The Many Muses of Chris Thile

by Stephen Deusner on November 9, 2011

Chris Thile (photo: Cassandra Jenkins)

On his 2006 album How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, mandolinist Chris Thile transformed the ominously descending chord progressions of the White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” into a fleet bluegrass jam. At least on the surface, the cross-genre cover seems so unlikely it threatens to become a mere stunt, like Dynamite Hack’s ironic take on the NWA hit “Boyz in da Hood”—a comical or at least winking performance that highlights the cultural differences between the singer and the source material.

But instead, Thile—who performs solo at the Carolina Theatre in Durham on Sunday, November 13—is more interested in the similarities between bluegrass and blues rock, and his version of “Dead Leaves” possesses a very different—yet similarly rambunctious—energy, with an ineluctable momentum and a lovely, languid fiddle solo by Gabe Witcher. Peeking out from time to time, like a swimmer caught in the rapids, is Thile’s unself-conscious falsetto, a gangly counterpart to Jack White’s lustful howl.

“Dead Leaves” stands out in Thile’s impressively expansive catalog, not only because he pulls off the unlikely cover, but because the choice reveals his widespread interests beyond the bluegrass he’s been playing since he was five. In 2001, Nickel Creek—the group Thile joined as a child, in 1989, with fiddler Sara Watkins and guitar player Sean Watkins—memorably covered Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger” on their breakout album This Side, their technical proficiency neutering the original’s strident, almost comical misanthropy. More recently, Thile’s current group, the Punch Brothers, have worked songs by Radiohead, the Strokes, and Of Montreal into their live sets.

This suggests broadminded listening habits and a belief that a marginal genre can engage with the mainstream, but Pavement and especially the White Stripes really liven up Thile’s oeuvre, primarily because they emphasize an intriguing contrast in approaches to musical technique. Both groups are known, and even renowned, for their supposed lack of sophistication: Pavement indulged a slyly slack sound that, in the early 1990s, was a soundtrack for the generational slippage into defensive irony. The Stripes pounded with a primitive yet knowing force to evoke the emotionally brutal in blues-based rock. (In the past year, Thile has recorded a seven-inch single and a full album at Jack White’s Third Man Studios in Nashville, which suggests a second phase of a professional relationship that began with “Dead Leaves.”)

Bluegrass, on the other hand, generally prizes the same quality those bands shirk—or at least, create the impression of shirking—and artists in this genre tend not only to play well but play very, very well. Thile himself began playing professionally when he was only eight years old, being home-schooled so that he could tour. He’s spent most his life developing his composition and performance chops. To his credit, he doesn’t mimic the rudimentary punch of Meg White’s drums or the off-kilter stumble of Pavement’s sound. He isn’t slumming, dipping into novelty, or rebelling against the more cloistered aspects of his own milieu.

Instead, Thile sees something sophisticated in these artists’ projected lack of sophistication, much as some of the old-time folk artists whose geographical isolation and lack of music training allowed them to develop enormously distinctive styles. And perhaps these forays into messy indie rock afford Thile an opportunity to focus on something other than technique—in other words, to get outside of himself and his training.

On the other end of the spectrum is classical music, which Thile integrates into his core bluegrass sound as easily and interestingly as he does indie rock. The jewels of this side of Thile are his transcriptions of Bach Partitas for mandolin. Originally written for keyboards or violins, these complex but highly musical pieces showcase his fluid dexterity as well as his interpretive range. Just as he’s not slumming in pop, Thile isn’t showboating when he plays Bach (well, not much). Instead, he finds something intimate and even homespun in the great composer’s lofty sophistication.

There is, Thile seems to understand, no tidy, one-to-one parallel between these disparate musical traditions. Ultimately, the dissimilarities are just as bracing as the similarities, and he constructs a typical set-list to mix styles and approaches, so that Bach jostles with Radiohead, and original compositions abut traditional tunes. Savoring these often extreme contrasts, he has positioned himself at the intersection of discourses, triangulating a vantage point from which he can not only engage with them, but allow them to engage with each other.

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