The Punch Brothers, who perform at the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, Aug. 1, are perhaps the most innovative and forward-leaning string band on the planet. Combining bluegrass instrumentation and sensibilities with a desire to stretch the music into many different and original directions, the group continues to gain fans as they innovate.
The roots of the band began about 2006 when mandolinist supreme Chris Thile decided to follow up 20 years of being in the highly influential group Nickel Creek by branching out on his own. He had new musical ideas to explore and wanted top-of-line musicians of his age group and mindset to help him walk out onto his sonic tree limb.
Enter the rest of the members of the Punch Brothers, including Gabe Witcher, fiddler for the Jerry Douglas Band and many other projects, banjo player Noam Pikelny from Leftover Salmon and John Cowan Band fame, guitarist Chris Eldridge, formerly of the Infamous Stringdusters, and young bassist phenom Paul Kowert.
The Punch Brothers released their first album under their current band name in 2008. Called “Punch,” the project featured Thile’s four-movement, genre-bending suite called “The Blind Leaving The Blind.” Subsequent albums by The Punch Brothers include “Antifogmatic,” “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” “Ahoy! The Phosphorescent Blues,” “The Wireless” and last year’s “All Ashore.”
Since the group was formed, Thile has been awarded the $500,000 MacArthur Fellow Genius Grant and is now the host of the weekly NPR radio show Live From here, which was formerly called the A Prairie Home Companion. Pikelny, on the other hand, was the first musician to win the prestigious $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo.
Amidst all of this accomplishment and success, however, is a common thread centered on a local Boone/Deep Gap musical hero. Guitarist and singer Doc Watson, who died in 2012 at 89, was a legend in the roots music world, which is why his statue sits on the corner of King Street and Depot Street in Boone.
One legendary aspect of Watson’s demeanor was that he was kind and generous to the younger musicians he encountered in his travels, including Chris Thile.
“When I was 13 years old, during the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, they brought me onto the Crook and Chase TV show,” says Thile. “I think they were already calling it Prime Time Country by that time, and Doc Watson was on the show and I was on the show. We were playing separately, but they asked Doc if he would mind playing one with me, and it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. I sat down to play a tune with Doc and he said, ‘It’s good to meet you, son.’ It was onstage during the sound check and we sat down and played a little fiddle tune together.”
Though Watson had no idea who this whiz kid was, he treated Thile with kindness and musical respect.
“It was partially explained to him that, ‘We have this little kid who is going to play a tune with you,’ and he was like, ‘OK, great. That sounds like fun,’” said Thile. “He was so sweet to me. We played a little bit together and he said, ‘Well son, you’re a mighty fine picker. That’s a Gibson mandolin you’re playing, isn’t it?’ And, I mean, he figured that out just from hearing it. Granted, a lot of guys played Gibsons, but at that point, the Gibson factory hadn’t totally turned it around yet. I had one of those early Bill Monroe models, when they first started making varnished mandolins again. Anyway, he picked it right out and being a little 13-year-old I was like, ‘Wow!’ He was a musical Sherlock Holmes as far as his ears were concerned.”
Thile’s love of Watson began at an early age when his parents were determined to show him some musical history, live and in person.
“My dad took me to see Doc Watson and it was the first actual concert that I ever saw,” said Thile. “It was in California at the La Paloma Theater and I was 6 or 7 years old. They had been taking me to see this band at this local pizza place prior, so this was my first proper concert. My dad had heard that Doc was thinking about not touring anymore and he was like, ‘I want my son to hear Doc Watson.’ This was 32 years ago, yet Doc just kept playing and playing. I heard him play at MerleFest a few weeks before he died.”
Incredibly, Watson performed at the MerleFest music festival in nearby North Wilkesboro at the end of April in 2012 and by May 29, he was gone.
“He was so sweet to me and any young person that I saw around him,” said Thile. “He was very generous and very gracious and he was such a good player. His rhythm was so impeccable that as a young musician, you could rely on that beat and you knew it was going to be where you needed it to be. The first time I played at MerleFest, I got to play with him during the Doc and Friends show, and he and I did a duet on the song ‘How Great Thou Art’ and it was really exciting for me. I feel fine about him being gone now because Doc is the kind of musician who lives on. He made such a mighty contribution to music that even the young people who don’t know of Doc, who may not even know his music; they know music that has Doc Watson deeply embedded in it. So, they do know his music through associations with other musicians. Any young person who hears me play music, I would like to think they are hearing a little bit of Doc, too. I certainly don’t think I’d be the musician I am now without him.”