As a spotlight on the state of acoustic music today—and a view of its future—last summer’s American Acoustic tour was hard to beat. Spearheaded by mandolinist Chris Thile, the tour brought together Thile’s intrepid string band Punch Brothers, the fast-rising Americana trio I’m With Her (singer-songwriters Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Aoife O’Donovan), and the jazz-guitar master Julian Lage—all performing not only individual sets but collaborating in different combos each night. Circling around a few condenser mics, they picked and harmonized to sublime effect on originals, traditional tunes, and covers, such as an achingly beautiful version of John Lennon’s “Julia.”
These young musicians—all in their 20s and 30s—have long been on the vanguard of the acoustic/roots scene and have quite a bit of shared history. Thile and Watkins started playing together in Nickel Creek at age eight, and Jarosz (now 26 and a two-time Grammy winner) often sat in with the band as a young teen. O’Donovan, who first made her mark as the silky lead vocalist for Crooked Still, sang with Thile in the all-star Goat Rodeo Sessions, among other projects. Lage, an astonishing improviser on both acoustic and electric guitar, has made two duo albums with Chris “Critter” Eldridge, the flatpicking force of Punch Brothers. And many of these musicians have collaborated on the radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, now hosted by Thile.
Taking advantage of this extraordinary assemblage of talent, Acoustic Guitar invited five of the American Acoustic players—Thile, Eldridge, Lage, O’Donovan, and Jarosz, the guitar and mandolin contingent—for a conversation on the roots and branches of today’s acoustic music scene, during a tour stop in Binghamton, New York. Onstage as well as around a table, the deep friendship and respect among these musicians shone through.
AG: Given that you’re touring under the name American Acoustic, do you see yourselves as part of a specific lineage of American acoustic music?
Chris Eldridge: It feels like we are all coming out of certain American traditions. Three of us [gestures to Thile and Jarosz] are very much from a bluegrass foundation—that’s the music we knew when we were kids. And Julian is from the jazz world, which is a very American tradition as well. Aoife—what’s your take?
Aoife O’Donovan: I’m the outlier. I grew up around a ton of Irish folk music, which of course heavily influenced American folk music, so it’s sort of one step further back. I also heard a lot of American folk music, although not as much bluegrass until I was a teenager—then I dove headfirst into that scene. That’s how I met these guys.
CE: So there’s this foundation, but there’s also a big-time melting pot that we’re all very much a part of.
Chris Thile: There’s a shared interest in what I would consider to be folk music, which is just music that arises to fill a need, the way that people figure out how to mill flour—it’s music not made for performance necessarily or for academia or for money. I think we’re all deeply moved not just by that [folk tradition], but by the people who come right after that, who look at that stuff for the first time as a tool they can use to make new music.
AG: Could you give some examples?
CT: The Strength in Numbers guys—Béla Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer. Those guys provide a link between our worlds. For instance, Béla was the first one who told me I needed to listen to Julian. And then Alison Krauss, Tony Rice, Tim O’Brien—
AO: —who turned a lot of people in the bluegrass world on to the traditional Irish music that was happening simultaneously, with The Crossing [O’Brien’s 1999 album that connected Celtic and Appalachian music] and other projects.
Sarah Jarosz: Gillian [Welch].
CT: She’s such an interesting example, because the press often relates to the music as being a throwback, and it never has read that way. I get that there’s a veneer of throwback, but that’s not where the bodies are buried in those songs.
AO: Another thing to point out is the people who have lived in the more mainstream country world, who also have deep roots in bluegrass and folk—people like Dolly [Parton] and Emmylou [Harris]. Hugely influential from a vocal standpoint.
SJ: It’s interesting for me to be a little bit younger than these guys, because I don’t know if I’d even be playing music if it weren’t for Chris [Thile]. And even Aoife—I grew up listening to Crooked Still. It’s cool to trace it down to me having these guys as heroes and a reason to make music.
CT: We [Nickel Creek] were starting to be well-established by the time I met Sarah in an autograph line.
SJ: I was nine when I first met you—a month away from turning 10.
CT: That same thing happened with me with Alison Krauss when I was nine—she’s 10 years older. It was exactly that kind of thing, where the first time you’re like [makes awed expression] and next thing you’re making a record together.
I really love that about this acoustic community. You don’t just passively wait for the next round of great musicians to find you and start asking you questions. You’re looking for these people, because they’re going to show you how things are evolving, and they can also give you perspective on what it is that you’re trying to do.
AG: For you, Julian, did playing with David Grisman as a kid help to hook you into the music we’re talking about?
Julian Lage: That connects to it, absolutely. Dawg [Grisman] is a huge part of that narrative, as far as introducing a certain style of improvisation and ensemble interaction. But it’s funny, because I feel like I connect probably less to the song musical tradition than everybody here, and more to the mechanistic history of the guitar and stringed instruments. I always thought that was the through-line: Oh, they have strings and play with a pick; I have strings and play with a pick; let’s play together. It wasn’t so much like, well, my harmonic vocabulary needs to merge with theirs. It’s a very mechanistic fusion in my mind—instruments that sound good together in one room.
AG: So how about the acoustic side of your tour name. Do you share a commitment to blending unplugged instruments and voices in the air?
AO: I’m always curious, and I wonder how you guys feel about this, about labeling acoustic music as a genre, versus a description of what’s happening onstage. I think that all of us play acoustic instruments alone in our rooms—we’re not plugging into amps or using electronic gear to create from the get-go. But some projects that I’ve done, or even stuff that Sarah and I are currently working on, might have amplifiers and step out of the realm of being technically acoustic. Does that mean we’re no longer playing acoustic music? What’s the representation?
I try to not feel like the spokeswoman for acoustic music in any way. I try to keep it a little more nebulous.
JL: I’m certainly not the spokesperson for acoustic music [laughter].
CT: Again, it’s an aesthetic, and not where the bodies are buried as far as the actual creative work that’s going on. I remember when Punch Brothers started, we would rail against being called a bluegrass band, because we felt like it would instantly set the audience up to have their—
AO: —hearts broken [laughter].
CT: Yeah, if people came expecting to hear something even vaguely resembling [Bill] Monroe, they would just go away unhappy. I’ve since come to realize that very often when we describe music, we’re describing the way it looks, not the way it sounds. So I think we’re doing that with the name of this tour. That’s sort of a visual descriptor: There won’t be any solid-body instruments onstage, and it’s only going to be amplified through microphones. I would go a step further—it’s the aesthetic that I understand. I love electric music, but I’m just not good at making it.
I have photographer buddies who love using one certain camera from the ’50s. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to take pictures only of Route 66 or old hotels or wing-tip Cadillacs. They’re taking pictures of someone hunched over a laptop. That’s, I think, what we do. [Acoustic instruments are] the camera that we know how to use the best, but we’ll train the lens on what’s happening in the world.
AG: The stage setup you’re using, circled around the mic, is such a different experience for the musicians and the audience. What’s your motivation for performing this way?
JL: Just that it feels the best.
CE: It’s more fun to play. We all relate to these acoustic instruments in a personal way—you have it in your lap and it makes noise and vibrates against your body. The fact that we can do that onstage in the same way I would sitting in my living room, and have really that same intimate experience, just makes playing more natural and enjoyable.
CT: There are far fewer extramusical considerations. We’ve all been on tours with sound checks where you really were checking the sound. Punch Brothers’ Phosphorescent Blues [tour] was the biggest setup we’d ever used, with pickups and microphones and in-ear monitors and the whole nine yards.
For this, we had a whole production day before the tour started which was spent exclusively working on the music. We spent 15, 20 minutes on the setup.
CE: The other thing is it just sounds good. I vastly prefer the sound of people playing on one nice microphone.
AO: You do need to give some credit to the microphone and to the sound engineer, because I’ve definitely been at shows where somebody’s playing into one mic and it does not sound good at all. It’s not foolproof.
AG: Let’s switch gears and talk about the learning process. Many of you have music degrees or formal training, but much of the music you play is traditionally learned by ear. Does the way you studied music shape how you think about composing and arranging, or how you work together as a group?
JL: It’s an interesting question. I think you can draw parallels to how we learn and how we respond to one another and how we communicate, but honestly, that all feels kind of peripheral. I’m not going to be like, well, I’m a jazz guy, so I need to know the changes. There’s no flag to fly with that stuff, at least from my perspective. You just make it happen.
CT: You can’t throw random collections of good musicians together and expect that good music will be made. There have to be common references and/or common approaches. This tour, I would like to think, is a collection of people who are very good at listening—processing the music around them and figuring out a way to accentuate its strengths.
AO: It’s also about being adaptable. To me the common theme is everybody is able to react or adjust very quickly. Even on the production day when we were working up new music, everybody was able to either jump in or step back and know the right times to do that. Not all good musicians have that skill.
AG: Three of you studied at conservatories [Eldridge at Oberlin, Jarosz and O’Donovan at New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Improvisation program]. Does that training play a big role in how you approach the kind of music on this tour?
SJ: Definitely. It’s hard to go through that program and not have it affect you. But honestly, I feel like the parts of my musicianship that help me the most on a daily basis come from growing up and going to camps, learning by ear, and being thrown into the fire of a jam and having to figure it out in the moment when the solo comes around. Learning that way, in real time with other musicians at that young age, sticks with me and is truly at the root. I think my experience at NEC would have been so much different if I didn’t go into it with all of those skills already.
CE: I feel like going to a conservatory can help teach musicians—especially ones who came up in an aural tradition like most of us did—to think about music in a more abstract way, which is a great tool to have in the toolbox. I don’t think the conservatory itself has fundamentally transformed the music that we’re playing, though. Maybe it makes it easier to communicate ideas quickly.
CT: I think serious, curious musicians owe it to themselves and to the music-loving public to avail themselves of all the tools. You run into a lot of people who are consciously leaving vast swaths of their potential musicianship undeveloped in the name of staying pure. Those kinds of decisions don’t achieve the desired result, because the stuff that they’re emulating was a full expression of the width and breadth of what that musician had to offer; the limitations were sincere and not an affect, not a choice.
These are simply the times that we have grown up in—we have the internet and we have unprecedented physical access to the world, and it behooves us to go exploring. You’ll find avenues that are closed to you. We’re limited enough as beings without intentionally limiting ourselves.
AG: As far as repertoire goes, do you try to strike a balance between honoring the traditions you come from and playing your own compositions?
JL: No, not really. I think there’s a sense sometimes that there’s a loyalty program we’re all enlisted in.
CT: The reason you play music that’s not yours is because you feel like when you do, there’s a certain yellow and blue coming together to make green. If you’re yellow and the thing that you’re covering is blue, but the blue that you’re covering just stays blue, there’s not really much reason to do that in front of people. There might be a great reason to do it for yourself, to figure out why this thing is so blue. Punch covers lots of stuff that we’ll never put on a record, most of the time because we don’t feel like we have anything to add to it.
CE: It winds up being research that may or may not yield good results that we want to share with the world.
CT: For you [Julian], I think about that “Persian Rug” tune, for instance. That’s one example of [a cover] yielding a new result. I just thought it was a Julian tune.
JL: Right, that’s an old tune [a 1920s piano-roll composition].
AG: Do you see your generation of acoustic musicians as moving the music in a discernible direction?
AO: It’s overly self-conscious to me, I guess, to be thinking about the legacy as it’s happening.
CT: For me, if there’s a trend that I’m seeing, it’s that good musicians have a lot of overview. There are just more tools available now, and that’s resulting in music that’s maybe borrowing from different aesthetics, things that were previously thought of as existing in their own little worlds and not mingling a whole lot.
I also think you have myriad musicians who are very disinterested in the concept of genre. You see that in the insufferably long list of adjectives in front of every performance: It’s this, this, this, and this. The good musicians that I know are certainly not thinking about it as, like, a pinch of rock and two pinches of bluegrass and a half measure of jazz.
AO: Even worse than that, I just did a teaching thing where I got a list of the people who were going to participate, and everyone had to describe what they were doing. It wasn’t a pinch of rock or jazz; it was, “I sound like Andrew Bird mixed with Bon Iver and this.” Every single person used that [formula] as the description: I’m trying to sound like these three people mixed together. That struck me as so odd.
SJ: I think you have to be really careful and have all the elements of the people that you learned from and the music that you love, but also notice the elements of your musicality that make you you, and focus on those things. Eventually if you work hard enough at that, the cream will rise to the top, and people will notice things about your sound that are just unique to you. I mean, the number of guitar players that I could listen to and say, “They’re trying to sound like Tony Rice—”
CE: I’m sitting right here [laughter].
SJ: No, you sound like Critter!
CT: I would harken back to the color analogy, the yellow and blue making green. Before someone shows you that [combination], you don’t look at green and go, “Oh, look at that—that’s 50-percent yellow and 50-percent blue! That’s neat.” No, it’s just like, [green is] a lovely thing that’s easily identifiable as its own color.
I think our generation has to be very mindful that, with all the access to various things, we don’t produce these little music Frankensteins, where you can say, “Oh, yeah, the hand is from this guy and the head is from this thing and there’s this bolt sticking through it keeping it all together.” All of this needs to be in the service of making new, compelling music. You are really looking to just add to the world’s very deep pool of good music. That’s the point.
What They Play
Here are the instruments these five musicians used on the American Acoustic tour, all amplified onstage with Neumann mics: two U 89s and two KM 84s.
Early 1939 Martin D-28
Collings D1A guitar, Collings MF5 mandolin, Fletcher Brock octave mandolin, Bernard Mollberg Burnin’ Sun six-string clawhammer banjo
1934 Martin 0-17, Collings 01 Mh
1924 Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar mandolin
Collings OM1 JL signature model prototype
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.