Last Saturday, I received a record in the mail on pre-order that I’ve been looking forward to for the last several months. Having been a Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers, and Chris Thile fan in general, I was eager to check out the new project he had been working on with Michael Daves. I knew that they had played together at the weekly bluegrass jam at the Baggot Inn in NYC, and that the record would be concerned with old bluegrass tunes, but I knew very little of what the finished product would involve. Thile has stated that Daves’s visceral relationship to music has freed him up to not over-think everything going on and just to let the music happen, and that is clearly evident in this new batch of old tunes.
So, let’s get to the music.
On the surface, it’s just 16 old bluegrass tunes cut at Jack White’s Third Man Studios in Nashville. Dig a little deeper and you will see how excellent this record is on multiple levels. To begin, this album is truly a Thile/Daves record, not a Chris Thile and this other guy record. Having not heard of Daves before, I was primarily excited about this project because…well…it’s another project from Thile. Daves quickly exceeded my expectations, and I am sold that he is one of the best guitarists and exciting vocalists I have heard in a while. Both musician/singers get equal playing and singing time, and the two sound as if they are brothers having a great time together.
Their approach to these old tunes is quite refreshing. In the musicianship itself, Daves’s effect on Thile’s playing is evident. It is not as if Chris is sloppy or careless, but he plays the songs fervently, with a rustic nuance that is hard to find in other Thile projects. It’s exciting to hear him not being as careful and precise (as wonderful as that always is) and to just hear him playing these tunes as they are–gritty. These songs are about raw life, and Daves and Thile perform them that way.
My Little Girl in Tennessee from Chris Thile & Michael Daves on Vimeo.
Daves and Thile are clearly masters of their instruments, and it often shows in their restraint. You quickly learn that they can plow through an extremely fast solo with ease, but speed is not always the point. When soloing, they play within the boundaries of the song, only doing what properly lives in the world of the tune itself. The album is vocally exciting as well. Daves’s voice is intriguing; he sings like his life depends on it, sometimes hitting notes you think he shouldn’t attempt (“Cry, Cry Darlin’”), only to be rewarded with more life and emotion in the song. Thile sounds like he is having a blast on the faster tracks and delivers the lines of the ballads as if he wrote them. Even he offers a surprise or two, particularly on the standard “Rain and Snow.”
Lastly, the songs. This will be a great introduction for many, including myself, to some wonderful old bluegrass numbers. I have gone back and listened to many of the old recordings, and Thile/Daves not only show great respect for them, but they also give the songs appropriate and exciting updates. In the end, I highly recommend this record to musicians who want to be challenged, those who love bluegrass, and all who enjoy good music and would like to try something new. Go get it!