Progressive bluegrass or alt-folk? Indie rock or barn-door classical? For years, people have been attempting to properly classify the Punch Brothers. In part, it's a composition issue: In addition to the usual guitar and bass, the Punch Brothers' instrumentation also features a mandolin, a banjo, and a fiddle. They also make foot-stomping, complex music informed by everything from mountain songs to avant-garde instrumentals.
The band's newest album, Who's Feeling Young Now?, could find a home wedged between Bon Iver and the Decemberists. Arguably, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, mandolinist Chris Thile, banjo player Noam Pikelny, and fiddler Gabe Witcher deliver straight up indie rock, and they've further expanded their audience, thanks to a starring spot on the Hunger Games soundtrack. Despite all that's going on for the band right now, Pikelny has other things on his mind — chiefly, the recent death of banjo legend Earl Scruggs and his Nashville funeral.
"I met him 10 years ago in his home, thanks to a very gracious invite by Bryan Sutton, who was playing guitar in Earl's band," Pikelny recalls. "They were rehearsing, and Earl asked for me to get my banjo out for the last tunes. They passed me a solo despite the fact they were still rehearsing."
Following Scruggs' passing on March 28, musicians of many genres have reflected on his impact on American music. Pikelny certainly has. "Banjo players, particularly right now are asking very existential questions: where would we be if it wasn't for Earl, what would I be doing with my life?" Pikelny says.
The last time Pikelny saw Scruggs was while filming a mock Funny or Die promo for Pikelny's solo album last year. Despite a video that's populated with comedy legends (and fellow four-and-five string aficionados) like Steve Martin and Ed Helms, Scruggs got the best lines, showing off a sharp comedic timing that belied his 87 years.
"I saw him there with Gary, his son, who's a wonderful musician and was really generous in getting his father to participate in this silly video," Pikelny laughs. "I'm really proud he's part of it. It's a self-promotional video, but I love the fact that Earl Scruggs got to participate in a Funny or Die video and that there's a whole audience who possibly wouldn't stumble upon him on that site. He's the funniest person in that video. He gives the most quick-witted responses. Gary told me he got a kick out of seeing it. I'm happy he got some enjoyment out of that."
Scruggs was a lifelong innovator, so it's no real surprise he took to acting with such ease. And his eagerness to adapt and change has long inspired the Punch Brothers' own deft hand at experimentation.
"Despite the fact that people associate Earl with codifying the most traditional form of bluegrass, the Scruggs-style banjo, he was constantly innovating," Pikelny says. "In interviews, he talked about how he loved traditional music but how he was ready to play new music, and that's why having his son come to him with these new musical opportunities was one of the most gratifying experiences of his life. That's important to take note of. We're not a bluegrass band. When someone calls us bluegrass, I'm not offended, but we're not just trying to recreate music crystallized in the 1940s."
No one is likely to make that mistake after listening to Who's Feeling Young Now? Pikelny says that it's a result of the band having evolved beyond being Thile's brainchild — assembled to help him perform The Blind Leaving the Blind, a suite he'd penned in 2007— to a collaborative project.
"People refer to [Who's Feeling Young Now?] as an indie rock record, and that's fair," he says. "There are some departures from the past, especially in terms of how the album was recorded. We made this record without having any kind of rigid system about how we wanted to capture the sound, but there was never a decision to change the format. If we'd recorded The Blind Leaving the Blind in a much smaller room, it probably would have had an indie-rock vibe."
The Punch Brothers find themselves in good company with their hybrid style. A natural manifestation of widely available diversity, theirs is a contemporary sonic landscape shared by many of their peers on the Hunger Games soundtrack, which was produced by acclaimed studio wiz T Bone Burnett.
"T Bone's an amazing guy to be around," Pikelny says. "He's a walking encyclopaedia of American music. We walked away from those sessions much the wiser."
Now might be a good time to place bets about what direction the next Punch Brothers album takes.