Long before he became a world-renowned banjo player, Noam Pikelny was apparently a fairly oblivious child.
When his parents asked how he wanted to celebrate his ninth birthday, Pikelny requested a concert by his new banjo instructor. As he sat, raptly attentive in the front row, footage shot by his parents showed his friends looking equal parts bored and confused.
"They looked miserable, and this was supposedly a party," Pikelny said, laughing. "To me, [banjo] was something magical. I think early on, it was something pretty weird to my friends."
Despite the banjo's potential for making socializing more awkward, the future Punch Brothers banjo whiz continued to obsessively absorb the music of Chicago banjo artists such as Michael Miles, Stephen Wade and Fleming Brown.
At first, he played primarily in the clawhammer style but began studying Earl Scruggs' bluegrass fingerpicking approach after he heard Bela Fleck's pioneering use of that style on the first Flecktones album.
In 2004, after stints performing with John Cowan and Boulder, Colo.-based jam band Leftover Salmon, Pikelny joined the ranks of mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile's progressive acoustic band Punch Brothers.
Because of his passion for finding ways to achieve unusual sounds on the banjo, Pickelny said he felt at home tackling Thile's ambitious compositions for Punch Brothers.
"I think he [Thile] recognized something in my playing in that he could put anything down on paper and ... I would somehow find a path to realizing the idea," he said. "A lot of that is thanks to studying his music and music of other guys like him."
Now 30, Pikelny said he felt so satisfied with Punch Brothers that he was all but convinced he would never tackle another solo project after his 2004 debut, "In the Maze." Winning comedian/banjo player Steve Martin's inaugural Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass last year changed all that.
Because of the attention he began receiving thanks to an appearance with Martin on "Late Show With David Letterman," Pikelny said he realized he needed new material. The prize money he received helped pay for a second album "Beat the Devil, Carry the Rail," for which he is touring in support.
Thursday, Pikelny will perform tracks from both his albums during a show at Barking Legs Theater. He will be joined by an all-star ensemble of guest musicians, including Aoife O'Donovan (vocals), Mark Schatz (bass), The Infamous Stringdusters' Jesse Cobb (mandolin) and fellow Punch Brothers Gabe Witcher (fiddle) and Chris Ethridge (guitar).
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...