Leadman Chris Thile may have landed a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” for mandolin, but don’t confuse his band for a bluegrass outfit.
After six Grammy Award nominations, the Punch Brothers have just brought home Folk Album of the Year for their latest album “All Ashore.” That doesn’t mean we can call them folk band, either.
“Musicians are so unconcerned with what you call music,” founding guitarist and eight-time Grammy Award nominee Chris “Critter” Eldridge said. “On the one hand, winning a Grammy is this incredible honor, but at the same time you can’t take yourself any more seriously than you did the day before you got it.”
But when it comes to music, there’s one thing Thile, Eldridge, double-bassist Paul Kowert, fiddle player Gabe Witcher and banjoist Noam Pikelny do take seriously, their strings.
“When you look at a banjo there’s a certain type of music or musical culture that you think of, whereas when you look at an electric guitar, it can suggest so many different things,” Eldridge said. “We’re all really serious students of all of our respective string instruments. So, almost by default, that means we come from those traditions—bluegrass, old time, Irish music. We grew up playing them. But just because these instruments are our most native instruments, that doesn’t mean we have to play the music that was always played on them.”
Musical traditions are just the jumping off point, Eldridge says. And while the band might pledge allegiance to string band forefathers like Bill Monroe or Earl Scruggs, they’re always careful not to emulate or reenact them.
Rather than playing the songs that have long been played, the Punch Brothers focus on living and playing the present moment, drawing on that rich background of their traditional influences layered alongside their their non-so-traditional ones, which ranges from Thom Yorke to D’Angelo.
“We’re listening to all the music that’s happening around us, all the time,” Eldridge said. “In order to make music that’s reflective of what’s happening now, and to constantly be pushing ourselves forward creatively. Otherwise, for this band, there’s no point.”
When you smash together outside-the-box creative ambitions with virtuosic talent, good things happen. Following sold-out shows at the Savannah Music Festival in 2009 and 2014, the band returns to continue that trend — tickets are going fast for their show 7:30 p.m. March 30 at the Trustees Theater, where they’ll play Punch Brothers tunes old and new.