three albums — 2006’s Catch Tomorrow, 2009’s Don’t Turn Your Back, and 2011’s Somewhere South of Crazy. In 2007, Bradley was named Female Bluegrass Vocalist of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual awards; she would go on to win the award four more times, in 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012. Bradley struck a new recording deal in 2015 with the respected bluegrass label Pinecastle Records. Pinecastle would release Pocket Full of Keys in 2015, which went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award as Best Bluegrass Album. In 2017, she returned with an album simply titled Dale Ann Bradley.
Never Standing Still is the fourth project and second solo effort from the award-winning Shannon Slaughter releasing on Elite Circuit Records on November 15, 2017. Slaughter, a Chris Austin Songwriting Contest Award Winner, contributed 10 original songs written or co-written with industry luminaries such as: Ronnie Bowman, Tim Stafford, Mark “Brink” Brinkman, Dale Felts, Terry Foust and Marla Cannon-Goodman, along with songs by Jake Landers and Roger Rasnake. The well-respected talents of numerous musicians and singers are also showcased on this recording with the talents of: Heather Slaughter, Lou Reid, Shawn Lane, Randy Kohrs, Ron Stewart, Steve Gulley, Ron Inscore, Trevor Watson, Cliff Bailey, Tim Crouch, Doug Jernigan, Josh Shilling, and Tracy Burcham.
More about Shannon Slaughter:
Slaughter is a proud alumnus of numerous leading bluegrass bands counting membership in The Lost & Found, Larry Stephenson Band, Melonie Cannon, Lonesome River Band, Lou Reid & Carolina, and Grasstowne. These bands and bandleaders helped shape the foundation of his band County Clare which he formed in 2010. “Being around leaders like Allen, Dempsey, Larry, Sammy, Lou, and Alan really helped me understand the business side of the music all the while forming the basis for what I would call my sound. They have really been invaluable to my development as a musician and bandleader,” said Slaughter. “I am really proud of the unique sound of County Clare that we have created over the last 7 years.”
In 2012, Slaughter was the 1st Place Winner in the Country division of MerleFest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest for his original song, “I’ve Hit Everything In My Life (But My Knees)“ co-written by Dale Felts and Mark Byrd. He has written songs for Blue Highway, Lonesome River Band, IIIrd Tyme Out, Lou Reid, Mike Bentley, Larry Stephenson, and more. In March 2013, Shannon & Heather Slaughter and County Clare release the album One More Road that included 3 radio chart hits including their killer cover of “If I Were A Carpenter.” Shannon & Heather’s follow-up album Never Just A Song, released in February 2015, included their #1 chart radio hit “That’s What’s Good In America Today” co-written by Shannon as well as other chart songs such as “Moonshiner,” “There Ain’t No Need To Be Lonely,” and “Ridin’ The Lightning, Ropin the Storm.”
THE EARLS OF LEICESTER TAKE THE TOP HONOR OF
“ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR”
AT THE 2017 IBMA AWARDS SHOW
AirPlay Direct is pleased to announce that Rounder Records recording artist, and AirPlay Direct Artist Endorsee Jerry Douglas and The Earls of Leicester took the top honor of “Entertainer of the Year” at the 2017 IBMA Awards Show. And, it doesn’t stop there. The incredible voice of the Earls, Shawn Camp, took home the very well deserved “Male Vocalist of the Year” Award.”
Jerry Douglas states, “It’s always a pleasure coming to IBMA’s, and we’re thrilled and honored to win the Entertainer of the Year Award. Personally, I loved it that so many young people where winning awards last night. Things are moving in the right direction for bluegrass.”
“It was a true honor to win the Male Vocalist of the year,” says Shawn Camp. “It was especially humbling to win this award after seeing greats like Hazel & Alice, Roland White, and my favorite fiddle player Bobby Hicks get inducted in to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Without those folks, I don’t know if I’d be here.”
Another highlight of the event was when Earls of Leicester performed alongside Bluegrass 45, a Japanese bluegrass band celebrating their 50th Anniversary. They performed the Flatt & Scruggs classic “Salty Dog”. The performance was one of the highlights of the evening with energy and comic relief. It consisted of plenty of bowing to each band and even audience participation with the crowd chanting the Japanese version of a dog bark which is pronounced “wan-wan.”
“We are very proud of the on-going accomplishments and awards granted our Artist Endorsee Jerry Douglas and this incredible group of musicians,” says Lynda Weingartz, CEO – AirPlay Direct. “I have known Shawn for many years now, and I am never surprised, but always proud of his talent and successes. Congratulations to everyone on The Earls of Leicester team that greatly contributed to the success of the band this year.”
About AirPlay Direct: AirPlay Direct is the premiere digital delivery / distribution company, brand and platform for engaging radio and airplay worldwide. AirPlay Direct is a professional B2B music business environment for artists, labels, publishing companies, radio promotion firms, PR / Media firms, etc.
AirPlay Direct currently has 10,000+ radio station members over 90 countries, and also serves over 42,000 artist / label members globally on a daily basis. AirPlay Direct currently operates and services the largest global independent radio distribution network in the world with respect to Americana, Bluegrass, Folk, Blues, Alt. Country, Roots Music, etc. AirPlayDirect.com
Kim Robins has blended the sounds of hardcore traditional and progressive bluegrass to produce her debut CD, 40 Years Late – a collection of intimate stories that reflect Robins’ own journey as told through a mix of original songs and remakes of bluegrass and country legends.
Born into a musical family and singing from the age of five in church and in her father’s band, Robins was influenced largely by the music of Connie Smith, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, Ray Price, Bill Monroe, and Barbara Mandrell. She was an original member, and the youngest, of the Little Nashville Opry in Nashville, Indiana. Her mother’s encouragement that she practice daily and sing loud paid off as she traveled all over the country, opening for legends such as Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Barbara Mandrell and The Oak Ridge Boys.
Robins grew up with music in her veins but, at age 19, gave her first love a backseat to a new love – her baby girl. After earning two college degrees, single handedly raising her daughter and establishing a career, Robins met and married renowned banjo player Butch Robins – and her dream of performing music was reignited. With Butch’s encouragement, she started writing music and finding venues to showcase her powerful vocals – starting with singing backup harmony with bluegrass band Misty Stevens and Reminisce Road. Since then, Robins has gained attention with her high-energy, contemporary sound, performing at the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America, The Folk Alliance in Memphis, and opening for Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice at the Historic Jonesborough Bluegrass Series.
All at once feminine yet fierce, transparent yet tough, vulnerable yet versatile, 40 Years Late includes 12 songs that center on the theme of heartbreak and redemption. Of the seven which were written by Robins herself, the title track deals with the heartache and redemption of the relationship between a little girl and her father, and of the heartache and redemption of putting passions on hold. With a hint to her years on the road as a medical sales rep, dreaming of one day being able to perform music again, it speaks to anyone who has given a back seat to dreams:
And years out on the highway has brought me where I am today
We all have a dream but some of us must wait
But we are all defined by the choices that we make
This time I’m gonna make it work, I’m just 40 years late.
Others, of course, deal with romantic heartache and of grace both extended and received. In “It’s Me Again,” written by Sheila Stephen and Jerry Salley, Robins sings from the point of view of a betrayed lover:
When the touch you left me for
Don’t satisfy you anymore
You’ll close your eyes and you’ll pretend
It’s me again.
And, in her original “Cry,” she sings from the point of view of the betrayer:
I tried a million times to tell him but I couldn’t find a way out
They say the truth is hidden in a lie
Until a warm night in autumn, at a motel close to our home
The truth I no longer could deny
Traditional bluegrass fans will enjoy remakes of the likes of Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, and Porter Wagoner, and should keep an ear open for some humor as well. In a tribute to her idol Connie Smith, “I’ve Got My Baby On My Mind,” Robins sneaks in Smith’s trademark hiccup.
Lastly, the CD comes full circle with a bonus track featuring the man who originally ignited Robins’ love for bluegrass – her 82 year-old father — and the man who fanned the flame forty years later – bluegrass great Butch Robins. Of his original album’s namesake, Butch Robins says Kim Robins’ 40 Years Late is in the top 25% of all first time efforts he has ever heard.
Robins has managed to assemble a team for 40 Years Late to produce a sound that is both impeccable and ingenious — legendary musicians including Butch Robins on banjo; Michael Cleveland, International Bluegrass Music Association’s nine-time Fiddle Performer of the Year; Jeff Guernsey, former fiddle player for Vince Gill, on guitar; and Lynn Manzenberger, formerly with The Wildwood Valley Boys, on bass. Cleveland’s mandolin player, Nathan Livers, also played on several tracks. Richard Torstrick engineered and co-produced 40 Years Late, and local favorites Mark Stonecipher, Mike Curtis, Seth Mulder, Misty Stevens and Kent Todd of Blue Mafia also contributed.
Jeff Guernsey says “There is something for everyone, from traditionalist to progressive bluegrass lovers.”
Now married to businessman and college basketball official Mark Gines, Robins resides in her hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, balancing her career as Registered Nurse for a Wound Care Physician, with time enjoyed with her husband, daughter, two stepsons, and two grandchildren. And, some forty years after she started, she is writing, recording, and performing music — proving that, sometimes, even forty years late is right on time.
Wyrick has played banjo with a number of bluegrass groups including the Dale Ann Bradley Band and Brand New Strings and is now a member of Flashback.
His new solo release features top–name bluegrass musicians and a host
of excellent singers.
No one sings “Walking the Floor Over You” like its composer, Ernest Tubb. Originally recorded with just Tubb and Fay “Smitty” Smith on electric guitar, he re–recorded it with the Troubadors. Fiddler Bobby Atcheson doesn’t get air time in this version of Tubb’s many renditions but Tim Crouch shares the kickoff on Wyrick’s version with Keith Garrett singing lead and Kenny Smith covering Billy Byrd’s spot on lead guitar.
The most satisfying Old-time sounds are the ones that hit you straight as an arrow. It’s the fervently rendered tune that transports you to another time and place, but doesn’t allow you to forget that the players are fashioning a deep groove right here and right now. It’s the honest, uncompromised blending of voices in harmony, never watered down by flashy production or a motivation beyond breathing new life into old stories and songs.
This purity of presence is the bread and butter of straight-shooting stringband The Bucking Mules. On their new full-length album “Smoke Behind the Clouds” (April 2017, Free Dirt Records), the Mules treat 17 mostly traditional tracks with their characteristic throw-down groove. They traverse the traditional musical landscape of the Cumberland Plateau, the Tennessee River Valley, the Blue Ridge, and beyond, weaving together a meditation on the region.
Recorded at an old farmhouse in the rolling hills of Floyd, Virginia, “Smoke Behind the Clouds” was self-produced by The Mules with band member Joseph DeJarnette at the helm in the studio. Recorded live—face-to-face in one room—the album unfolds in real time; listeners can trace each spark and hear the band remap familiar ground. “Smoke Behind the Clouds” serves as a mission statement on the organic collaboration and creative process that The Bucking Mules hold dear in their performance of Old-time songs and tunes.
The Bucking Mules consist of some of the finest players on the Old-time scene today: Joseph Decosimo (fiddle, banjo, vocals), Karen Celia Heil (guitar, vocals), Luke Richardson (banjo, harmonica, fiddle, vocals), and Joseph “Joe Bass” DeJarnette (bass). The band cut their teeth in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, paying their dues with elder master musicians and old 78s. Dedicated to teaching the music, they are in-demand at workshops and music camps around the world. Decosimo, a folklorist, specializes in Old-time music.
The result is a group of well-studied musicians with a deep, scholarly understanding of the region’s musical traditions. Yet they distill this reverence for the past into a driving, heartfelt sound—one tailored for contemporary fans of folk, bluegrass, Americana, and more. The Bucking Mules are a backbone in the Old-time community, known for their joyous force in conveying the spirit of this music, but their powerhouse performances continue to win over audiences far beyond that niche. They know how to bust down on a fiddle tune, belt an old song, and move square dancers just as well as they know historic origins and intricacies.
On “Smoke Behind the Clouds,” the group is in conversation with one another, effortlessly trading fiddle, banjo, and harmonica lines like banter between old friends. After all, The Mules are a band born from sitting knee to knee at traditional music gatherings and sharing music, lives, and laughter together deep into the night. This connectedness–to one another, and from the present to past–makes “Smoke Behind the Clouds” an exuberant listen. Favoring joy and simplicity over pretense, The Bucking Mules remind us why this music should never be cast aside as they carve out their place in making sure that it isn’t.
Universal Favorite is the fourth record Noam Pikelny has released under his own name, but it’s truly his solo debut. His previous efforts—including 2011’s Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail and 2014’s landmark Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe—were full-band affairs that revealed his abilities as a dynamic bandleader while reinforcing his reputation as an inventive accompanist. The new release features only the man himself, playing lovely originals and covers that showcase his unique approach to the instrument and compositional flair. He recorded them live in the studio without accompaniment, coaxing a wide array of sounds and colors out of his instruments, embracing the challenges and exploring the new possibilities of the solo setting.
And, for the first time in his long and illustrious career, Pikelny even sings. It turns out he has a striking deadpan baritone that conveys humor and melancholy in equal measure. This album, he says, is “my musical manifesto. It’s the most personal statement I’ve put forward. The setting couldn’t be more stark and I think it lays bare my musical core. At times it’s autobiographical, as these songs I gathered illuminate the path I’ve traveled so far. Most importantly, it’s an incredibly honest solo album, in that there are honestly no other people on this record other than me.”
The idea for this sort-of-debut was born out of a solo tour Pikelny launched in early 2016. Punch Brothers—the Americana supergroup he co-founded in 2006 were taking a break after the release of their innovative 2015 album Phosphorescent Blues, and he took the opportunity to play some shows by himself. “It’s hard to say whether I started doing the one-man solo show because my bandmates were starting families, or if they were starting families because I was doing solo shows and were then inspired to seek greater meaning in their lives as well? We’ll never know, because when someone tells you that they’re having a baby, the proper response is not, ‘Why?’”
It was, however, not simply a case of a sideman taking centerstage. Pikelny may be a seasoned musician—arguably the finest banjoist of his generation, a three-time Grammy nominee and the winner of the first annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass—but he realized that his experience was solely with duos, trios, quartets, and quintets. “I had never played solo on stage—not even for a song. Not once in my life. I never really thought of the banjo as much of a solo instrument; I thought it shone best in collaboration. It began to dawn upon me that if I was instead playing piano comfortably in a five-piece band, I would likely see the piano as an unsuitable solo instrument. Eventually I realized that this was a cop-out and that any good musician, if he finds himself in front of a room full of people, should be able to hold his own with just his instrument and his voice. It was clear to me: If I can stand on stage with a five-piece band to a sold-out Beacon Theater, why couldn’t I stand on stage solo and play to a nearly empty bar?”
He proved that much and more with the tour, for which he assembled a loose set list of new originals and carefully chosen covers by Josh Ritter, Elliott Smith, Roy Acuff, and Roger Miller. “Taking the show on the road really helped break the ice for me. I was able to see the reactions on people’s faces and test the material to see what worked and what didn’t. Having an audience to teach me how to do this was crucial to the process. It confirmed that there was something here, something special and personal that I could deliver in this intimate setting.” Playing solo allowed Pikelny to reconsider the banjo and how he played it, to develop new techniques and new compositional strategies. During a solo set, “you get to hear the banjo in so much detail, and I think there were some surprising elements that people don’t expect. Most people think the banjo is such a staccato instrument where the notes just die immediately, but I had a rare opportunity to exploit the warmth and sustain a banjo can have.”
In Fall 2016 he took those songs into the studio with his fellow Punch Brother, Gabe Witcher producing and longtime Punch engineer, Dave Sinko recording. Otherwise, Universal Favorite is all Pikelny. Opener “Waveland,” named after a street behind the leftfield wall of Wrigley Field, is the sound of a curtain rising, his fingers spidering over the frets, notes like scalloped edges of a great proscenium arch, leading into “Old Banjo” like a dramatic monologue. While he has never been tied to a whipping post after buying wine in Lynchburg, Virginia, the song has personal meaning for the player, as it is one he has been listening to and playing for most of his life. “That song was the very first track on the very first album I ever personally owned. When I was eight, my dad took me to a record store and he bought me this record by a Chicago folk singer named Fleming Brown, called The Little Rosewood Casket… and Other Songs of Joy. That should give you a picture of how my musical life started. It explains a lot. I still have a copy of that album, with my eight-year-old’s handwriting on the back: Property of Noam Pikelny.”
These are highly personal songs—not in the confessional mode, but in a way that maps his adventurous and wide-ranging tastes. He first performed Josh Ritter’s “Folk Bloodbath”—a clever and ultimately heart-rending mash-up of several old murder ballads—when Punch Brothers opened for the Idaho-born singer-songwriter in Boston a few years ago, and joined him on stage for the encore. Understated and thoughtful, Pikelny’s version hinges on his deep voice and thoughtful choice of instrument. “I’ve been told many times that the key to singing is finding material that suits your voice. Well, my voice has been described as funerary, and this song offers some serious bang for its buck. Exceptional funerary value.”
To convey the sense of mystery in that song, he chose an unusual instrument: a resophonic four-string guitar made by National in the 1920s. “It has three metal cones acting as the soundboard. I stumbled upon one once at a guitar shop and was impressed with its ethereal and velvety tone. I did some research on it, and one of the experts on these instruments said this model, when it was introduced in the 1920s, ‘served no musical purpose and that remains true to this day.’ So of course, I had to have it!”
An obsessive collector of vintage instruments, Pikelny is fascinated by the insights they provide into bygone days—the way these objects connect the present with the past. He chose the instruments on Universal Favorite carefully, including the ’53 Fender Telecaster on “My Tears Don’t Show” and the ’38 Kalamazoo KG-11 flat-top guitar on “Sweet Sunny South.” Most of the album was performed on a Gibson banjo that was made in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1941, but was found in the 1980s in a pawnshop in Johannesburg, South Africa, and repatriated back to the U.S. Its tone is rich and earthy, and its tale is captivating: How did this object travel halfway around the world and back again? “Each of these instruments has a unique story and has known the world much longer than I have. Picking them up makes me feel more connected with generations that have come before. Perhaps this bond with old instruments that are filled with character and charisma makes performing solo feel less lonely.”
In fact, the album title was inspired by a banjo made around the turn of the century by the S.S. Stewart company. It was their most popular model of the era, so they named it “Universal Favorite”—a bold marketing move that more than 100 years later elicited a laugh from Pikelny. “I stumbled upon an old catalog of theirs and saw the words ‘Universal Favorite’ and thought, ‘That is the most audacious thing I’ve ever seen. Who would have the gall to make a product and officially name it ‘Universal Favorite?’’”
Universal Favorite carries a great deal of history, yet it remains relevant and bears the artist’s own innovative touch. “I’ve always loved the ability of a great bluegrass or country song to conjure up days gone by but simultaneously be current and ripe for reinterpretation. And the real power is that when music really does its job, when it fully resonates, our world becomes more interconnected. It cultivates a community of people who share in that response. That community can be encapsulated on stage within an orchestra or within a five-piece band. That bond can be between one person standing alone onstage and the people in audience.”