Noam Pikelny – Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe

On this, a track-by-track recreation of Kenny Baker’s 1977 album Plays Bill Monroe,
Pikelny offers up what is a weird, muddled carbon copy-cum-tribute to
the bygone days of bluegrass. That might sound critical, but I don’t
mean it to be. After all, folk musicians have been cribbing material
from their predecessors for as long back as anyone can remember, ranging
from the alt-country explosion of the 1990s that began with Uncle
Tupelo covering an old Carter Family tune all the way back to 1927 with
record producer Ralph Peer convincing A.P. Carter himself to rejigger
old religious songs. So, it is nothing new to steal the old.
But these examples and, indeed, most musical appropriations, are
usually fairly suppressed or implicit, covered over by rewriting or
celebratory fist-bumping with the past. (Exhibit A for the latter: Kid
Rock’s bizarre Skynyrd-citing “All Summer Long”.) So what makes Noam
Pikelny’s Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe so odd is its straightforwardness—a roots artist picking one album, just one—and
just, well, doing it again. (Of course, it’s not so simple, but more on
that later.) The other thing that raises an eyebrow is this album’s
insistence on lineage, which presumes a weird, handing down of the
bluegrass flame from mandolinist Monroe to fiddler Baker to banjo player
Pikelny.

On the one hand, it’s a gutsy move claiming direct descent from Bill
Monroe, who is more legitimately the father of a music genre than anyone
else in history (his backing band was called the Blue Grass Boys). But
on the other hand, what seems like a bold assertion is less unwarranted
than you might think; Pikelny, after all, is the banjo player for the
Punch Brothers, who are widely considered without peer in the bluegrass
world today. Some might even go so far as to claim that Pikelny, save
for Béla Fleck and a handful of others, is one of the best banjo players
alive.

Despite all the critical haggling, I’ve managed so far to avoid the
real question at hand: Is this album worth listening to or not? It’s
hard to say. In a real way, the comparison of these albums is an issue
of apples-and-oranges. The fiddle and the banjo, despite such a musical
kinship, are still vastly different instruments with vastly different
roles in a traditional bluegrass setting. To say that a banjo player is
somehow certifiably better than a fiddler is nonsense; in the same way,
that is also true of these albums. But the comparison is also
problematic on a deeper level—for a reason that the casual listener will
not take note of. That comparison deals with technique and execution.

For example, it’s hard to imagine that Baker had much trouble (if any) pulling together Plays Bill Monroe—it helps to know here that Baker was a member of the Blue Grass Boys and had been performing those songs with Monroe himself
for almost two decades. Leap forward a quarter century to Noam
Pikelny’s album, which sounds, with its clear-cut fidelity to the 1977
original, like it must have been a breeze to cut in the studio. Quite
nearly the opposite is true. For Pikelny, the album was an immense
challenge to piece together; tunes that come easily on the fiddle can be
a nightmare on the banjo. So if you peek just under the surface of the
music, you can hear Pikelny wrestling with tradition, both figuratively
and literally, as he tries to coax unusual progressions out of his
instrument, pushing against boundaries that have long boxed in the
banjo, as he tries to trace the intricate melodies blazed by Baker.

The discerning listener will locate where Pikelny falls short.
“Lonesome Moonlight Waltz”, for instance, is a tough song to carry on
the banjo; the twang, however, soft and sensible, is caustic in this
setting, no match at all for the long, sweet notes procured by Baker on
his fiddle. Look also at “Fiddler’s Pastime”. As fun as Pikelny’s
version may be, Baker makes it abundantly clear why the tune has that
name. But that’s far from a universal struggle. On tunes like “Big Sandy
River” and “Road to Columbus”, there are moments where you can hear
Pikelny transcend the limits of his instrument, and it’s really
something to admire. But transcendence and apples and oranges aside,
this is a lovely, delightful album, which, in a world full of artists
jumping on the roots music bandwagon, is about as honest and heartfelt
as it gets.

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