Five String Serenade: An Interview with Noam Pikelny
The last time banjo virtuoso Noam Pikelny played a solo show in the DC area, he received second billing. The headliner: lobster tomato bisque, the club’s soup of the day. One Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and a Grammy nomination with Punch Brothers later, Pikelny’s raising his demands. “Equal billing,” he deadpans. “Soup is important.”
It’s that dry sense of humor that led to his third solo album, Noam Pikelny Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, a remake of legendary fiddler and Blue Grass Boy Kenny Baker’s 1976 record, Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. The title has its genesis in a text message Pikelny sent to Ronnie McCoury for laughs, but the music is anything but a joke. Pikelny learned Baker’s fiddle parts note-for-note before heading into the studio with a bluegrass A-Team of Ronnie McCoury, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, and Mike Bub.
“We wanted to recreate Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe and simultaneously reimagine it,” explains the 32-year old Pikelny, calling from his Brooklyn apartment. “There’s this duality in that I’m recreating his fiddle parts on the banjo, but placing those parts on another instrument requires a certain amount of reinterpretation. Giving the other guys free rein to do their thing made the album more of a reimagination and the fact that there are still lots of opportunities for improvisation keeps this record from ever becoming an exercise in musical impersonations.”
Remaking a seminal bluegrass record like Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe is an ambitious project. Why did you decide to tackle something like that?
Over the last couple years, I’ve been recommitting to my love of bluegrass music, and I’ve been spending more time outside of Punch Brothers listening and playing bluegrass music. I wanted an opportunity to record another album this year and I had a window in my schedule with Punch Brothers taking a year off. So I was trying to brainstorm projects that would seem to correspond with where I was musically.
I was thinking about doing a more traditional record and remembered that text message I sent to Ronnie—“Could I get away with calling an album Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe?”–I started thinking that it wasn’t just a joke. Those are some of the most classic Bill Monroe instrumentals, and the way Kenny Baker refined them makes them more applicable to the banjo. Nobody had really taken that approach of applying Kenny Baker’s versions to the banjo, so all of a sudden it seemed like something that wasn’t borderline blasphemy, but like an obvious opportunity for me to continue my study of bluegrass music and get deeper inside the music of Kenny Baker and Bill Monroe.
Seeing the photo and title on the album cover, I still chuckle, but not necessarily from the spoof nature of it, just from the path that this project traveled down from being a text message joke to being a real record. I’m really proud that it exists and I enjoyed my time playing these tunes.
Did learning Baker’s versions of these instrumentals give you any new appreciation of or insight into Monroe’s compositions?
Absolutely, just from the nature of studying it. The way Bill Monroe played these songs left a lot of room for interpretation. That was one thing he expected of his band members: to play their versions of these instrumentals in their own way, to inject their personality into them.
What’s interesting about Kenny’s versions is that they seem so definitive and so neatly assembled that you could almost misconstrue them as the original versions of those instrumentals. There’s a certain amount of refinement, logic, and symmetry to the way that Kenny Baker played them. I think he must have had a real ear for hearing for what Bill Monroe was playing. The way Bill played these songs left so much room for interpretation that they could be a springboard for Kenny Baker or any of the Blue Grass Boys to put their own spin on it.
I think Kenny’s strength was hearing these things and finding a way to play them that was elegant and smooth and consistent. It had a real drive to the rhythm of it. I think one of the interesting things about his sound is the forward propelling motion and drive while he was playing so many notes – such long phrases with one bow stroke. He was the master of the long bow. He could milk entire sections of a song without changing the direction of the bow. He was such a close associate of Bill Monroe and had a longer tenure than any of Monroe’s fiddlers that I think there was a real intimate relationship with those tunes. You could argue that Kenny understood those songs as well as anybody other than Monroe himself; and perhaps his detachment from those songs, because he wasn’t the composer, gave him a different perspective in interpreting them.
How did you translate Baker’s fiddle parts onto the banjo?
I decided to transcribe the versions that Kenny was playing. My process involved having my laptop in front of me with a notation program that composers use for orchestrating and arranging classical music. I transcribed Kenny’s versions and then began the process of figuring out how to play it on the banjo neck.
The challenge wasn’t in trying to figure out what notes he played, but in finding a way to place them on the banjo in a way that would really translate these melodies and be emotionally moving. That was probably my biggest hurdle. The thing that’s interesting to me is that, even on some of these more traditional songs, because you’re taking something that was played on the fiddle and might sound very fiddleistic, when you apply that to the banjo, an instrument that has such a close tuning of the intervals of the strings – which means that you have to move all over the neck of the instrument to cover the range of a part that you can easily access on fiddle or guitar – is that the way Kenny played some of these traditional melodies sound modern when you play them on the banjo because it requires spanning the entire fretboard and utilizing techniques that might not necessarily be associated with classic bluegrass banjo.
I started refining the fingerings, because unlike the piano, there are many places on the banjo where you can play the same notes. Because of this close tuning, you have so many options of where you can set up and find these notes on the instrument. That was something I did over a couple months until I got to the point where playing these songs wasn’t a novelty. I wanted it to feel like they were my own fingerings and arrangements.
Recording was a fairly natural process. I selected these guys because I knew that they were extremely familiar with the material. Anybody who’s a professional bluegrass musician would know this material because they’re such classics. I wanted these guys because they all have the ability to stay true to the melody without compromising their own voices. They’re able to inject their unique musical personalities into the music – not via improvisational odysseys, but by their own way of embellishing and ornamenting these melodies. It’s a beautiful way of playing to the tradition without straying from the melodies but still broadcasting their own musicality. I feel like Ronnie, Stuart, and Bryan are the best at doing that, so they seemed like obvious choices to me. Mike Bub is one of the most amazing bluegrass bass players; he had the chance to play with Kenny Baker at times. Mike’s just a joy to be around and was the perfect person to have on these sessions. He had such great stories about these tunes.
I was excited to go into the studio with them but I’m not sure they really knew what they were getting into until we got there. I think they just thought it was going to be my bluegrass record, that I was just using Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe as a tune list. I think they were really surprised to see that I’d learned Kenny’s versions note-for-note and that I’d studied the arrangements on Kenny’s record as well as Bill Monroe’s original recordings.
As a kid, you were a student of Greg Cahill, banjo player for Special Consensus. What influence did Greg have on your music?
Greg was my first great bluegrass banjo teacher; I started lessons with him when I was about 11. I have very fond memories of taking my fingerpicks and riding my bike to his house to get a lesson where I played his second banjo. His role as my teacher is fairly significant as far as it pertains to this record: Greg was the first guy who taught me how to arrange something in my own way, to create an instrumental version of a song without having to rely on an existing piece of music or tablature. I remember going into his music room and telling him I wanted to learn “Temperance Reel.” I didn’t have a version of that in any of my banjo books, and I wasn’t sure how to proceed; I’d never been through that process of having an instrumentalist – a fiddle player or a mandolin player – show me a melody and then have to find a way to play it on the banjo.
We sat there humming the melody and finding ways that it fit on the banjo. He showcased different ways that you could approach it instead of just playing it note for note. Greg was a great teacher because he didn’t just want to teach me “Temperance Reel;” he wanted to teach me the process of how to find music on the banjo. In many ways, what I did on this record was following what he showed me. I think I had the last 20 years of playing experience had a lot more tools that I was able to access from playing nontraditional music with Punch Brothers that I was able to put into practice and try to play these melodies as Kenny Baker played them.
It’s been about nine years since your first solo album, In the Maze. How have you evolved as a musician?
I was very young when I made In the Maze. I was playing in Leftover Salmon at the time, and I think everyone knew me as a member of that band. It was more of a high-energy rock band that was all about the live show. I wanted an opportunity to showcase myself as an acoustic musician and showcase the songs I’d written. I don’t feel like I had reached the point as a musician where I had figured out my voice on the instrument. I know that it’s a lifelong process, but when I listen to In the Maze now, it sounds more tentative to me. I sound a lot younger as far as how I’m actually playing and writing on there. I’m still proud of In the Maze, and songs like “Manchicken” and “Speed Bump” are still fun to play at my solo shows every now and then.
For me, being a member of Punch Brothers has defined my playing in ways that I never would have imagined. Learning to play as a member of this group and learning to play lots of music that’s not necessarily bluegrass has affected my musicianship in a way that, even when I come back to playing bluegrass, I feel like a completely different musician.
What’s next for you?
I’m touring with Bryan Sutton, Luke Bulla, Jesse Cobb, and Barry Bales in the second half of October with a tour that starts in Oneonta and ends in Baton Rouge. I’ve got this bluegrass project with them that started earlier this year. We did a few dates in May with Ronnie McCoury, just before the recording of this record. We’re going to be out for almost three weeks and playing music from the Kenny Baker record as well as my previous releases. What’s fun about that band is that each member could be the frontman. Everyone has solo albums and writes music; it’s nice to be able to put together a collective where we can shift the spotlight throughout the set and feature everybody’s music. It’s fun and those shows are special to us because we don’t get to do it very often.
Punch Brothers have been spending a good bit of time doing writing retreats where we’ll get hermited-out in the middle of nowhere for about a week and work on tunes for a new record that we’re planning on recording next spring or early summer. We’ll be doing some touring in early spring to try out some of the new material, but for the most part, that band is full creative mode, which has been really nice after two and a half years of what felt like endless touring. We were almost always seeing each other to go on the road and play, but now we’re seeing each other to work on new music.
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