In November of 2020, when the world felt so full of uncertainty, the Grammy-winning folk band Punch Brothers did the one thing that they could rely on: they stood in a circle, facing one another, and made music together. A weeklong recording session, after quarantining and little rehearsal outside of a few Zoom calls, had culminated in their new record, Hell on Church Street—a reimagining of bluegrass great Tony Rice’s landmark solo album, Church Street Blues.
Hell on Church Street is a potent work by a band realizing its own powers and returning to the foundations of its music. The record finds the band at its most spontaneous—taking risks, listening deeply to one another, and approaching the music with a kind of immediacy only accessible to musicians of their particular ability who have also forged a deep trust over their decade and a half together. Bassist Paul Kowert considers this album to “harken back to our early days in the band when we were playing regularly on The Lower East Side, learning all this new material to expand our sonic arsenal.”
This band of virtuosi had spent more than a decade changing the face of acoustic music, stretching the limitations of instruments, and influencing a generation of young musicians—but life has a way of keeping a band from getting in the same room. Mandolinist Chris Thile elaborates that “these sessions were a reminder for me of what’s really important. I felt silly having this band take up so little of my creative year; it reminded me that us five together is critical to my happiness.”
Church Street Blues was Tony Rice’s great statement. By his mid-twenties, Rice had already made his name as a member of the legendary bluegrass band JD Crowe and The New South and pushed the boundaries of string music as a founding member of the David Grisman Quartet. An exceptionally gifted singer—and a guitarist who redefined the possibilities of the instrument through his synthesis of bluegrass, bebop-era jazz, American folk music and virtually anything else that caught his ear—he once remarked “as soon as you become a diehard anything, be it jazz or bluegrass or whatever, you’re depriving yourself of a whole world of music.” Tony Rice created a new language for this music that continues to influence generations of musicians, and deeply influenced all of the Punch Brothers in their formative years. Banjo player Noam Pikelny adds, “The records that most inspired me to want to play music all had Tony Rice as the common thread.” Church Street Blues was Rice at his most vulnerable: stripped back to guitar, his voice, and a memorable collection of songs from heavyweights like Gordon Lightfoot and bluegrass founder Bill Monroe. Rice’s versions of these tunes have since become the standard, and Church Street Blues a masterpiece, in both interpretation and delivery.
Pikelny cites the importance of “Tony’s direct performance. On the song, ‘Church Street Blues,’ what he’s playing is so complicated, but it doesn’t feel that way, it feels elemental … like falling off a log.” During Thile’s younger years as a member of Nickel Creek, folk music legend Alison Krauss sat him and his bandmates down, turned on Church Street Blues, and said, “‘This is how you make a record.’ Every time I make a record I think of Church Street Blues.”
Tony Rice was a hero to all the Punch Brothers, but perhaps to no one more than guitarist Chris Eldridge. Eldridge’s father, Ben, was a founding member of the influential bluegrass band the Seldom Scene, and Rice was an old family friend. As a college student, Eldridge had worked out a deal where he could study one-on-one with the notoriously reclusive guitarist in exchange for school credit. He certainly learned music from Rice, but through those lessons he also learned much more.
Eldridge says, “I would be playing some hot-shot guitar part and he would stop me and remind me, ‘It’s not about you. It’s simply about collaborating with your fellow musicians to make sounds that are pleasant to the ear.’ That sounds simple, but it’s incredibly deep.” The advice colored the generative way, years later, Punch Brothers made music, each listening deeply to one another’s parts while creating a symphony in their collective.
The decision to reimagine Rice’s record came from a hastily assembled set at the prestigious Rockygrass Festival in Colorado in 2019. “We knew all the songs,”says bassist Paul Kowert. Fiddler Gabe Witcher adds, “We had to figure out something to play for a set of bluegrass, and we figured the audience would know that record. As soon as they caught onto what we were doing we hoped they would be into it, and that proved correct, fortunately.” The Rockygrass set quickly became a thing of legend, with bootlegged recordings being passed around by rabid fans on Reddit and other social media sites.
After that performance, the band members continued with their own individual busy schedules. Witcher co-produced Not Our First Goat Rodeo by Thile, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, and Yo-Yo Ma and composed for the best-selling video game Red Dead Redemption 2; Kowert continued writing music and touring with his critically acclaimed quartet Hawktail; Pikelny toured as a duo with Stuart Duncan; and Eldridge produced albums and performed with fellow guitar phenom Julian Lage.
Thile’s life was full as host of public radio’s flagship program Live from Here, where he juggled the role of master-of-ceremonies while also contributing to just about every musical performance, be it bluegrass, blues, rock, or hip-hop. When the pandemic began and live performances ceased, Live from Here was abruptly cancelled, to the dismay of its legions of fans, and Thile found himself unmoored.
With the band separated by great distance (Pikelny, Eldridge and Kowert live in Nashville, Witcher in Los Angeles and Thile in New York) and their other work slowed down, the members of Punch Brothers started chatting over cocktails on late night Zoom calls.
Needing an outlet from the stress they each were feeling, they reconnected over the promise of making new music. Pikelny says they realized that “talking about this record was becoming our outlet … in lieu of buying a farm in upstate New York and Critter [Chris Eldridge] being in charge of the cows and Paul being in charge of the goats.” Thile adds, “I think we all started seeking out experiences that we had when the world was simpler. I started listening to records that had made a profound impact on me when I was younger—like Church Street Blues.”
The question was posed—if Tony Rice’s album was an interpretation of these classic songs, how then would an interpretation of that sound? Thile thinks of it as “similar to how a jazz musician takes a theme and has a conversation with it in real time. That’s what Tony was doing with those pre-existing songs. And then what we were striving to do with this entire record is have a conversation with that.”
Hell on Church Street’s adventurous path ranges from the title track—a song of longing for home penned by the legendary folk songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Norman Blake—converted from a solo guitar performance to the full band playing in a gliding 5/4 time signature, to a honky-tonk version of Jimmie Rodgers’ Any Old Time, to a free improvised version of the bluegrass standard “Gold Rush,” to a straight-forward playing of the fiddle tune “Cattle in the Cane,” where Pikelny and Eldridge play one of Rice’s most challenging solos note-for-note in unison.
The album is courageous in its reinterpretation of its material, a sign Punch Brothers was truly channeling their hero. “Tony cared so much about individuality and really doing things your own way. If you’re going to do something, do it like you,” remembers Eldridge. Pikelny adds, “We’ve closed some doors for ourselves over the years by shying away from covering other people’s material on record beyond one or two songs here and there. At long last we have a Punch Brothers covers record—but I can’t imagine making a more personal one, solely through the power of interpretation and delivery.”
Hell on Church Street was intended to be its own work of art, but it was also meant to be a gift and homage to Rice. “We wanted to thank him for being one of the biggest influences on us and anyone who interacts with American roots music,” says Thile. Pikelny remembers saying to Thile, “We needed to make this album in our lifetime. But wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t make this record in Tony Rice’s lifetime?”
On Christmas Day 2020 Tony Rice passed away at his home in Reidsville, North Carolina. The band was devastated by the loss of its hero and the sad realization he would never receive their gift and honor. Pikelny, along with the rest of the band, realized that the true gift was given to them. “After we got over the shock of losing our hero and friend, we realized what Tony had left with us was his music, his spirit, and his legacy. And clear marching orders to ‘make it all count.’”
Eldridge, when asked what Rice might think of this record, offered: “He liked things that were unique, and he celebrated people who were unique in their work and their art. But he also loved spontaneity, and this is the most spontaneous record Punch Brothers has ever made. In those ways this record is the most true and direct tribute to everything we learned from him.”
Hell on Church Street captures the beautiful contradictions at the Punch Brothers’ core: a performance built on a spontaneity that can only come from a lifetime of practice; breathtaking virtuosity employed to channel deep emotion; and a deep respect for those who came before tied to a fearlessness to forge their own path.
Thile says, in summary, “We spent a lot of time contemplating what happened when Church Street Blues hit our ears as a band: we held it out, we conversed with it, and now we’re handing it to you.”
Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2023
Hell on Church Street, Punch Brothers’ newest album, due January 14, 2022 on Nonesuch Records, is the band’s reimagining of, and homage to, the late bluegrass great Tony Rice’s landmark…Read More