Pikelny and Duncan will perform at Franklin Theatre on June 28 — see my Critic's Pick here. The Cream recently spoke to Pikelny about his experience with the tour, what drew him to Stuart Duncan specifically and why the two decided take on the challenge of touring without accompaniment. Pikelny also discussed why the banjo and fiddle speak to each other musically in a way that other instrument pairings just can’t. See our discussion below.
What made you want to do a tour outside a full band setting?
Stuart Duncan has always been one of my favorite musicians within the world of bluegrass and roots music. He's always been someone I've looked up to. I've tried to create opportunities to play with him in the studio. I've been lucky enough to get him on the last couple of records. He played on the Kenny Baker record, and he played on the record before, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, but those were my only real interactions with him musically. I never had gotten to play with him live. I'd always thought of him as such a spontaneous and daring musician — a guy who takes incredible chances in the studio and plays things differently every time. There was this curiosity of what that type of collaboration would be like in a live situation.
Over the last couple of years, I've been touring under the banner of Noam Pikelny and Friends, playing music from both of those records with some of the greatest musicians in bluegrass. I was looking for an opportunity to play some with Stuart, and we both had this realization that we could try to make an entire evening's worth of music with just a fiddle and banjo. The sound of the fiddle and the banjo is such a classic texture. The fiddle and banjo, in some capacities, like in old-time music, is considered a full band. It's such a rich tradition that exists within old time music and bluegrass music, but not necessarily as a full evening of music. Flatt and Scruggs of course would feature the fiddle and banjo throughout their show, but it was done more interstitially. Earl Scruggs would come up and play a song with Paul Warren, but it wouldn't be a whole evening. So we were both intrigued by this idea of whether it would be possible to carry an entire show with just fiddle and banjo. The more we thought about it, we thought it would work because we could feature the straight-ahead bluegrass music from the Kenny Baker project that we both bring to the table from our bluegrass background. But we'd also be able to play some of the less obvious material that might actually shine a new light on these instruments in a live setting.
Stuart is such a breathtaking musician, just in the sound he produces on the fiddle. There's such subtlety in his playing that there was an epiphany early on when we started practicing that this was going to be a chance for people to hear both of these instruments and our playing in such full detail. I think it's a really interesting opportunity to get a high-definition sense of what we’re playing in this context that would usually be covered up in a larger ensemble. So there were many motivations. Initially it was just born out of the idea of trying to get to play more music with each other. Originally we weren’t thinking we wouldn't want to play with other musicians, but it just got thrown out there as an idea, and we said, "This would be the biggest challenge. If we could make this work, this would be the most special." We've done one tour, and this next trip that brings us to the Franklin Theatre will be our second trip — I think it'll be our sixth gig when we play in Franklin. So it's brand new and very exciting for both of us.
Because of the old-time music tradition, the banjo-fiddle pair is thought of as having this sort of Wonder Twins relationship, but obviously both your and Stuart's playing have come a long way from the old-time style. How do you have to adapt your personal style to make sure that synergy still works?
I think the reason why the fiddle-banjo texture sounds great in old-time music and in bluegrass music still holds up when we're pursuing more progressive music in this format, whether it's original music that I've written, or some covers where Stuart is singing. It's a real textural gem of having the fiddle, which has the ability to sustain notes much longer than a banjo and also, not being a fretted instrument, has the ability to play the notes in between and slide around, set against the rhythmic grid of the banjo. I think that's a classic sound that doesn't grow old.
For the material we're playing that's less reminiscent of the classic fiddle-banjo tradition — banjo being the backup instrument and fiddle being the lead voice — we’re able to make it work because of the sparse nature of this duo. An example I would give is that playing slow music on the banjo is typically not the sound that people have in their heads as far as what a banjo does best. When someone thinks of bluegrass banjo you typically have the sound of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" in your mind. But I've always gravitated toward warmer banjos, and I love playing slow music. I'm a huge fan of pedal steel guitar and Telecaster music, and I've tried to incorporate a lot of those influences into my banjo playing. The banjo isn't an instrument that has an incredible amount of sustain, but I've chosen actual instruments that are a little bit warmer, where if there's nothing getting in the way of my sound, if there's nothing infringing on that sonic real estate, you actually can hear some of the sustain of the instrument, and you can play music that's slower, that has a little bit more of a decay to the note. That type of thing wouldn't be possible in an ensemble with a dreadnought guitar without having to turn one instrument up incredibly loud and turning one instrument down.
So this kind of pairing, regardless of which direction we go, seems to be very welcoming to the material. Of course it's tried and true with the classic bluegrass fiddle-and-banjo sound, but when we got to play my original music or, say, a Merle Haggard cover that Stuart is singing, more of a ballad, because of the sparseness, it allows these elements of the instruments to all of the sudden be audible, in a way that I think might be kind of surprising to people at first, because you're not used to hearing the banjo played rhythmically like a piano, or you might not be used to hear the fiddle chop in a way that's more reminiscent of the mandolin.
Your website has the picture of you with the top tension Gibson banjo, and then in the promo video for this tour you're playing a different one. Can you talk about how you chose which instruments to use for this tour?
That's just the current banjo I'm currently playing. The banjo I'm playing in the promo video is a Gibson Grenada, which I got last year, and that's become my main banjo.
Looking at your tour schedule, you're playing a lot of dates in the Southeast, but a good bit in other parts of the country too. Do you a notice a difference in how what you and Stuart are doing is received region to region?
We don't have enough of a sampling under our belts yet to draw any real conclusions from this project. But with my band Punch Brothers over the last eight years, there is something different about playing in the Southeast versus playing elsewhere in the country. What we've noticed when we're in places like North Carolina and Tennessee is that there's doesn't seem to be as much of a perceived novelty over our instrumentation. What I mean by that is that when we go play our original music in the Southeast, people aren't getting too hung up on the fact that we're playing banjos, mandolins and fiddles. It's something familiar to them — there's not this novelty or exoticism of the instrumentation that is the first thing that pings their radar. Whereas, when you're outside, one of the things that fueled the intense bluegrass scene in New York City over the last decade initially was that it's just the most exotic thing in the world to be hearing, like high lonesome bluegrass being played every Tuesday night. Take a guy like Michael Daves, who's just brilliant. People will stumble into these rooms and hear this music, kind of out of context, or at least out of context geographically from where they imagine it being played. The first hit is this exoticism. When we've played in the Southeast, that doesn't happen, because these instruments are things that people have grown up with. That's always been something that's registered with us in Punch Brothers over the years, that maybe our connection musically is just a little more immediate because we don't have to get past that stage of it being exotic because of the instrumentation.
Last time you played in Nashville you had just put out the Kenny Baker album. Does being on tour when you're not right on the heels of an album release give you more latitude in terms of material you can draw from for a live show?
Yeah. The further you get on the calendar from your record release, you probably feel less of a pressure to be featuring all of that music. But when I'm playing my music off of my records and doing tours that are under my own name or this tour which is an equal billing with Stuart Duncan, there's not an intense pressure to just be pushing music from the albums. This isn't a real commercial list endeavor; this is first and foremost born out of our love of playing this music together. Of course it's how we make our living, but because of the nature of our performances, I think most people would be inclined to pick up a record whether we played three songs off of it or 11. We're trying to see what works best musically. The Kenny Baker project is not even a year old and I haven't toured the entire country, so you could make the argument that it is the current new record, it is my current project. We're probably playing about five or six songs from that record over the course of a 20- or 21-song set. So we're pulling from lots of different sources. Music from the Kenny Baker record and Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail probably comprise almost half of the set, but this pairing has also given me a chance to go back and rework some of the songs from my debut record, In the Maze, which I've never played live before.