Their mandolins, their way

“Oh, I played with them when they were very young and not famous,” says mandolinist Mike Marshall, referring to his résumé-gilding gigs with David Grisman, Darol Anger and Béla Fleck.

“I’ve known Béla since he was 17,” the musician adds during a recent interview with Xpress. “These people have done the hard work of becoming popular – I’m just lucky to associate with them.”

Though Marshall has both the credentials and the chops to be a prima donna, he instead comes across as the laidback neighbor with a secret. And he purports himself not as a mandolin-playing equivalent to a rock god, but as a cheerleader for his collaborators.

“We’re admirers of each other, but also best buddies,” he says of a recent pairing with Nickel Creek mandolin prodigy Chris Thile – a musician young enough to be Marshall’s son.

Thile, Marshall trumpets, has “tremendous musicality.” In fact, “I’m learning from [it] everyday,” admits the older mandolinist, though he will allow that his experience brings a little maturity to the duo.

“A broad look at music”

Thile (pronounced Thee-lee) is a California-raised, artfully stubbled Gen-Y hipster of a latter-day Luke Perry ilk, who looks like he’d be better suited for American Idol than for the bluegrass festivals on whose main stages he frequently appears. But – thanks to the mainstreaming of folk traditions – such trendily clad bands as Nickel Creek (brother/sister duo Sean and Sara Watkins complete the trio) now perform for audiences who also rock Nelly and Gwen Stefani on their iPods.

As if driving that point home, this past November the 24-year-old moved to New York’s East Village – a locale also favored by Bright Eyes’ Connor Oberst. In fact, acclimating to new digs was the reason Thile’s publicists gave when the musician turned down an interview with Xpress (yeah, we get it: bright lights, big city. But really.)

Marshall, on the other hand, grew up in Central Florida – a place generally better known for pop and house beats than bluegrass breakdowns.

Unlike Thile’s stage-minded clan – his dad played in Nickel Creek until the former teen bluegrass band was ready to go it alone – Marshall’s family wasn’t musically inclined, and so he had lessons at a local store with a teacher he says “took a broad look at music.” And like banjo genius Béla’s media-catalogued forays into jazz and funk (with the Flecktones) and classical (with crossover pop singer Josh Groban), Marshall has delved into equally uncharted waters with his mandolin.

Take his own classical group, the Modern Mandolin Quartet, formed in 1986. Using mandolins, mandola and mandocello (all in the same family, like the violin and viola), “you can pick up any piece of classical music, read it, and play it on mandolin,” Marshall notes. (He admits the trickiest part of going classical was finding other mandolin players who could read sheet music.)

Are you experienced?

Marshall’s more recent projects with Thile (the two perform at Diana Wortham Theatre Jan. 13 as part of a 17-date tour) are a departure from all his previous endeavors, which currently include Brazilian duets and experiments with a Swedish group.

“From the moment we met, we had this mando-appreciation society going on. Normally you have limitations to what kinds of music you can play with another person – it’s unusual to meet someone like Chris.”

Touted as one of Nashville’s most in-demand session players, Thile – formerly presented as a squeaky-clean wünderkind who could pen love songs while remaining, himself, romantically unsullied – has jammed with the likes of Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban. But could he and Marshall craft an album solely based on mandolin wizardry? That was the challenge of 2003’s Into the Cauldron (Sugar Hill).

The record, a self-satisfied collection of intricate, lyric-free noodlings, offers little for the lay listener – but it’s the stuff converts and critics die for: ” … Into the Cauldron is frustrating because it’s only one CD,” gushed Michael Simmons on Happily for fans of speedy picking and stylized licks, the duo has completed a second disc, Live: Duets, due out on Sugar Hill this month.

“What happened was we went out and toured, and over the course of that we started writing music together for our instruments,” Marshall explains.

And then there’s that chemistry – something Thile knows a little more about since his oft-mentioned, whirlwind marriage and divorce.

“He’s so sweet,” Marshall ribs his colleague. “He makes you feel really good about his pushiness.”

But can the uninitiated relate? Fans who dig Nickel Creek its accessible, pop-savvy lyrics won’t find much that’s warm and fuzzy about Cauldron – this duo’s brew, though potent, is still bubbling to itself.

Mike Marshall and Chris Thile play Diana Wortham Theatre Friday, Jan. 13 as part of the venue’s Mainstage Music Series. 8 p.m. $28/general, $26/seniors, $23/students, $10/kids. 257-4530.


About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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