Noam Pikelny Tips His Banjo to a Fiddle Legend

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There’s no doubt that banjo virtuoso Noam Pikelny has made a name for himself on his instrument — a name that stands for unbounded innovation. He’s spent the past eight years blazing trails and blowing minds with Punch Brothers and was handpicked to win the very first Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo. And up until this year, his solo albums never hewed to a traditional bluegrass template.

Then Pikelny settled on an ingenious concept that would enable him to have it both ways, that would be an occasion for imaginative reinterpretation and would also bring him back around to a body of work that is an absolute bedrock for bluegrass. The winking title? Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe.

The fact that Baker played fiddle — not banjo — only makes the project more interesting.

CMT Edge: I understand the idea for this album came from a joking text message exchange with Ronnie McCoury. You asked if he thought you could get away with a “Pikelny Plays Baker Plays Monroe” concept. And what was his response?

Pikelny: I think he responded something along the lines of, “Of course you can make that record — as long as Scott Vestal plays all the banjo parts.”

It truly started as just a play on the original title. It was only earlier this year, when I was trying to figure out what my next record would be, that I remembered that idea.

I have been kind of recommitting to my love of bluegrass music over the last couple of years. Not that I had fallen out of love with bluegrass, but it had been some time since I was in a mode of listening as often and obsessing about bluegrass. Over the course of most of last year I couldn’t get enough of J.D. Crowe’s banjo playing. I remember sitting on the Punch Brothers bus and subjecting these guys to YouTube [clip] after YouTube [clip] of J.D. Crowe.

It was obvious to me that this should be a bluegrass record because I had been spending so much time playing this music and getting into the details of this stuff. That was a tricky proposition: How would I, at this point in my career, go back and do a traditional record, a record of standards?

You’ve talked before about the position you’re in, playing with a group that goes as far out on musical limbs as the Punch Brothers. It’s freed you from comparisons in some ways because it’s not like you’re following in the footsteps of generations of banjo soloists. Did you think about what a change revisiting Monroe standards and recreating a classic album would be for you?

Career-wise, I leapfrogged past the point where I may have entertained the idea of recording an album of standards in a traditional bluegrass mode. … It’s not that I wouldn’t dare release a bluegrass banjo album, but I just didn’t have the justification to really do it.

The reason I felt that way was because I’ve always been closely associated with bands that were either out on the progressive end of bluegrass or kind of pushing the barriers. I had this sense of, “Well, why would I go record a bluegrass album?” If I wanted to hear a current bluegrass banjo player, I wouldn’t want to hear myself. I want to hear Charlie Cushman. I want to hear Craig Smith or Steve Huber play bluegrass banjo.

This concept that really did emerge from a joke provided a new way for me to reimagine these songs on the banjo that would be very [different] from how bluegrass banjo players have conquered this material before, by taking what Kenny Baker played on the fiddle and translating it to the banjo, really note-for-note on every song on the album. It gave me a challenge that was, at some moments on the record, on par with the challenges that I’ve experienced with Punch Brothers.

In Monroe’s band, Kenny Baker learned all these tunes during his long tenure as a Blue Grass Boy in an up-close-and-personal way. You’ve described what sounds like a tremendously technical process of transposing Baker’s fiddle solos using computer software, then figuring out how you wanted to play them. That sounds like two very different ways of getting the material under your belt.

The processes were completely different, just by nature of time and place and relationship to the music.

I’ve heard stories of Kenny Baker learning these songs in hotel rooms, then refining them on the bus and going onstage. Monroe wasn’t necessarily looking for his musicians to copy the way he was playing verbatim. He wanted his bandmates to get the essence of what he was doing and then inject their own musical personalities.

For me, it was more of a musical laboratory where I was really trying to figure out exactly what Kenny did. I had his music under a microscope, and I was transcribing everything and then figuring out ways to play it on the banjo. But it was in this act of transposition, of translation, that it became something very personal, even though it was an exercise in playing someone else’s arrangements.

Not trying to pat myself on the back, because I feel like if one of my favorite banjo players happened to have done the same thing, it would’ve been just as compelling to see, “Oh, this really works.” It was such a pleasant surprise to hear such familiar music that has been overplayed and over-recorded sound new — just because of this concept.

Kenny Baker never smiled in the photos I’ve seen. In fact, there’s not much humor to traditional bluegrass album cover art, period. But the way you mirrored his severity in your cover photo is pretty funny. At what point did you commit to going all the way with it and actually tracking down that Stetson Rancher hat and polyester suit?

The austerity in his look, I think, is so classic that you can chuckle looking back at that. He wasn’t trying to be funny.

On the record [itself], we weren’t trying to dress up in costumes. … We were really trying to do it all in our own voice. The cover was an opportunity to really play musical dress-up. I walked in [to a store in New York City] with the Kenny Baker LP and said, “I need a suit like this.” I think they were a little confused at first.

I had a friend up in Connecticut named Dick Bowden who is a hat connoisseur, who’s collected Bill Monroe and Blue Grass Boys hats over the years. … He said, “If you get a hat that’s actually your size, it will not look right. Kenny’s hats always looked like they were at least two sizes two small and they sat right on top of his head. So if you’re trying to recreate that look, it might seem like a bad investment, but don’t buy a hat that’s actually your size.” I kept sending him iPhone pictures from the hat shop.

It sounds like there was just as much attention devoted to visual details as the actual recording.

I had jumped in, so I was in the deep end at that point. I was really proud of the record, and once I found that suit, I said, “Well, we have to go all in.”

The tie was something I found on eBay. It was 3 o’clock the day of the photo shoot, and it hadn’t showed up yet. As I was leaving, it showed up. It was just a miracle. The best $3 I ever spent.

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