[6 February 2014]
Is this the best postmodern bluegrass album ever?
On this, a track-by-track recreation of Kenny Baker’s 1977 album Plays Bill Monroe, Pikelny offers up what is a weird, muddled carbon copy-cum-tribute to the bygone days of bluegrass. That might sound critical, but I don’t mean it to be. After all, folk musicians have been cribbing material from their predecessors for as long back as anyone can remember, ranging from the alt-country explosion of the 1990s that began with Uncle Tupelo covering an old Carter Family tune all the way back to 1927 with record producer Ralph Peer convincing A.P. Carter himself to rejigger old religious songs. So, it is nothing new to steal the old.
But these examples and, indeed, most musical appropriations, are usually fairly suppressed or implicit, covered over by rewriting or celebratory fist-bumping with the past. (Exhibit A for the latter: Kid Rock’s bizarre Skynyrd-citing “All Summer Long”.) So what makes Noam Pikelny’s Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe so odd is its straightforwardness—a roots artist picking one album, just one—and just, well, doing it again. (Of course, it’s not so simple, but more on that later.) The other thing that raises an eyebrow is this album’s insistence on lineage, which presumes a weird, handing down of the bluegrass flame from mandolinist Monroe to fiddler Baker to banjo player Pikelny.
On the one hand, it’s a gutsy move claiming direct descent from Bill Monroe, who is more legitimately the father of a music genre than anyone else in history (his backing band was called the Blue Grass Boys). But on the other hand, what seems like a bold assertion is less unwarranted than you might think; Pikelny, after all, is the banjo player for the Punch Brothers, who are widely considered without peer in the bluegrass world today. Some might even go so far as to claim that Pikelny, save for Béla Fleck and a handful of others, is one of the best banjo players alive.
Despite all the critical haggling, I’ve managed so far to avoid the real question at hand: Is this album worth listening to or not? It’s hard to say. In a real way, the comparison of these albums is an issue of apples-and-oranges. The fiddle and the banjo, despite such a musical kinship, are still vastly different instruments with vastly different roles in a traditional bluegrass setting. To say that a banjo player is somehow certifiably better than a fiddler is nonsense; in the same way, that is also true of these albums. But the comparison is also problematic on a deeper level—for a reason that the casual listener will not take note of. That comparison deals with technique and execution.
For example, it’s hard to imagine that Baker had much trouble (if any) pulling together Plays Bill Monroe—it helps to know here that Baker was a member of the Blue Grass Boys and had been performing those songs with Monroe himself for almost two decades. Leap forward a quarter century to Noam Pikelny’s album, which sounds, with its clear-cut fidelity to the 1977 original, like it must have been a breeze to cut in the studio. Quite nearly the opposite is true. For Pikelny, the album was an immense challenge to piece together; tunes that come easily on the fiddle can be a nightmare on the banjo. So if you peek just under the surface of the music, you can hear Pikelny wrestling with tradition, both figuratively and literally, as he tries to coax unusual progressions out of his instrument, pushing against boundaries that have long boxed in the banjo, as he tries to trace the intricate melodies blazed by Baker.
The discerning listener will locate where Pikelny falls short. “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz”, for instance, is a tough song to carry on the banjo; the twang, however, soft and sensible, is caustic in this setting, no match at all for the long, sweet notes procured by Baker on his fiddle. Look also at “Fiddler’s Pastime”. As fun as Pikelny’s version may be, Baker makes it abundantly clear why the tune has that name. But that’s far from a universal struggle. On tunes like “Big Sandy River” and “Road to Columbus”, there are moments where you can hear Pikelny transcend the limits of his instrument, and it’s really something to admire. But transcendence and apples and oranges aside, this is a lovely, delightful album, which, in a world full of artists jumping on the roots music bandwagon, is about as honest and heartfelt as it gets.