The music is rooted in the string-band aesthetics of bluegrass. But on the debut album by an all-star collective titled The Goat Rodeo Sessions, and the sophomore effort by Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny, what you hear is a classically inclined sound with rich, rural country flair.
The musicians making up The Goat Rodeo Sessions — cellist/classical crossover star Yo-Yo Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan, double bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile — are old hands at this kind of acoustic-fusion music. Ma and Meyer, in particular, have experimented with it since the release of the ground-breaking album Appalachian Waltz with Mark O'Connor more than 15 years ago.
Since then, Thile, late of Nickel Creek, has played a remarkable game of instructional catch-up to play with past generations of string music renegades, and Duncan, a ridiculously versed Nashville session player, has been all over the road stylistically. Among his more visible roles of late: a place alongside Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their Raising Sand tour.
What this quartet brings to The Goat Rodeo Sessions is a variation of the so-called "new grass" music developed during the late '70s and the '80s in Nashville and along the West Coast. The album uses several familiar devices — specifically, elongated bass lines that produce a requisite barnyard feel, and soaring fiddle phrases that bust up country stereotypes into produce warm but wintry passages.
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Thile sets the pace with the ballet-like mandolin delicacy of Attaboy, and Ma establishes the tune's cordial lyricism. The music's dance-like classicism has Ma's stamp on it through and through. But there also is generous playfulness here, as in country-accented exchanges that criss-cross on Hill Justice to enforce The Goat Rodeo Sessions' spry and infectious string music temperament.
Pikelny's Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail shares several players with The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Duncan is all over the record, Thile (a fellow Punch Brother) shines on the spacious, classically flavored Bear Dog Grit (written with producer Gabe Witcher, who is yet another Punch Bro), and wispy-toned Crooked Still singer Aoife O'Donovan helps out on both recordings.
But Beat the Devil has a more pronounced bluegrass sensibility, whether it's through the spring-flavored exchanges with dobro great Jerry Douglas (another veteran of this kind of progressive, stylistically pollinated string music), the lightly animated My Mother Thinks I'm a Lawyer or the more rustic banjo tradeoffs with Steve Martin on the chestnut Cluck Old Hen.
These tunes prove that, no matter how cosmopolitan this music gets, the country shades of this modern grass music shine through.