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Punch Brothers Honor Tony Rice By Reimagining A Classic

Punch Brothers

When Tony Rice recorded Church Street Blues in 1982, he was in a season of transition and exploration. He’d wrapped up four years playing innovative string band jazz in California with the David Grisman Quintet as well as a shorter tenure recording and touring with Emmylou Harris. He’d been recently remarried, yet he was also seeking help for anxiety. And generally, this 30-year-old being talked about as the greatest guitar player of his generation was hugely busy. Amid all that noise, he felt that what he wanted to do was record solo.

According to the account Rice shared with his biographers, he pitched his idea to Rounder Records where he’d recorded for years. They passed on the notion of this rising star without a band. Sugar Hill Records in North Carolina was excited by the idea, so that’s where it came out. Rice said he was inspired by his hero Gordon Lightfoot, but for the famously fastidious Rice, the exposed guitar and voice approach challenged him. “It was as naked as anything,” he says in the book Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story. Without the support of a bass or a banjo, “It’s like you’ve got to be a different musician as soon as that tape is rolling.” He said, “I didn’t like doing the album but I was proud of the results. It was a struggle to do it, real hard.”

Punch Brothers

The five members of the Grammy Award-winning string band Punch Brothers are actually attracted to things that are real hard, from the discipline of their musicianship up through their painstaking group composing process. The latest challenge they’ve taken on, at least in the recording studio, is a front-to-back cover of Church Street Blues, a seminal album for all of them. The result, Hell On Church Street, arrived in mid-January, layered with import. Between the recording and the release of this unique Tony Rice tribute, Rice died unexpectedly on Christmas Day 2020. Meanwhile, as its title implies, the album is a radical, even abstract interpretation of Church Street rather than a comforting set of covers, setting up a predictably mixed reaction among fans. It makes for a case study in how we hold on to cherished albums and how far our respect for artistic license extends when it impacts something we love.

Count me among the shade tree pickers and innumerable roots music fans who regard Church Street Blues as borderline scriptural. The songs, all covers themselves because Rice was not a songwriter, were deftly chosen, interpreted and sequenced. Rice’s peerless skills as a rhythm guitarist (oft unheralded by listeners but revered among his fellow musicians) are ultra-audible in support his rich baritone voice. The title track, written by Norman Blake, has a flow and harmonic structure all its own. “One More Night” has a lilt and yearning that’s lacking in Bob Dylan’s original on Nashville Skyline. Rice takes Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind,” already famously refreshed by Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, to new levels of lyricism and tenderness. Church Street is where I first heard Jimmie Rodgers’s swinging, bluesy “Any Old Time,” the foremost of several songs I (and so many others) spent hours learning to play and perform. As a middling musician, I can’t do much but play okay imitations of Rice’s definitive versions. The Punch Brothers, being deep thinkers and Tony Rice devotees, determined to avoid that middle ground at all costs.

“It's such a beloved record, you know, you're going to get flack when it doesn't sound like the original,” Chris Thile told me last week. “But all I would say is - you have the original. The most disrespectful thing we could possibly do is just band versions of Tony's versions of these songs. What would be a bigger creative slap in the face to a man who spent his whole life seeking a unique voice?”

“And that’s straight from Tony,” says Chris “Critter” Eldridge, guitar player in Punch Brothers. “Tony was very insistent, and I can say that confidently as a protégé of his, the thing we talked about probably more than anything else was the importance of not copying anybody else and the value of leaning into doing things as only you can do them.”

Punch Brothers’ first swing at interpreting Church Street Blues was more conventional and in line with Rice’s sound. They’d been invited to play the Rockygrass festival in Colorado in 2019, and since they’d played their regular set at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival just a few weeks before and not too far away, they came up with a concept set on short notice, which was to play Rice’s album with bluegrass band arrangements. Memories of that enjoyable and well-received performance were hanging in the air as the quintet wrestled with what to do during and with the 2020 Covid shutdown, when the weeks-long sessions Punch Brothers need to write a new album just weren’t possible.

Eldridge says it was banjo player Noam Pikelny who brought up Church Street as a cover project, based on the good experience at Rockygrass. “We all just thought it was a great idea,” he says. “We met up in Nashville in the beginning of November 2020. We podded up to an extreme degree. And we just started working on these tunes.” And that’s when the mission and aim to really put a stamp on the songs, starting with the opening title track, came clear. “You need to kind of declare your thesis statement,” Eldridge said. “Which is that we’re going to engage with this thing, creatively.”

“As we sat down with all this material, it was like, let’s roleplay,” Thile said. “We treat these (songs) as if they are Tony rice compositions. And now we push ourselves the way that we imagine Tony pushing himself as he's making that record, so that we end up with something that only we could have made.”

That’s certainly what came about. The song “Church Street Blues” emerges first from the Punch Brothers album in a floaty, ambiguous time signature that might be in two, three or five, depending on where you feel the downbeat. “Cattle In The Cane,” one of two instrumentals, gets more of a straight bluegrass treatment that displays the Brothers’ virtuoso picking. “Streets of London” is far slower and dreamier than the original, while “One More Night” (the Bob Dylan song) is quicker and a bit old-timey. The apex of inspired interpretation for me is the 7-minute blend of “House Carpenter” and “Jerusalem Ridge.” The former is an old English ballad that Thile’s cut before - on 2002’s Nickel Creek album This Side. That take was very spare, while this one swirls with an oceanic sound bed and accents that really draw out the drama before snapping into a dark and thrilling bluegrass drive. Thile holds the melodies of all these songs as sacrosanct, singing them as written, but everything else was up for stylistic grabs.

Hell On Church Street will for many fans be their first exposure to this sequence of these songs, and they’ll hear the intricacies and rapturous ensemble connection they’ve come to expect from Punch Brothers. Hopefully they’ll follow the lead to the 1983 album and fall in love with it. But for me and thousands of others, this music engages and collides with engraved memories and associations earned from living with and loving the Tony Rice original. The mind can rebel against even the best of intentions and the finest musicianship, whispering urgently in our ear, that’s now how it goes. So one protects against impressions of betrayal or sacrilege by listening especially analytically, appreciating the inventiveness and the textures and the insights. And that recalls the unique challenge that Punch Brothers laid down by debuting with a 40-minute suite in 2007. For those of us steeped in classical music and jazz, these boundary-pushing works have roots and context, while a bluegrass fan who identifies strongly with Tony Rice’s own style, or even Nickel Creek’s lighter touch on traditional music, might find themselves more at sea.

Thile gets analytical about it, as is his way, saying, “I think that sometimes people who don't make music themselves feel that some aspect of the gesture (of a cover) is a refutation of the original - that you are saying, the original thing is not how it should have been and what I'm showing you now is how it should have been. And of course, nothing could be further from the spirit of the gesture. Rather, the original gesture was so powerful that it elicited a response. It moved us so much that we moved.”

Punch Brothers - Church Street Blues