Innovation has long been an important part of the musical endeavour, and it’s often the first person to happen upon a new idea—rather than the people who refine it—that remains foremost in our minds. That’s certainly true in bluegrass, and Bill Monroe will remain the king of the genre even when a majority of the bluegrass audience isn’t familiar with his recordings. Becky Buller includes the Monroe penned “Southern Flavor” on her recent album, though it’s likely that the majority of her audience won’t recognize it for what it is. Monroe, even if listeners aren’t aware of it, continues to be a force within the music.
That’s fine of course. Where the idea of innovation can start to get away from us is when it exerts too much of an influence on the music that other people are making, or becomes too much of a touchstone for the production and the consumption of musical ideas. In the world of mandolin, the force that looms large these days is Chris Thile. He’s an innovator extraordinare, and he’s also highly visible. Ask anyone to name a mandolin player, and if they can name one, he’s it. Most would then be hard pressed to offer a second.
His music is as distinctive as his stage persona—he’s as remarkable an entertainer as he is a musician. In the concert footage of the performance of “The Auld Triangle” Thile gets laughs with nothing more than a well timed tilt of the head, a glance, an upraised thumb, or a shrug, as after the line “Humpy Gussie was creeping.” That’s because everyone in the audience is fixated on him. Rightfully so. He’s just that compelling a performer, with an instinct for stagecraft that has been honed over the arc of a long, busy career. It looks effortless, of course, and that’s part of it too. Still, that shrug got a laugh from an audience of 1500 people—it’s not everyone who can command so large a room with so little.
It’s that command and confidence that affords him room for his musical innovation. His audience will follow him anywhere, and he rewards their trust—he takes them all over the place, and for the most part we’re all grateful for it. Even in the New York Times his playing is still discussed as bluegrass mandolin—with the ubiquitous references to Bill Monroe—though he’s come so far from that point that the reference doesn’t really have any meaning. He’s very nearly created his own genre. Perhaps the only thing it lacks is a name.
What’s unfortunate, perhaps, is that other players are left to deal with the elephant in the mandolin room—Thile—in the awareness that they are invariably going to be compared to him. The choices are to tag along, or to give him wide berth. On her latest release, Sierra Hull has chosen to tag along. She’s made motions toward Thile’s style of playing and composition before, though never as blatantly as this.
She does it masterfully, of course. She’s long been worth our attention, even at a tender age (that becomes a comparison, too: both Thile and Hull are prodigies). Here she uses the light, clean touch that we associate with Thile, creating music that’s made with the delicacy that a microphone can afford. Monroe was the Ethel Merman of the bluegrass world, trading tonal quality for projection. Hull can do that, though here she’s the opposite: clean, clear, intimate. On “Weighted Mind” she varies between muddy and clean, using all the paints in the box, though it’s still very close music, full of all the dissonance and complexity that has become Thile’s signature sound. On “Stranded” and “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” Hull also writes with the autobiographical tone that Thile does so well. Or, if we’re being totally honest, better.
Sadly, that type of material feels like a distraction, as if the force of Thile and the genre that the Punch Brothers have defined has been too seductive, too overbearing. On this album, the best tracks are the ones where Hull remains closer to her own persona, or at least the persona that she’s presented in her music in the past. “Lullaby” uses a more familiar structure, one which allows her voice to really do what it does best.
One of the best things I’ve heard from Hull in the last while is her duet with Mac Wiseman on “You’re a Flower Blooming in the Wildwood” released in 2014. There her playing is adept, sympathetic, and entirely authentic. She’s supporting Wiseman, and while her playing and singing wouldn’t thrill a Vegas audience, it does thrill a listener who knows what she’s doing. Her solo is straightforward and, it’s the economy that exposes it for what it is: masterful. It’s that authentic voice that I hoped to hear on Weighted Mind. Instead, it feels like she’s wrestling with someone else’s persona rather than simply relaxing and being herself.