Chris Thile’s new album is being billed as his return to bluegrass. But what he means by bluegrass is anybody’s guess.
Thile has been blurring the genre’s definition as mandolinist for Nickel Creek — a band whose instrumentation and inspiration is rooted in bluegrass, but seeded with country, jazz, rock, classical and pop elements. It’s a top-selling act whose broad appeal has reached way beyond the core bluegrass audience.
Thile’s new release, which bears the fantastical/surreal title of How to Grow a Woman From the Ground, also features the bluegrass instrumental lineup of mandolin, fiddle, banjo, standup bass and acoustic guitar. But the arrangements and some of the compositions are just as harmonically and structurally ambitious as those pursued by such newgrass/progressive bluegrass acts as New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, Alison Brown, Tony Rice, Laurie Lewis — and Nickel Creek.
Thile, a soulful vocalist, still pines for rock ‘n’ roll. Nickel Creek once famously covered a tune by the indie-rock critical darlings Pavement, and on How to Grow a Woman, he raids the garage-rock cabinet, reworking The White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and The Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage.” He also covers a few more trad-minded tunes, like Jimmie Rodgers’ “Brakeman’s Blues” and Gillian Welch’s “Wayside (Back in Time).”
Thile thinks his affinity for musical hybrids is partly a matter of simple geography. “I grew up in Southern California — I don’t have memories of living in a log cabin in the hills of Kentucky or anything like that — but I just always loved bluegrass music,” explains Thile. “I always just found it aesthetically pleasing, but I approached it the same way as a lot of people who don’t come from the rural South — I also draw on other kinds of music that I grew up with.”
But Thile says this hybridized approach is not a conscious effort. “I am very wary of making those records where you go, ‘Let’s see what happens when you combine this with that’ — to me that always seems to be too contrived. Music doesn’t need to have such trivial experiments performed on it. A lot of these new songs didn’t really strike me as bluegrass songs, per se, but just as great songs that were begging to be played in that kind of style. It just seemed that this was the proper way to play these songs.”
As for Thile’s interpretation of The White Stripes tune, he insists that it was not a conscious cross-genre exercise — he wasn’t interested in “taking a garage tune and turning it into a bluegrass-type song. It already struck me as more like a bluegrass song than a garage-rock song. Jack White is actually a very country-tinged songwriter, which you could hear on his tunes from the Cold Mountain record. I’m actually surprised I got to it first. Someone like Del McCoury could easily have got to it before I did.
Thile is equally impressed with Welch, and saw that song as a perfect fit for the record: “I love her stuff. I think she’s one of our greatest songwriters, and this song really fit into the grand lyrical scheme of the album.”
How to Grow a Woman was conceived a few years ago, after Thile moved to New York City following a brutal divorce. He began dropping in on a weekly bluegrass jam at The Baggot Inn in Greenwich Village and then began a solo residency, where he worked out new material and began finding new ways to interpret old songs.
“That kind of move, moving to a huge city like New York, can be sort of daunting, so you do tend to look for comfort in things that are already familiar to you,” says Thile. “And bluegrass makes up a huge chunk of who I am.”
Thile felt especially drawn to the fantasy potential of the title track, which was written by his friend Thomas Anderson Brosseau. “It inspired me to put together a collection of songs that maybe subconsciously tells a coherent story,” Thile reveals.
“I think it’s an amazing song,” says Thile of the title track. “At the time, I was in an emotional space where I could relate to being so disheartened, so cynical — but at the same time, having a desire to make a deep connection.”
As for Nickel Creek, the band members have already decided to go on indefinite hiatus starting at the end of 2007. “I don’t really want to talk about that,” Thile declares. “But part of the reason is that everyone wanted to go off and do their own things. I love them (guitarist Sean Watkins and fiddler Sara Watkins) dearly, and I always will.
[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom can be reached at KevinRansom@comcast.net.]
Chris Thile and How to Grow a Band play The Grey Eagle on Sunday, Nov. 19. Sometimes Why opens the 7 p.m. show. $20/advance, $23/door. 232-5800.