Noam Pikelny, Bryan Sutton, Luke Bulla, Barry Bales & Jesse Cobb
The Opry has seen its share of droll banjo performances, a good many of them courtesy of costumed comedians like Grandpa Jones and Stringbean. But that’s old-timey clawhammer-style banjo playing we’re talking about — not the three-finger bluegrass style popularized by Earl Scruggs. On the whole, there’s been considerably less joking around when it comes to the preservation of bluegrass tradition. Noam Pikelny’s new instrumental banjo album ought to help remedy that. Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe began as a text-messaged joke, a spoof on the fiddle interpretations of Monroe standards that Blue Grass Boy Baker recorded in 1976. But since Pikelny has been all about revisiting the bluegrass canon of late, he decided to spend his time off from the boundary-less baroque string band Punch Brothers actually learning Baker’s fiddle licks on banjo, note for note, and re-creating the album from start to finish — right down to the too-small Stetson and wide polyester tie Baker sported on the original cover. It turned out to be quite a serious enterprise, with Pikelny finding undeniably fresh new angles on familiar tunes.
Chicago IL | Bluegrass
Though Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail is banjo player Noam Pikelny’s second solo disc, it represents something of a new beginning. Even more revelatory than his 2004 debut In the Maze, it captures an artist as he unveils a developed and assured voice as musician and composer. In 2010, actor-banjo player-author Steve Martin awarded Pikelny the first Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, calling Pikelny, “a player of unlimited range and astonishing precision.” Beat the Devil is virtuosic in execution but is warm, amiable and approachable in feel. Pikelny is backed by an all-star band of old friends and long-time heroes, including fellow Punch Brothers Gabe Witcher and Chris Eldridge, bassist Mark Schatz, fiddle player Stuart Duncan, vocalist-mandolinist Tim O’Brien, and dobro player Jerry Douglas – all of whom boast impressive credentials along with Grammy nominations and other accolades in the worlds of bluegrass, folk and country. Guest stars include Punch Brothers founder and mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Bryan Sutton, violin prodigy Alex Hargreaves, and fellow banjo player Steve Martin, who befriended Pikelny through the the New York City music scene, and invited Punch Brothers to open his 2010 Summer tour.
Pikelny recorded Beat the Devil And Carry a Rail in Nashville in April of 2011, but the album spent years in gestation, given Pikelny’s demanding schedule. Making a second album had long been on Pikelny’s to-do list. Since 2006, however, he had been primarily devoting his creative energies to Punch Brothers, the prodigiously skilled quintet that despite the stringband format, defies all genres, becoming as the Village Voice recently called them, “one of the greatest young bands in the country, bluegrass or otherwise.” The growing success of Punch Brothers, and the quintet’s daunting touring itinerary, left little time for individual projects. “The time I had to myself when I wasn't on the road or in the studio with Punch Brothers was mostly spent catching up on sleep and making sure I had clean clothes”. In fact, Pikelny realized his first solo album just weeks before first meeting Chris Thile, then a member of Nickel Creek, at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, in June of 2004.
That chance meeting paved the way for the formation of Punch Brothers. Their sights were set high, first embarking upon Thile's album-length four-movement piece The Blind Leaving the Blind, which remains a cornerstone of the band. Pikelny was provoked, tested, inspired, and ultimately, changed by his newfound collaborators: “I was being challenged in so many ways – technically as a banjo player, conceptually as a musician. I couldn't have asked for a better situation. It was an amazing opportunity, I was being pushed so hard by the band that I felt that I was having to redefine myself on the fly as a banjo player. When I listen to my playing before Punch Brothers, to my ears, it sounds like a different person as far as feel, approach, technique, improvising... Playing with those guys even inspired me to go out and find a great old instrument. I think my whole sound was going through a transformation.”
Resuming solo work in the midst of Punch Brothers commitments, Pikelny drew upon those experiences, infusing his album with a unique instrumental voice, but within a more traditional context. “This metamorphosis brought upon by the Punch Brothers repertoire, interestingly enough extended itself even when I would return to playing more traditional music. This new understanding of the banjo was creeping into to whatever I was playing. So even if I was rendering a classic Earl Scruggs banjo tune or improvising over an old fiddle tune, the impact of Punch Brothers had become evident in my playing. I felt like it was high time to put together a record that was a little bit more connected to my roots and use some of my own instrumentals to showcase an updated version, if you will, of my banjo playing.”
On Beat the Devil, Pikelny offers eight original pieces – from intensely focused, fast-moving numbers like “All Git Out” and “Bear Dog Grit” to more pastoral, gently paced tunes like “Boathouse on the Lullwater” and “The Broken Drought.” He recasts the frequently-recorded Appalachian folk tune, “Cluck Old Hen,” as an instrumental duet between Pikelny (on bluegrass banjo) and Steve Martin (on clawhammer banjo). Tim O’Brien adds lead vocals to 1920s-era songster Henry Thomas’ “Bob McKinney,” Pikelny also fashions a lovely cover of Tom Waits’ “Fish and Bird,” featuring a heartbreaking, vocal performance from Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O'Donovan. Pikelny calls the track “a special tune on a couple of different levels. Tom Waits is a recent discovery of mine. Of course, it was all out there in front of me, but I had never caught on before how profound Tom Waits’ music is. Unfortunately, it was all too recent of an epiphany. The only other personal discovery on this level has been falling in love with John Hartford’s music over the last three or four years. He was one of the most unique and virtuosic banjo players, and wrote some of the greatest songs of all time. These guys are the gold standard, if you ask me. On ’Fish and Bird’ there was a sweet collision of these worlds, as the key Aoife wanted to sing in warranted playing a low-tuned banjo, something that was one of John Hartford's signature sounds. When I got to Nashville, I asked Bela Fleck if he would consider loaning me John Hartford's old banjo that he acquired after John's passing. Bela was gracious enough to make it available. I was hesitant to ask, but Bela said that’s exactly what Hartford would want, for people to be using his instruments to make music. I was really honored by that. It was a meaningful, yet unforeseen union of the music of two men who have really moved me as of late.”
Pikelny says Beat the Devil and Carry A Rail was deeply informed by several people who inspired him as he was coming up in the ranks, and he feels lucky to have recruited many of them for the sessions: “I became really excited about the idea of reconnecting with some of my friends and heroes in Nashville that I had only gotten to play with informally at festivals, guys like Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas & Mark Schatz. It was the thrill of a lifetime to share a stage with these people, but I had never gotten to be in the studio with any of them. Based on the material I was amassing, I realized that I should make a somewhat traditional banjo record and call these guys. I wanted that experience, to be in the studio with these heroes for a week, not just because of the music we would capture, but to get to know these guys better, to hear their stories. They shed so much light on the history of the music. It was so meaningful to get a better understanding of these folks who I've looked up to for years, to learn more about their background and motivation. I came out of this experience with so much more than the files that became this record.”
Noam called on his Punch Brothers fiddler Gabe Witcher to produce the album. “When I first started imagining this record, I knew I wanted Gabe to produce it,” Pikelny says. “He has been such a powerful force during the recording of the Punch Brothers records. I had been extremely impressed by Gabber's poise when we've been in the studio. Also I've always taken note of how extraordinarily committed he has been to absorbing as much studio and recording wisdom from the ridiculously talented people we've been lucky enough to be around while in the studio. I couldn’t think of anybody who knows my playing better than Gabe. This is the first album where he is the official producer. I thought that would be a healthy challenge. I knew I made the right choice when a couple hours into the first day while I found Gabe outside, on a break, pacing around the parking lot smoking a cigar while on a cell phone. Now that's a producer.”
Rising to the occasion is in many ways a theme of the album, and the underlying meaning of its title. Pikelny, now based in Brooklyn, explains: “I've always loved the South and Appalachia. I obviously have fallen in love with the music, but also many other aspects of the heritage. I always love learning some of the old expressions and phrases and have made a hobby of searching through books of southern regionalisms. “Beat the Devil and Carry A Rail” stems from a bizarre and antiquated rural tradition of handicapping whoever is favored in a race or a contest by having them carry a rail. Yes, quite unbelievable – but hey, you can’t argue with something if it's in a reference book. It can mean two things. One would be to beat someone decisively, a clear victory; the other would be to triumph against all odds. The second meaning appeals to me more as something that relates to this record and the music on it. Not on a super literal level, but it definitely applies to the actual task of getting this record made. While the album was made over the course of two months, it had been seven whole years since my last solo effort. In Punch Brothers, we had established this brain trust; we had become comfortable relying on each other to put music together as a group. It’s an extremely powerful thing to have access to that, and with each year that passed it became more daunting how to step away and finally record another project of mine. Having Gabe on-board as producer helped lessen the shock, but I was still forced out of what had become my natural habitat. So this record is a little personal triumph of mine, something of my own that makes me proud.”
-- Michael Hill
Nashville TN | Bluegrass
Bryan Sutton seemed to come out of nowhere as part of Ricky Skaggs' return to bluegrass in 1997. Bluegrass Unlimited's review of Bluegrass Rules! took special note of his "spellbinding solos...[which] establish him as a musician who bears close scrutiny," while an appearance on Tina Adair's Just You Wait And See (Sugar Hill) led another reviewer to call him "a guitarist to be reckoned with." All in all, it was a remarkable welcome for a young musician.
Born near Asheville, NC in 1973, Bryan started playing the guitar at the age of 8. By the time he graduated from high school, he was already immersed not only in bluegrass, but jazz and rock and roll, playing in an array of bands and making his first recordings. From there he went directly to work in his first band, spending two years on the road with acoustic country gospel artist Karen Peck before joining Mid South, a contemporary country/gospel band. That job, and a growing desire to excel in studio work, led him to move to Nashville; Music City served as a base from which he visited gospel-oriented recording studios around the southeast, adding mandolin, banjo and fiddle skills to his already considerable guitar abilities.
Nashville TN | Singer-Songwriter
Luke Bulla has been singing and playing music most of his life. Touring with and singing in his family band from age four, Luke took up the fiddle at seven. Over the course of the next few years, he won the National Fiddle Contest (in Weiser, Idaho) six times in his respective age categories.
His seventh win came in the Grand Champion division at age sixteen, making him the youngest to have earned the title at the time. Entering Nashville's Grand Masters fiddle contest at age ten, Luke distinguished himself by being the youngest person to have made the top ten.
Spring of 1999 found Luke moving to Nashville to establish himself as a full time musician. He spent his early years in Tennessee playing fiddle in Ricky Skaggs' band, Kentucky Thunder. Following the Skaggs stint, he became a member of the John Cowan Band. More recently Luke has performed and/or recorded with Jim Lauderdale, Darrell Scott, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Lyle Lovett, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Bryan Sutton, Kevin Costner & Modern West, Russ Barenberg Trio, Sean Watkins, Sara Watkins, Tony Rice, Chris Thile, Peter Rowan, Glen Phillips, Rodney Crowell, and Earl Scruggs, to name a few. Luke is a perennial instructor at Mark O'Connor's fiddle camps.
With long-time friend, Casey Driessen, Luke founded the band, Wisechild. The band toured briefly with John Mayer and Counting Crows.
In addition to violin, Luke plays guitar, sings and writes songs. His newest band collaboration, W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration), includes members Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek, Fiction Family), Glen Phillips (Toad The Wet Sprocket), Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello and the Imposters, The Attractions, Los Lobos), Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell, Wilco, Sheryl Crow, Beck), and Davey Faragher (Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Cracker). In the spring of '09, Lyle Lovett asked Luke to join his Large Band, and Luke now tours full time in that configuration. He also just released his new EP featuring Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Aoife O'Donovan to name a few.
Nashville TN | Bluegrass
Barry Bales was born and raised in Kingsport, Tennessee. Almost from birth, he was immersed in the music of the mountains that he still calls home today. The East Tennessee/Southwest Virginia region could be called Ground Zero for the nurturing and growth of bluegrass music, and Barry was surrounded by some of the genre's most influential musicians from a very early age. When 10 years old, Barry took up the guitar, inspired by listening to his father playing and singing in the living room each night after supper. After moving to the banjo, then dobro, Barry found his true calling when he focused his passion and talent on the acoustic bass, changing his life - and bluegrass music - forever. As a teenager, Barry began performing and traveling with various regional bands, most of which contained fellow East Tennessee musicians who would go on to make their own indelible mark on bluegrass music.
It was while performing with a progression of up-and-coming bands that Barry was asked to join Alison Krauss and Union Station. In the ensuing 21 years since that dream-come-true moment, Barry has a been an integral part of one of the most influential bands in history. Both as a member of AKUS and through his involvement in a myriad of outside projects, he has helped to shape the course of bluegrass and acoustic music. An untold number of young bass players count Barry as a major influence, and he is one of the most in-demand session players in the business. He has recorded and performed with a diverse range of artists including Merle Haggard, Shania Twain, the Civil Wars, Elvis Costello, Dolly Parton, the Chieftains, Del McCoury, and Vince Gill, to name only a few. He was heavily involved in the motion picture soundtrack for "Oh Brother, Where Art Though?", as well as the soundtracks for "Get Low", "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya-Sisterhood" and "Walk the Line". Thus far in his career, Barry has been awarded 13 Grammys, one Country Music Association award, one Academy of Country Music award, and 11 International Bluegrass Music Association awards, including Bass Player of the Year in 2008.
These days find Barry with a renewed sense of creativity and purpose. 2010 saw the release of his first instructional DVD, "A Solid Foundation To Acoustic Bass". He is eagerly branching out into songwriting and producing as well. His recent songwriting credits include "Miles To Go", written with the mega-talented Chris Stapleton and found on AKUS' "Paper Airplane" release. In September of 2011, Barry had two co-writes land simultaneously at number one and two on the Bluegrass Today Weekly Airplay Chart. His recent production credits include Adam Steffey's 2009 Sugar Hill release "One More For the Road", as well as the highly acclaimed "Daybreak" by mandolin phenom Sierra Hull.
Besides his love for music, Barry is heavily involved in a varied list of "off-time" endeavors. An avid outdoorsman, he enjoys any form of wingshooting. He is most passionate about duck hunting, traveling North America in pursuit of waterfowl, as well as managing his own duck club. He is a conservationist and steward of the land, caring for the family farm that has been home to six generations. And with his co-ownership of a bucking bull on the wildly successful Professional Bull Riders tour, he adds Stock Contractor to his diverse resume'.
Madison TN | Bluegrass
My musical life started around the age of 11 in the small rural community of Dairyland, Wisconsin. Inspired and motivated by two older brothers and a father that played banjo, fiddle, and guitar, my first love was guitar. After having the guitar appropriated by my oldest brother, I took up the only instrument left in the house, an old plywood mandolin with half the strings missing.
Practicing every spare minute, between chores on the family farm, I soon discovered Sam Bush and the New Grass Revival. I’d never heard such sounds from a mandolin, I was blown away! I learned everything I could find from Sam on an old record player in what could be compared to a literal woodshed. Some of the other early influences were, Gus Ingo, Jerry Stuart, Jethro Burns, Bobby Osborne, Mark O’Connor. The Cobb Brothers Family Band had it’s first “gig” in the local school we all attended playing fiddle tunes, and original instrumental music. Word soon spread about the hillbilly music coming from this family in Dairyland and before we knew it we were playing most weekends in a tri state area of WI, MN, and MI.
The family band split up with the split of our parents around 1993. Brothers Shad, Jed, and I all took jobs in the logging woods and music took a backseat to survival for awhile. The next seven years saw me moving to the UP of Michigan to run sled dogs, working as a plumber in Eau Claire WI, and completing a GED to find better work. This landed me at a railroad bridge repair company called Osmose Wood Preserving in Madison WI where I would spend three years or so crisscrossing the country from Florida to Oregon.
By chance late in summer of 1999, my brother Jed phoned from Oklahoma to my temporary home in Oregon and asked if I wanted to go to Alaska. Five days later we were on the Alaska Highway, camping and taking in the beauty of the Canadian wild. We both found work where we could around Anchorage but soon the music bug bit me again. I really missed playing my mandolin. My dad and brother Shad, talked me out of joining the army and, thankfully, into making a move to Nashville to give music a try once again. I arrived in Nashville around Feb. 2000 and knew immediately that I had a lot of work to do if music were to be my career.
I would go to the Station Inn jam every Sunday night, all the pickin’ parties I could find, and I started to really use my ears instead of relying on learned licks while improvising. I had so many great teachers either directly or indirectly, there are too many to name. My first gig in Nashville took me on a tour of Canada with the Fox Family Band. That provided an introduction to Ronnie Bowman which was an introduction to Jeremy Garrett and Andy Hall, eventual band mates with the Infamous Stringdusters. While in Nashville, I did a bunch of sessions, played with whoever I could, jammed every chance I got and developed a style that includes influences from just about anything I’ve ever enjoyed listening to.
2010 saw a huge change to my life as I married my best friend, Nicole Day and her two sweet daughters, Kayla and Mackenzie. Trying to balance family life with the constant touring of the Stringdusters, took its toll on all of us and I split from the Stringdusters very suddenly in the fall of 2011.
This may be a rather rambling biography, trust me this is the abbreviated version, but I believe all the things I’ve seen and done in this life have made me the musician that I am today. I also think that it’s important for people to know who they’re listening to. I hope this gives you some insight into my style. I try to play every note with the sincerity that it needs, I try to sing every song with the emotion that it deserves. I continue to write, play, and sing music everyday. I owe it to myself and everyone that has influenced me to keep at this. I am unbelievably blessed to have the gift of hearing the music that I do and hope you continue to enjoy what comes out.