It was a career zenith for Noam Pikelny.
Onstage last month at Northern Kentucky University with the progressive string band he helped form, the banjoist was propelling tunes like Next to the Trash and the Finnish-flavored Flippen to form music that meshed bluegrass, folk, pop, jazz and even a classical flourish or two.
But it was the setting that astounded the most. This wasn't a headlining concert for Punch Brothers, but an opening set for Paul Simon. In short, the performance served as a goal marker.
After cutting his musical teeth with some of the most modern-thinking bluegrass instrumentalists in Nashville, Pikelny moved to New York to establish a band with a stylistic reach that stretched way, way beyond what could be viewed as traditional bluegrass. But kicking off a concert bill for an iconic American songsmith reminded him of how such an artistic risk paid off.
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"I didn't see any of this coming when I first joined the band," Pikelny said by phone from St. Louis a few days before the NKU concert. "This was a brand-new life. It was the most exciting musical experience I could have imagined. And it continues to be so."
Still, a bit of the past still tugged at the banjoist. With Punch Brothers playing everything from original string quintet works for bluegrass instrumentation (group chieftain Chris Thile's The Blind Leaving the Blind) to covers of Radiohead, there was still a pull to pursue some of the more traditional music he had practiced in Nashville.
And so we have Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, an exuberant bluegrass-based solo album that leans more to the traditional inspirations of Pikelny's youth but fortified by a level of virtuosic musicianship he has attained after five busy years as a Punch Brother.
"I felt a little amputated from the acoustic music scene in Nashville, where I would see guys like Tim O'Brien, Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas — guys who were my heroes but had become friends I would see informally at picking parties or festivals," said Pikelny, 30. "Obviously, these opportunities weren't as prevalent being in New York. So I came to the conclusion that if I wanted those experiences to keep happening, I had to facilitate them myself."
That's when the idea came to cut a sophomore solo album (Pikelny's solo debut, In the Maze, was released in 2004) in Nashville with new and old friends alike. The guest list included Steve Martin, the actor/comic/bluegrass entrepreneur who awarded Pikelny his first annual Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass last year during a joint appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.
All of Pikelny's fellow Punch Brothers helped out as well, although fiddler Gabe Witcher works exclusively as producer on the record. O'Brien, Duncan, Douglas and bassist Mark Schatz, the string music elders who have pursued similarly minded progressive acoustic music for decades, are also featured.
Beat the Devil's repertoire is similarly eclectic. It shifts from the fiddle/banjo staple Cluck Old Hen to a cover of Tom Waits' wistful Fish and Bird (which features Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O'Donovan) to fine plaintive Pikelny originals like The Broken Drought. But the pervasive musical inspiration is still bluegrass.
"There were two motivating factors for making the album," Pikelny said. "One, I felt my playing has really changed because of Punch Brothers. I felt that even when I returned to more traditional music. Some of the techniques I've had to incorporate into my musical toolbox have been sparked by music that is very different than bluegrass.
"And selfishly, I wanted to put myself back in the room with Tim, Stuart and Jerry and all of the guys who have been a real source of inspiration. They've been serious role models."
Pikelny is squeezing in a few performances around touring duties with Punch Brothers, including a return to the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday, when he will be accompanied by Witcher, O'Donovan, Schatz, Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge and ex-Infamous Stringdusters mandolinist Jesse Cobb. But his primary source of promotion for Beat the Devil is a hysterical seven-minute video viewable at Funnyordie.com (search for "Noam Pikelny").
Intended as a spoof on electronic press kits sent out by record companies to push their product, Pikelny's video is a star-studded mock-documentary featuring Martin, actor Ed Helms, banjo greats Earl Scruggs and Béla Fleck, Americana songstress Gillian Welch and others. It revolves around the fake premise that Pikelny intended to dress the album's instrumental tracks with unknowingly pitch-deficient singing of his own design.
Bluegrass patriarch Scruggs gets the best line on Pikelny in the video: "If his dream is to sing, he better wake up."
"The video was an absolute coup," Pikelny said. "I just dreaded the idea of having to sit in front of the camera and lavish praise upon myself. It was actually my brother's idea to have the premise be, in my mind, that the record would mark my debut as a star vocalist. The whole experience was absolutely ridiculous. But it was also one of the highlights of my life just in how unanticipated that opportunity was.
"It was in the realm of my imagination that one day Punch Brothers could end up on Letterman or Leno and get exposure. But everyone's participation in the video was just overwhelming. I mean, to get Earl Scruggs involved? That really warmed my heart."