To hear Nickel Creek’s mandolin phenom Chris Thile tell it, when he wound up putting together a bluegrass band and making a bluegrass record, no one was more surprised than him. For though the 25 year old musician’s first two solo albums (in his teens) were filled with cutting-edge, yet still traditionally-grounded bluegrass, the evolution of his own career and that of Nickel Creek had taken him into so far into the larger world of music that it sometimes seemed as if the terrain that gave him his start was little more than a youthful launching pad. Acclaimed as one of the most inventive musicians of his (or any other) generation, it was easy to see how his talent could—and did—take him in any direction.
That’s not to say that Thile had given up on bluegrass altogether. His third solo album, Not All Who Wander Are Lost, contained more than a hint of his musical roots, while guest appearances on recordings and in performance with artists like Dolly Parton, The Dixie Chicks and Edgar Meyer exhibited a brilliant and ongoing engagement with the style. Still, the growing inventiveness heard on Nickel Creek’s breathtaking—and best-selling—albums and shows; the pop-rock roots of the Mutual Admiration Society album and tour; the out-and-out rock of Thile’s late 2004 solo effort, Deceiver, and the wide sweep of mandolin virtuosity embodied in his 2006 album of live duets with Mike Marshall all suggested that a bluegrass album would be the last thing on his mind.
But though the path that brought Thile to How To Grow A Woman From The Ground was neither straight nor predestined, the journey has led not only to a bold and exciting take on bluegrass, but to a renewed commitment to make it an integral part of an already striking career.
“When you grow up with something, you can become so familiar with it that you start to take it for granted,” Chris says. “And especially when you grow up playing it at a time when, quite frankly, you have nothing to express, it’s easy to ignore as a more mature musician the expressive possibilities of that particular musical aesthetic—and they are great, they are many. So I came to see that bluegrass was something that I was unfairly dismissing about my musicianship.
“Part of it was getting divorced, and realizing that I was singing bluegrass heartbreak songs. That’s what would really resonate with me; those were the songs I was singing—“Bury Me Beneath The Willow,” “More Pretty Girls Than One.” And another part of it was living in New York, because for me, at least, New York demands that you find what it is about you that’s unique. There are so many talented people—exceptional people—that to stand out, you either have to be completely average or really, really different. And having been trained in the ways of bluegrass as a kid, I realized how much that meant to me. I felt, you can’t fight yourself—any time you’re fighting yourself, you might not lose, but you just can’t win. And I realized, I do that well, because that’s what I grew up with. So it signifies a return of sorts; I’m realizing what a meaningful part of my life that music is.”
If introspection and self-awareness helped to guide Thile on the road back to bluegrass, the musical friendships embodied on the new album played no less of a role in setting the course. Like Thile, its young members have already compiled an extensive list of credits and connections that spread across a broad musical terrain but ultimately centered around bluegrass.
“I met Gabe Witcher, the fiddle player, at the Follows Camp festival,” Chris recalls. “Next to [Nickel Creek’s] Sean and Sara, I believe he was the first other playing kid I got to know. We’d always play together at those southern California festivals— and we kept in pretty good touch for a long time. When Nickel Creek was finishing up Why Should The Fire Die, he and I went out to dinner, drank some wine—we had both gotten our hearts smashed to pieces at the same time—and talked about how we needed to have a band. So that brought it to my mind again: just who the hell to do it with?”
“I had met Noam Pikelny before, but it just hadn’t really seeped into my head how good he was until one night at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival last year. We sort of met up onstage, sitting in with the Yonder Mountain String Band at a show they were doing nearby, and it was incredible; here’s this kid tearing it to shreds on the banjo. I was just freaking out, thinking, how did I miss this? After the show, he and I wound up jamming all night, and I thought, ok; it’s Gabe, Noam and me. Now we have three. But as soon as we had a banjo player, I knew that we also needed a bass player and a guitar player—because surprise, surprise, it was a bluegrass band that I was trying to make.”
The remaining slots were soon filled when Chris and Noam got together in Nashville for a picking session and the latter suggested inviting Chris “Critter” Eldridge and bassist Greg Garrison to join them.
“We played for four or five hours that night, and I was beside myself…I just felt that the potential of the bluegrass 5-piece band—and these guys in particular—is just limitless. So I told them that I thought the project would have legs, and it would be the kind of thing that would last. We’re going to make playing together a habit.”
The resulting album is a stunningly original and brilliantly executed suite that pushes the boundaries of bluegrass while remaining, at its center, firmly rooted within them. And though the instrumental abilities of the band are virtually without limit, the heart of the album is its songs. Whether written by Thile himself or drawn from such varied sources as Gillian Welch, the White Stripes, Jimmie Rodgers and the Strokes, each is at once a self-contained performance and a part of a subtle, overarching story of heartbreaking loss and the hope of renewal.
“I had the whole record sequenced and planned before we went in,” Chris notes. “I love the idea of being able to tell an at least subconsciously coherent story through the performance of disparately sourced material. It seems to me that on the great bluegrass records there were always some originals, and a couple of traditional songs, but then there were some contemporary covers, too. It’s hard to beat a patchwork quilt.”
In keeping with the developing spirit of the band and album, the decision to record as simply and directly as possible was an obvious—indeed, the only—choice “I love hearing instrumentalists react to vocalists, and vocalists in turn reacting to instrumentalists, and that can happen if you’re cutting everything live, without headphones and separation, which is what we ended up doing.”
Finally, Thile notes with a mixture of pride and amusement, “We really wanted somebody in there who knows the music inside and out – someone who could make sure we didn’t do anything clichéd or trite - so we had Ronnie McCoury. His official title was ‘bluegrass guru,’ beyond the bluegrass, he’s an amazing musician, with a killer pair of ears. He would hang out in the control room while we were tracking to make sure everyone's tone and level were good and staying consistent...you can't fix anything in the mix when you're recording live to two-track! Occasionally he'd weigh in on an arrangement if he felt that something wasn't quite right, or keep us from losing perspective on songs that were taking longer than we'd hoped. It was awesome to have him on board.”
“All in all,” Chris Thile concludes, “How To Make A Woman From The Ground is a bluegrass record. There are definitely some musical things that are out of the ordinary, but it sounds like a bluegrass record to me. It’s not all like ‘Brakeman’s Blues,’ but ‘Brakeman’s Blues’ doesn’t sound out of place, and neither does ‘The Beekeeper’ sound out of place. It’s all related.
“Ideally, I’d like the bluegrass community to feel challenged in a way that they’re comfortable with—for them to say ‘yeah, it’s different, but it’s comfortable.’ Because I did set out to make a bluegrass record, which signals a certain amount of maturation, in that I’m completely comfortable with that element of my musicianship now. Every facet of music intrigues me, and I want a little piece of all of it. But I have a bigger piece of bluegrass than I realized or wanted for a while. It has always been a major part of me, but it will be a more acknowledged and cultivated part for the rest of my life."