Punch Brothers: The Undiscovered Country
Though the dynamic within the Punch Brothers is an affable democracy, it owes its existence to Chris Thile, who assembled the players for his fifth solo album, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground. And while all the musicians are some of the best in the business, Thile’s talent is at another level.
Growing up in Oceanside, Calif., Thile began playing mandolin at age five; by nine, he could play guitar and violin as well. After second grade, his parents began home-schooling him. His father, Scott, was a piano tuner by trade and the family began attending weekly bluegrass concerts at the local pizza parlor at the behest of a local piano teacher, whose son John Moore played mandolin in the band.
It was at these gigs—Thile family attendance became regular once Moore took Chris on as a pupil—that the young mandolinist met fellow music wunderkins Sean and Sarah Watkins who played guitar and violin, respectively, and sang. Thus, in 1989, Nickel Creek was born.
While playing in the band, Thile released his first album Leading Off on Sugar Hill Records—comprised largely of original material—at the age of 13. His next album, Stealing Second, came out three years later in 1997. (If you’re wondering about the baseball theme, Thile excelled at the sport as a kid and remains an avid Chicago Cubs fan.)
Nickel Creek, with the help of singer/songwriter Alison Krauss, signed to Sugar Hill, released their first record in 2000, and soon, their decade’s worth of hard-earned fans grew substantially. Two years later, they won a Grammy for their sophomore effort This Side. (“It’s quite possibly our weakest record, creatively speaking,” acknowledges Thile.)
In 2001, at the age of 17, the International Bluegrass Music Association named Thile the mandolin player of the year. It was around this time that he enrolled at Murray State College in Kentucky—Thile had been home-schooled since third grade and grew up without television—though he dropped out after three semesters to pursue music full-time. (He’s expressed little interest in returning to college for a degree.)
On the heels of their third record, Why Should the Fire Die? , released in 2005, Nickel Creek called it quits. “I’m quite proud of the third Nickel Creek record but the first two were very, very young and I think we sound it,” says Thile today. “For that third record, we were starting to get of the age where one could count on some better music coming out.”
The dissolution of Nickel Creek seems to have as much to do with mounting industry pressure and internal band dynamics as it does personal turmoil within its members—namely Thile.
Engaged in 2002 and married in 2003, Thile and Jesse Meighan divorced 18 months later in 2005. Throwing himself further into music, Thile released How to Grow a Woman from the Ground in 2006 and, during the press around the album, began candidly discussing the disillusionment that his divorce had caused while also questioning some of the foundations of his longtime Christian upbringing.
“In conservative Christianity, [my parents] found some rules that were black and white,” says Thile of how they used their faith as a guide to raising to their children. “In some areas, those rules were good and helpful; in some areas they weren’t so much. My parents were smart enough to continue to evaluate things and eventually they backed off a lot of things. They kept subjecting everything they were being told to reason.”
Whether it was the cover of The White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” The Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage” (which included Thile singing the word “fuck”) or the evocative title track written by Tom Brosseau on How to Grow a Woman, it seemed to some that these edgier songs of heartache found Thile a good distance away from where he’d found many of his original fans.
And for an artist championed by the Christian community—largely due to Nickel Creek, whose work openly celebrated the faith—some longtime followers were rather distraught.
“If his mindset were on things above, and not earthly things, the level to which his composition would reach would be absolutely amazing!” wrote one fan in December 2006 on an online Nickel Creek discussion board. “There would be so much more meaning behind everything instead of a girl or things like that. Girl-related songs aren’t bad but when that is the main focus of your song selection, then there’s a problem.”
Another in the same discussion felt that Thile would be “a happier guy if he knew more things about God. Not so freakin melancholy. Just pray for him.”
And still another who didn’t want to sound “over-obsessed with Chris” prayed for him every night with the hope that he “finds what he needs in life,” adding “I am so sorry for him and his divorce and for his questioning of religion. I just want him to settle it out and just keep playing that mandolin.”
Thile suggests that, “Expressing something verbally is always going to be a little bit of a caricature of what’s actually going on,” in regard to how fans might misconstrue his lyrics or comments to the press. As someone that describes themselves as displaying OCD-like qualities, that caricature can be a double-edged sword in its like lack of precision and clarity.
“Situations are never black and white,” he says of life’s big issues such as faith and love. “So when I write, there’s a lot of gray area. As a person, the grays in life infuriate me but as a musician, I celebrate that kind of thing. Expressing the gray areas in life through music helps me come to terms with some.”
Helping Thile express those ideas on How to a Grow Woman was a group of musicians that he likened to the band that Miles Davis assembled to cut Kind of Blue —a band that he put together to form a foundation to explore increasingly ambitious musical ideas.
After a tour in support of the album, the How to Grow a Band rechristened themselves the Punch Brothers. The name derives from a Mark Twain short story “Punch, Brothers, Punch!” published in 1876 under the original title “A Literary Nightmare,” which cautions against filling one’s self with frivolous entertainment.
While the Punch Brothers are entertaining, they are by no means frivolous.
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