PUNCH, PROGRESSIVE BLUEGRASS, PUNCH!: HOW CHRIS THILE CHANGED MY MUSICAL LIFE

By Dan Poorman

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The first time I experienced renowned mandolinist Chris Thile was simultaneously my first time experiencing Nickel Creek, the band Thile formed with Sean and Sara Watkins back in 1989 when the trio were just children.  The first Nickel Creek song I heard came from them as seasoned adults, though, on 2005’s Why Should the Fire Die?, their third major studio album.  It was “When in Rome,” a Thile-penned number boasting some seriously intricate Americana instrumentation and the sweetly ominous lyric, “Where can a dead man go? / The question, with an answer only dead men know.”

Ah, yes, two years after the release of Why Should the Fire Die?, I was fifteen years old and standing in my living room channel-surfing around 5 AM (why that crude hour, I do not recall) when CMT ran the music video for “When in Rome” as part of an early morning “here’s when we play the good stuff” rotation.  I saw Chris Thile in all his glory, ripping on the mando, stomping in puddles with his band mates on what looked like the second level of a dilapidated parking garage, singing about that dead guy and, like, where does he go?*

I didn’t like country music.  I didn’t like bluegrass.  But I was intrigued by Thile and Nickel Creek.

I did some research.  Who was this band playing “progressive bluegrass” on CMT, of all networks?  And, like, when you say “progressive,” do you mean stuff like Rush and Yes and Genesis?  King Crimson?  The stuff I really love?

Well, Thile certainly didn’t skimp on the totally prog concept of virtuosity.  My further listening and Internet scouring showed he was apparently the world’s greatest mandolin player, and not only that, he was also celebrated for his distinctly powerful singing voice: a soaring high register and control like butter.  Most importantly, though, I recognized him almost instantly as a real contemporary songwriter—one of the first individuals of such esteem I really got into.

So I made a vow to myself right then to listen to everything Nickel Creek had ever done (It was in the year 2007, when I’d first discovered them, that they announced an indefinite hiatus), and to follow Thile as he inevitably embarked on other projects.  Oh, and he did, in a big way—in fact, he was already gaining some side-project momentum at the tail end of Nickel Creek’s golden era.

Punch Brothers began as Thile’s studio band for the 2006 album, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground (a solo effort preceded by 2004’s Deceiver, which I highly recommend to anyone doubtful of a bluegrass musician’s ability to play pop-rock just as well).  This group was a bunch of friends in the bluegrass circuit: Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), and Greg Garrison (bass).

And according to Thile, they were all young men with “hearts smashed to pieces,” and perhaps he meant himself especially, because he’d experienced a divorce three years prior and hadn’t written something cathartic enough just yet.  After rehearsing and recording as the How to Grow… lineup, the band of sad saps decided they needed to be just that: a band.

Their first record as Punch Brothers (a reference to the Mark Twain story “Punch, Brothers, Punch!”) was 2008’s Punch, released on the label Nonesuch Records—one noted for its classical music roots.  Thile, actually, was no stranger to classical himself, having released a compilation of works by J.S. Bach (plus some from jazz giant Charlie Parker) with fellow mandolinist Mike Marshall in 2003.

And, oh yeah, Punch‘s crowning achievement was the forty-minute suite in four movements, “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” written obviously with the classical form in mind, and, sure enough, in response to Thile’s troubling divorce.

I’d been putting off my own purchase of Punch before I found the CD at a garage sale for two bucks.  I took it home, listened, and was very satisfied.  The prog kid in me was finally expanding his horizons; I had not stopped to consider until this moment that the real “prog” genre had started—duh!—at the top of Western music history, with Bach and Mozart and all “those guys” composing these gargantuan suites and symphonies.  Like, whoa!  Acoustic instrumentation was arguably more prestigious in that sense! And, wow!  The trajectory of music more or less, you know, grew simpler in face value after the Baroques-had-croaked, what with the eventual conception of the pig-tailed monster that was “pop!”

And, all the same, I realized that, while some pop was subtle in its own technicality, and while some more specific ’70s prog-rock was theatrical in its deviation from the “mainstream,” you were hard-pressed in a naive situation like mine to locate the perfect marriage of both the subtle and the theatrical in a subset of country music.

But I found it in Punch Brothers. The quality was a sense of musical poignancy, but also poetry.  This esoteric band was saying something to me.  Thile, in particular, felt more personable and honest each time I listened to him sing.

Their next album was Antifogmatic, in 2010, and the evolution on this one was very apparent.  They’d parted with original bassist Garrison, replaced him with Paul Kowert, and honed in on a much more melodic sound.  This was still progressive bluegrass, but it was poppy, marketable; it reminded me, actually, of Nickel Creek.  For Antifogmatic, Thile has range not only in his playing, but in his songwriting, on tracks like “You Are,” “Next to the Trash,” and “This is the Song (Good Luck).”

Then it was the BIG one: 2012’s Who’s Feeling Young Now?, Punch Brothers’ most recent full-length release. And, I’m telling you, it still feels like their greatest achievement. Thile is undoubtedly the frontman (though he stops to hand lead vocal duties to Witcher on “Hundred Dollars”), but you can tell this record is above all a vision of the band as a unit.  They are all prodigies.  They are all lending themselves to these songs, in equal measure.  There’s Thile’s percussive ghost notes standing in for drums, Pikelny’s and Witcher’s almost laughable lead chops (you stop to wonder if Noam even has bones in his fingers), and some seriously tight chord comping from Eldridge and Kowert.  The content, even, while chiefly written by different permutations of band members each time, feels universal.  You know you’re listening to a good band when you, the listener, begin to believe that each and every member must agree with each and every lyric on the record.  That, friends, is truly beautiful.

Furthering this intense feeling of unity is what critics, in general, have said about Who’s Feeling Young Now?: It’s not a bluegrass album, it’s something more.  In fact, it’s just as good and hip as your favorite indie rock record.

And with that, it should be noted Chris Thile has never been shy about his affinity for alternative music.  With Nickel Creek and on his own, he’s covered songs by artists like Pavement, The White Stripes, The Strokes, and Mother Mother.  In Nickel Creek’s video for “Smoothie Song,” the band is jamming with Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, for God’s sake.

On Who’s Feeling Young Now?, Punch Brothers do an eerie rendition of the already eerie Radiohead number, “Kid A.”  Yes, that’s an electronic ambient piece, covered by a band of acoustic instruments.  Trust me when I say that’s not their most daring track, either.

Rather, I think that this “indie influence” is even more present in the remaining original songs.  As I listen to the opening track, “Movement and Location,” I am, myself, moved and located.  Thile’s words hold the same weight as something by a really legit ’90s emo band, or even Ben Folds, who is another one of my favorites.  The material is actually funny, offbeat—but it’s also flowery, impressionistic, aesthetically new and challenging.  It’s just downright literary.

Thile sings, “Did he ever live, in those three and twenty years / For a thing but movement and location?”  There he goes again with those rhetorical questions that have me reeling—plus, c’mon, that phrasing of “23”—a tasteful syntactical choice, sir.  Now, Thile has said that the song is about Chicago Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux and his obsession with the movement and location of the baseball, but to me, it could still mean so much more.  There is something about the rising vocal delivery, over a sea of outlandish bluegrass timbres: evocative and indie, man.

And, I won’t do a track-by-track listing, but the band seeks a light-hearted alt-pop state-of-being in the next one, “This Girl,” which tells the curious story of a young man begging his pastor to lend the pretty lady from a few pews down his prophetic blessing, that in fact the two strangers should be together forever.  It goes, “If you would tell her it’s your will for us to be together / I would never bother you again unless you want me to / Hell, we’ll just both hang out with you in heaven when we die.” Talk about a satirical spin on the “Christian bluegrass” stereotype—take that, Duggars!

The title track reminds us why the band is of a genuine progressive slant, musically speaking.  It’s technical, meandering (here, that’s a compliment), and anthemic in a way we’d never guess right out of the hat.  Then, some other highlights: a cleverly creepy lens on (what I think is) an extremely “open” (or flat-out deceptive?) relationship in “Patchwork Girlfriend,” a real howling folk ditty—one that puts Mumford & Sons and all G-major-thumping stompers alike to shame—in “New York City,” and a return to Thile’s playfully sardonic outlook on love and matrimony and moving on in “Don’t Get Married Without Me.”

The album is just really fucking good, guys.

Where is Chris Thile now, you ask?  Well, after Who’s Feeling Young Now?, he won a MacArthur Grant.  That’s the honor wherein you get $500,000 just for being a genius.  Punch Brothers put out a nautical-themed EP called Ahoy! that November.  And by summer 2013, Thile released another Bach compilation, Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1. 

Plus, this year saw the very exciting reunion of Nickel Creek for a new album called A Dotted Line.  Unsurprisingly, it’s great.  I’ll leave you with this live session recording of “The Rest of My Life,” which I shamelessly tacked onto a sentimental Facebook status the day after I graduated from college.  Listen to the lyrics and you’ll understand.

Last week, Punch Brothers made an announcement on their website that they are working on a new record.  In a brief letter, Chris Thile himself addressed his fans with a unique personal task (YOU MUST CLICK HERE).

So, why not?  I’m going to sing along to Thile’s new lyrics and send in my recording.  Whether or not I end up on the Punch Brothers’ new record, it’s the least I can do to help the man who, for the past few years, has set my brain and soul ablaze with his music.

I’m With Bluegrass.

*You must understand that at fifteen, I thought that shit about the dead guy was real deep, rivaled in significance only by the adolescent thoughts yielded from repeated viewings of Donnie Darko.  Not to take away from Thile; his thought, it turned out, was grander and more mature than my silly little affect.

Dan Poorman


There is a lot of cool stuff on the Internet and in the general multimedia-verse related to Chris Thile, Punch Brothers, and Nickel Creek.  Where do I begin?  Nowhere.  I would just start sling-shotting stuff your way.  Below are a few things to get you started, though.

The formation of Punch Brothers, and their subsequent life on the road, was the subject of a 2012 documentary entitled How to Grow a Band, from filmmaker Mark Meatto.  Watch the trailer:

A live session recording of “Quarter Chicken Dark,” a piece from The Goat Rodeo Sessions, a collaboration between Thile, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, and fiddler Stuart Duncan:

Punch Brothers performing their Antifogmatic rendition of a bluegrass traditional, “Rye Whiskey,” on The Late Show with David Letterman, where they’re joined by special guest Steve Martin on banjo:

Punch Brothers covering The Cars’ “Just What I Needed” on The A.V. Club’s 2012 Undercover series:

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