Chris Thile’s Midas Touch & The Unassuming Genius of Bluegrass

Mandolinist, singer, songwriter, and composer Chris Thile is a busy man. Here is a list of only some of his more popular projects:

  • Punch Brothers (mandolinist, singer, songwriter, composer)
  • Nickel Creek (mandolinist, singer, songwriter, composer)
  • The Goat Rodeo Sessions: Stuart Duncan, Yo Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer (mandolinist, singer, songwriter, composer)
  • Host of “Live from Here” (formerly the famous and famously boring “Prairie Home Companion”)
  • MacArthur Fellow

and so many other projects.

Chris Thile’s “Genius Grant” is an indication of something I’ve opined for some time: bluegrass is criminally under-appreciated on both a technical and historical level.

bluegrass instruments.jpg

Bluegrass is a bit like modern abstract art. Think of Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Their art is ubiquitous but divisive. Some people love it. Some people just don’t get it. Some people write it off as art an 8 year old could do. However, if you really ever look at either of Picasso or Pollock’s work, you will see a controlled chaos. These guys didn’t just poop out their works (not that some artists don’t). There was a method to the madness.

“Convergence” by Jackson Pollock, 1952

Similarly, bluegrass conveys chaotic or abstract sounds that many disregard as the pluckings of uneducated country bumpkins. However, if you take the time to really listen to blue grass, you might get swept away at high level of technicality as I do.

In the (in)famous movie Deliverance, the “Dueling Banjos” scene presents us with some backwoods folks. While the tune itself is popular, most folks are shocked at the appearance of the presumably inbred man-boy who appears listless but lays down on the banjo.

Technically (according to Wiki), bluegrass is a sub-genre of country music- though I’d argue they are more of sisters than bluegrass being a child of country. Bluegrass typically only uses acoustic, stringed instruments. Thus, bluegrass has been more accessible to those in areas populated by those with those in a lower socioeconomic class.

This is an aside, but I start the clip to one of my favorite parts of any modern bg song below:

Now I find that bluegrass fans are often older with some younger fans having crossover with jam band, folk, and country fans. While I like some of each one of those, I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of any of them. I have bands I like in all of them but am by no means an expert or can claim one as “my very most favorite”.

One thing that Chris Thile as well as the band Trampled by Turtles have done is to take indie songs and put a bluegrass twist on them. Trampled by Turtles did “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies, and Chris Thile has done a few songs from The Strokes and Tame Impala. I think these covers bring a larger audience into bluegrass, like myself, when they otherwise might have ignored it.

There are a lot of other contemporary bluegrass and folk artists that I have not mentioned in this post. They are all worth a listen However, Chris Thile is leading the charge with his numerous projects and innovations in a music from another time and place. I’d recommend his solo stuff or the Punch Brothers as a place to start.

Author: Keelin Billue

Chicago-based writer by way of Alabama, New Orleans, and Nashville. Writes primarily about music, sports (sort of), and the topics that piss people off at work and family holidays.

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