Music reviews

Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe

(for KDHX) I’m just going to come right out and say it: I love everything about this album. The only way to make it any better would be to have it autographed. The art, the concept, the musicians, the arrangements, the production—in any way you care to look at it, Noam Pikelny’s latest release, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe is a delight from start to finish.

The first thing that I love is that, on the face of things, the concept is so unabashedly geeky: It’s a track-for-track, in sequence recreation of one of the most respected recordings in bluegrass music, one that Kenny Baker released in 1976. It’s right up there, in terms of cool, with Civil War re-enactment and stamp collecting. For the cover, Pikelny is wearing a Baker-era suit, tie (yikes!) and the same brand and style of Stetson that you see on the initial release.

The risk, perhaps, it that it could come off as mockery, though he negotiates that line carefully and we see the impulse for what it is: respect. Baker had been a long-time fiddler with Monroe, and spent longer playing in that band than any other musician. He was a master of phrasing and interpretation, and also such a Monroe die-hard such that when he went to make a solo recording, he did a collection of Monroe’s songs. Famously, Bill Monroe came by the studio for little more than to say hi and ended up staying throughout the sessions, and playing on every track.

That album, rightly, is prised for the approach that Baker brought to the music, though the subtleties can be hard for those less steeped in the music to hear. At the time, Baker’s playing stood out from the crowd for its polished feel and the elegance that it added to the music. It became a classic recording, a status that it retains to this day.

The concept of recreating it began, as is noted in the liner notes, when Pikelny joked in a text to Ronnie McCoury “Could I get away with calling an album Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe?” The idea stewed a bit and, a year later, he decided that it actually was a very attractive one. Pikelny spent months transcribing Baker’s solos in order to bring them faithfully to the banjo. Why? Well, maybe it was fun, or whatever, but he did it, perhaps to work through the interpretations of a master with the intention of learning from them as much as building on them.

Once done, Pikelny brought together some musical friends that are all operating at the very top of their instruments: Mike Bub on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, and Bryan Sutton on guitar. All share a deep, abiding sense of the tradition of bluegrass music, yet all project their own personalities and their own voices through the music they play. Each is a delight on his own, and together they could play “Happy Birthday” and no doubt it would be absolutely entertaining. They are just that good. The album was produced by another great, fiddler Gabe Witcher, and the only regret is that we don’t get to hear him on here too.

The result is an album that is simply impossible to resist. It includes some very common bluegrass tracks, such as “Jerusalem Ridge,” and “Brown County Breakdown” as well as some pieces that are somewhat less heard theses days, such as “Road to Columbus.” The recording quality is crystalline, and while there is a dedication to what Baker and Monroe brought to this music, the voices of these players come through as well and there are a wealth of “ahh!” moments. McCoury is such a deft student of Monroe, though he doesn’t parrot the playing, instead using it as a means to explore new musical ideas. Stuart Duncan , well, there is no better or humble player out there today.

I could go on, but I won’t. It just doesn’t get any better than this. If you are a fan of acoustic music, and have a CD player in your car, get a copy of this album. If it doesn’t win a Grammy, then those awards aren’t worth a 70s-era tie.

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