published Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Punch Brothers' Noam Pikelny, fiddler Stuart Duncan at Barking Legs on Sunday

Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny.
Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Watch a fiddler's hands closely, and you'll notice that, with a few exceptions, most of the action happens within a few inches of the instrument's neck.

Five-string banjo players don't have that luxury. Because of the way the strings are tuned, a banjo maestro's hands must acrobatically dance up and down the entire length of the fretboard to hit the same notes as a fiddle.

As a result, most banjo players adjust their solos to fit more comfortably on their instrument, but for his third album, Punch Brothers' banjo player Noam Pikelny has bucked that trend.

For the follow-up to his Grammy-nominated 2011 album, "Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail," Pikelny says he wanted to challenge his skill set and reconnect with his traditional bluegrass roots. The best way to accomplish this, he decided, was a note-for-note re-creation of former Bluegrass Boy Kenny Baker's 1977 fiddling masterpiece, "(Kenny Baker) Plays Bill Monroe."

He started with the album's most incompatible-sounding piece, "Fiddler's Pastime," figuring that, if he couldn't make it work, then the whole project was a wash.

"I ... worked on ways of finding the notes and articulating the notes that would make it speak and still sound like music and not a transcription," Pikelny says. "The major pitfall of a project like this is for it to become a novelty because you're hearing the music that's familiar, just in a new context.

"It still has to be music at the end of the day."


■ What: An Evening With Noam Pikelny and Stuart Duncan.

■ When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 18.

■ Where: Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave.

■ Admission: $20.

■ Phone: 423-624-5347.

■ Website:


2004 “Into the Maze”

2011 “Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail”

2013 “Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe”

The album -- mind-bendingly named "Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe -- was released Oct. 1. Pop Matters describes it as a "lovely, delightful album" and suggests that "you can hear Pikelny transcend the limits of his instrument."

Fans of Pikelny, whether as a solo artist or through his involvements with Punch Brothers, Leftover Salmon or The John Cowan Band, can hear him perform music from "Kenny Baker" and "Beat the Devil" on Sunday, May 18, at Barking Legs Theater.

During the show, Pikelny will share the stage with Stuart Duncan, a 30-year veteran fiddler with the Nashville Bluegrass Band who recently collaborated with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer and Punch Brothers mandolinist Chris Thile on the Grammy Award-winning album "The Goat Rodeo Sessions."

Duncan also collaborated with Pikelny for his last two albums, a partnership that Pikelny describes as an almost surreal experience, given how much he idolized Duncan and the Nashville Bluegrass Band when he was growing up in Chicago.

Many would now consider him to be Duncan's peer, but Pikelny says he still looks up to him, even if he doesn't let it affect their collaboration.

"To me, he's still the superhero," he says. "He's still that guy, but if I couldn't get past that, then these records would have been nerve-wracking."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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