There’s a tension to Noam Pikelny’s Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail. It’s a quiet and purposeful tension, born of a man pushing his instrument into new territory while listening ears, inculcated by the past, struggle to shed perceptual expectancies and make sense of a new context.
Although it’s been nominated for a best bluegrass album Grammy, the Recording Academy should have come up with a new category for this record. Something like “biggest risk taker” or “most audacious use of the instrument” would have been more apropos.
Make no mistake: Pikelny, who’s also known for his banjo work in Punch Brothers, doesn’t play your granddaddy’s bluegrass (even though he can).
CMT Edge: With this nomination I assume you’re sleeping in better beds, eating in nicer restaurants and your whole life has changed.
Pikelny: Yeah, exactly! (laughs) I feel very lucky to have gotten this recognition. The Grammy nomination is an honor. … I look back at some of the albums that have been nominated and [they’re] some of my favorite records ever recorded in bluegrass. … I feel extremely grateful for the recognition and at moments, guilty that I’ve received all this attention because there are many banjo players out there who’ve been playing professionally, who are playing beautifully, who are so deserving of this.
Does that guilt bring with it a sense of responsibility?
I guess to a certain extent….There’s this spirit of innovation on these instruments going back to the original pioneers. What Earl Scruggs was doing on the banjo, why it was so amazing was because it was something so original, so unique and so personal. You could say the same thing about Bill Monroe, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas. These players have really inspired thousands of people to play. I’m one of them. … And I would never dare say that I’ve made a similar impact as them, but I’m hoping to continue in that same spirit and perhaps inspire new players in the same way they did for me.
There are some folks out there who would say that Beat the Devil isn’t exactly a bluegrass record. How do you respond to something like that? Do you believe it’s a bluegrass record?
I think it is. … It’s about as bluegrassy a record as I can make unless I set out purposefully to remake a traditional record. You know, there’s a tradition of instrumentalists in the bluegrass world having their “traditional record,” like where they’ll go and play songs from the Scruggs repertoire. And it’s fun to hear people reinterpret those songs. But I wanted to showcase my original material. … There are a few things that probably start to push the boundaries harmonically of what people are expecting within the bluegrass or fiddle tune format. … I take no offense to traditional bluegrass fans who really feel like bluegrass is the style, sound and repertoire of music that crystalized in the 1940s when Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. … But I feel like all those guys were creating things with a real emphasis on innovation and putting yourself and your real being into the music and not replicating somebody else. … And so I think that this album is in [that spirit]. … I would hope that it’s in the spirit of the bluegrass that I love.
There are light years between a song like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Bear Dog Grit.” How did you make that journey as a player — from playing it straight to where you are now?
I grew up listening to bluegrass. … I think that when my playing started to develop its own little thing it was probably due to the fact that I was learning guitar. … I was obsessed with Tony Rice and David Grier when I was growing up. And so I was playing banjo and learning flatpicking guitar simultaneously. From that, I became infatuated with chicken picking. And I heard these guys like Albert Lee, Brent Mason and Don Rich … and a lot of that stuff was incorporating banjo type playing into the guitar playing. So I started doing that on the Telecaster. … And I think everything I had learned [on guitar] really changed my approach to playing on the banjo.
It changed the way I viewed the instrument as far as how you could integrate [styles]. … My goal was to somehow assimilate all of these styles into something that could be played with a lot of fluidity and not necessarily be compartmentalized into these individualized techniques that you would use for one song and you would use another technique for another song. I wanted it to all run together.
How do you think writing with a banjo in your hand — as opposed to sitting at a piano or holding a guitar — informs or influences the process?
I think it’s an interesting way of writing. … I would give anything to be a great piano player or a wonderful jazz guitar player because you have so much more of a range as far as being able to play bass accompaniment along with the melody. The banjo is much more condensed, so the harmony isn’t always spelled out. … On some of these songs … I worked hand-in-hand with Gabe Witcher, who was producing, and we would kind of finish these songs together with him holding a guitar because we needed to figure out what the bass function was or, like, what’s the harmony that’s being implied by the melody.
And how has your writing process evolved in the six years you’ve spent with Punch Brothers between solo projects?
I think the main hurdle coming from the world I exist in is to expand upon the structures of form that exist within bluegrass and folk music. And I don’t feel that I accomplished that on this record, but I started trying to figure out how we could be playing music within the bluegrass and folk format that wasn’t necessarily thought of as like A-part/B-part/C-part. … So I think as far as my evolution as a writer and a banjo player, this album is much more ambitious harmonically from my previous record, and it’s more about an actual interplay between musicians. … I feel like it’s more daring. That’s what I like about it when I hear this compared to In the Maze, my previous record. To me, this sounds like it’s not a safe record, and that’s what I’m much more interested in hearing these days — is somebody not playing safe.
Keeping in mind your desire to expand on the formal structures of the music, where then do you see your place in the bluegrass fold — if you even consider yourself a bluegrass musician?
I do consider myself a bluegrass artist because it’s so much within the DNA of what I do. I grew up obsessing about the banjo and bluegrass music and still today love bluegrass, and I think if I was to have to check some box that I feel most affiliated with, it is bluegrass. … What role do I play? I feel that because of the visibility of Punch Brothers, I’ve become this strange ambassador of the banjo that I never really anticipated. That’s an interesting spot to be in, and I take it very seriously that because of Punch Brothers, I may be one of just a few banjo players that’s getting national exposure. So when we have an opportunity to go and play a song like “New York City” on the Jay Leno show, that’s a real opportunity that I take real seriously — to be playing banjo in this style in front of that many people. So I embrace it, and I try to provide something that is hopefully moving and unique and at least kind of holding up the tradition that has been set before by these incredible instrumentalists associated with bluegrass.
So how would you describe Beat the Devil to someone in Jay Leno’s audience who’s never heard it?
Oh, I would say that it’s stringband and banjo music of the 21st century.
I have a few projects in the works that I’m still trying to figure out and schedule right now, but [guitarist] Bryan Sutton and I have been looking to do some playing together for a while. … You know, we’ve talked here about “What’s a traditional record?” and “What’s a bluegrass record?” and I think maybe it would be fun to just go into the studio and make what would really be inarguably a bluegrass banjo record as a purist would define it. … And Punch Brothers, we’re having these writing retreats throughout the year where we’re only essentially going to be seeing each other for creative purposes … so that’s going to be exciting to see what develops with that.