Donate Now to Support KDHX

Listen Live
Monday, 04 November 2013 15:00

Album review: A bluegrass masterclass when 'Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe'

Album review: A bluegrass masterclass when 'Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe'
Written by Glen Herbert
Rate this item
(0 votes)

Noam Pikelny
"Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe"
Compass Records

I'm just going to come right out and say it: I love everything about this album. The only way to make it any better would be to have it autographed.

The art, the concept, the musicians, the arrangements, the production -- in any way you care to look at it, Noam Pikelny's latest release, "Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe" is a delight from start to finish.

The first thing that I love is that, on the face of things, the concept is so unabashedly geeky: It's a track-for-track, in sequence recreation of one of the most respected recordings in bluegrass music, one that Kenny Baker released in 1976. It's right up there, in terms of cool, with Civil War reenactment and stamp collecting. For the cover, Pikelny is wearing a Baker-era suit, tie (yikes!) and the same brand and style of Stetson that you see on the initial release.

The risk, perhaps, is that it could come off as mockery, though he negotiates that line carefully, and we see the impulse for what it is: respect. Baker had been a long-time fiddler with Monroe, and spent longer playing in that band than any other musician. He was a master of phrasing and interpretation, and also a Monroe diehard, so much so that when he went to make a solo recording, he did a collection of Monroe's songs. Famously, Bill Monroe came by the studio for little more than quick hello, and then ended up staying throughout the sessions, and playing on every track.

That album, rightly, is prised for the approach that Baker brought to the music, though the subtleties can be hard for those less steeped in the music to hear. At the time, Baker's playing stood out from the crowd for its polished feel and the elegance that it added to the music. It became a classic recording, a status that it retains to this day.

The concept of recreating it began, as is noted in the liner notes, when Pikelny joked in a text to Ronnie McCoury "Could I get away with calling an album 'Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe'?" The idea stewed a bit and, a year later, he decided that it actually was a very attractive idea. Pikelny spent months transcribing Baker's solos in order to bring them faithfully to the banjo. Why? Well, maybe it was fun, or whatever, but he did it, perhaps to work through the interpretations of a master with the intention of learning from them as much as building on them.

Once done, Pikelny brought together some musical friends that are all operating at the very top of their crafts: Mike Bub on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Bryan Sutton on guitar. All share a deep, abiding sense of the tradition of bluegrass music, yet all project their own personalities and their own voices through the music they play. Each is a delight on his own, and together they could play "Happy Birthday" and no doubt it would be absolutely entertaining. They are just that good. The album was produced by another great, fiddler Gabe Witcher, and the only regret is that we don't get to hear him on here too.

The result is an album that is simply impossible to resist. It includes some very common bluegrass tracks, such as "Jerusalem Ridge" and "Brown County Breakdown," as well as some pieces that are somewhat less heard theses days, such as "Road to Columbus." The recording quality is crystalline, and while there is a dedication to what Baker and Monroe brought to this music, the voices of these players come through as well, and there are a wealth of "ahh!" moments. McCoury is such a deft student of Monroe, though he doesn't parrot the playing, instead using it as a means to explore new musical ideas. Stuart Duncan, well, there is no better or humbler player out there today.

I could go on, but I won't. It just doesn't get any better than this. If Pikelny doesn't win a Grammy, then those awards aren't worth a '70s-era tie.

Upcoming Concerts

Sponsor Message

Become a Sponsor

Find KDHX Online

KDHX on Instagram
KDHX on YouTube
KDHX on SoundCloud
KDHX on Facebook
KDHX on Twitter
KDHX on flickr

Local Artist Spotlight


Karate Bikini - A Simpler Sugar

Wed November 26
Karate Bikini is an eight piece ensemble who's members hail from St. Louis and the metro area. They are a large band with a large sound. Their latest album A Simpler Sugar is full of upbeat pop songs,…

88.1 KDHX Shows

m-crowd.jpg

KDHX Recommends

January
Saturday
17

Recording Clinic with Patrick Crecelius

KDHX is proud to host a DIY mixing workshop for musicians at The Stage at KDHX. The clinic will be taught by Patrick Crecelius of Cedar Box Studio. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, his credits include such local artists as Ryan...


January
Sunday
18

88.1 KDHX Musical Merry-Go-Round Welcomes The Boogers

The Boogers are the brainchild of Dr. Paul Crowe. Fatherhood, a PhD in Developmental Psychology, and 20 years of sloggin' it in wretched clubs as a punk rocker - even opening for Dee Dee Ramone and Marky Ramone - formed Paul's...


February
Sunday
01

Discovery Series

The Discovery Series, a 10-event series spanning February to June, 2015, will not only bring you new music, but also music-focused interactive sessions that take a look at how music plays a role in our society. Each month the...


Get Answers!

If you have questions or need to contact KDHX, visit our answers portal at answers.kdhx.org.

Online Users

7 users and 11861 guests online
Sign in with Facebook

SYSTEM: S5 Box

Login/My Account

Sign in with Facebook