Chris Thile and the Pickin’ On Series | Some New Twists on Bluegrass

Chris Thile

Today, most of my friends fit into one of two groups: they either love bluegrass or they enjoy a small dose of it. This month, we review two independent efforts: one by mandolin player Chris Thile and another by the artists from the CMH Records Pickin’ On Series.

Bluegrass is a form of authentic American roots music associated with the Appalachian Mountains. It emerged as a blend of folk styles from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England. In bluegrass, the melody is passed around to each instrument for improvisational solos while others accompany. This jazz-like musical pattern is different from other styles, like old-time music, where all musicians play in unison. So when Bela Fleck (banjo) and Sam Bush (mandolin and fiddle) independently introduced their special brand of jazz-bluegrass fusions in the 1990s, it should not have been such a surprise—yet it was. Their delightful innovations attracted many new fans, including me.

Chris Thile

Grammy-award winner and mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile (pronounced “thee-lee”) was born in California in 1981. He remembers early childhood influences from jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, starting with his interpretation of “The Girl from Ipanema.” When Chris was eight, the Thile family collaborated with the Watkins family to form the progressive acoustic trio Nickel Creek, with whom Chris played until they disbanded in 2007.  At age 12, Chris earned the National Mandolin Championship at the Walnut Valley Championship in Kansas. In 1993, he released his first solo album, Leading Off, with all original compositions. Since 2008, Chris has been collaborating with the Punch Brothers. In 2011 he recorded The Goat Rodeo Sessions with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, classically trained double-bassist Edgar Meyer, and fiddle player Stuart Duncan. 

In August 2013 Nonesuch Records announced that Thile, with the producing talents of Edgar Meyer, released an ambitious album of sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach. Originally scored for violin, these compositions transport me back to the 1700s, where royal court musicians played Bach’s violin sonatas in concert halls. But in my mind, local tavern-goers enjoyed the same music played on the Renaissance-era stringed lute, an instrument similar to today’s mandolin.

On this new CD, Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1, Chris Thile recreates what Bach’s music might have sounded like in the local taverns of the 1700s. The performance is so smooth that one might think the composer intended it to be played on mandolin. You’ll easily sink into the entire album. My favorite track is “Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001: II. Fuga: Allegro.”

Pickin’ On Series

CMH Records founder Martin Haerle grew up in Germany and heard American country music on Armed Forces Radio.  After his death in 1990, his son, David, took over CMH as president. David initiated the “Pickin’ On Series,” which is dedicated to bluegrass instrumental interpretations of popular music. Since then, more than 30 albums have featured the music of such diverse artists as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Clapton, Coldplay, Grateful Dead, and Creedence Clearwater. A cast of revolving artists participated on these recordings.

pickin on series

A few years ago, during a band change at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, we heard the guys managing the sound system play tracks from the CD Pickin’ on Led Zeppelin, Vol. 1 and 2 (2003). This tribute album of 21 instrumental tracks also includes one original composition by producer David West called “Jed Zeppelin” that captures the band’s magical flavors.  Toss this CD into your car player and roll down the windows. Start with tracks “Going to California,” “Battle of Evermore,” and “Misty Mountain Hop.” Imagine how we danced to them in the sunshine at Telluride!             

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