"Whenever I come back to Nashville, I feel a little sentimental about the time that I spent there," says banjo kingpin and Punch Brother Noam Pikelny as he contemplates doing just that on Dec. 7 in support of his new solo release, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail. And indeed, he goes on to note, "The concept of this record was in some ways guided by the fact that I'm no longer in Nashville. I moved to New York over three years ago with The Punch Brothers, and it's an incredible, wide-ranging arts scene — but I'm not coming home to the same community of acoustic musicians that exists in Nashville. When I would come home to Nashville from Punch Brothers tours, I was able to find opportunities to scratch my bluegrass itch more readily.
"So when I came to the realization that seven years had flown by since my last record, and when I was starting to think about what this new record would be, I thought, 'I want to play music with these guys that I missed — guys that I used to see more often in Nashville.' "
Alongside the desire to get with friends and heroes — his word — like Tim O'Brien, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas and David Grier, Pikelny also had another goal in mind. A goal that makes perfect sense for a guy who's been pushing boundaries yet still retains an affinity for the kind of traditional sounds that provide the musical matrix for all the picking parties he'd been at during his years here.
"I felt that my musicianship and banjo playing was really transformed by being around the musicians in Punch Brothers," he says. "But despite the fact that so much of the work I was doing to expand my toolbox was for non-bluegrass, non-roots kinds of music, it was still making an impression on my playing when I would return to music more closely connected to what I grew up learning and playing. And so when I looked at the album, I thought, 'Here's a chance to show the way my playing has changed, but do it within the bluegrass world.' Or, at least, what I think of as that world."
Pikelny's profile in that world was heightened dramatically last year, when he became the first recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. But even before then, he was known to — and admired by — all but the crustiest of traditionalists, thanks to appearances live and/or recorded with artists ranging from newgrass icon John Cowan to festival favorites The Chapmans, bringing jaw-dropping chops and a subtle, witty creativity to them all. And while Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail has plenty of edgy — though always melodic — newgrass, it's got more than occasional moments of nothing but bluegrass, including a tip of the hat to one very old school with a Pikelny-Duncan fiddle-and-banjo rendition of the late Art Stamper's "Pineywoods." Pikelny cheerfully confesses that he was "never so nervous as I was on 'Pineywoods,' " but the fact remains that there was no need for the nerves — the duet is killer, and so is the rest of the album.
Like the album, the group that's touring behind it heads in any number of musical directions without ever floating completely away from bluegrass and old-time roots. Guitarist Chris Eldridge and bass legend Mark Schatz reprise their roles in the album's core band, while producer Gabe Witcher takes up the fiddle he plays with The Punch Brothers, and singer Aoife O'Donovan (Crooked Still), whose take on Tom Waits' "Fish and Bird" is one of the project's highlights, will get plenty of time in front of the mic.
Rounding out the ensemble is mandolin monster and fellow former Nashvillian Jesse Cobb, who recently retired from The Infamous Stringdusters — whose original guitarist was none other than Eldridge. "I was out at the Four Corners festival when Tim O'Brien told me he wouldn't be able to do this tour," Pikelny recalls, "and that afternoon I was in a jam session with Jesse and some other guys. That was the first time I'd gotten to play with him in years, and we had such a good time that I thought he'd be perfect for this."
Fittingly, the group's booked at The Station Inn, where Pikelny spent a lot of time scratching his bluegrass itch when he was living here. "We're going to showcase the music from the album," he promises, "but we've got a lot more time in the show than that takes, so we're trying to think of ways to expand — there's going to be a lot of singing, and we're going to feature everybody. And this being Nashville, we'll have some guests, too. I've got a lot of friends who are still here."