For most of his career, which started when he was 8, mandolin whiz Chris Thile has played around the edges of bluegrass. By the time he was 19, when his band Nickel Creek first came to national prominence, he was writing and performing crossover bluegrass that owed as much to pop radio and jam bands as it did to Bill Monroe. Since Nickel Creek broke up a few years ago, Thile has been writing and performing an ambitious kind of quasi-classical music with his new group the Punch Brothers and acclaimed bassist Edgar Meyer. So it's some small surprise that his new album with guitarist Michael Daves, Sleep With One Eye Open, finds Thile playing straight-up bluegrass standards in one of the form's oldest arrangements.
"Part of what we're doing is paying homage to the brother duet tradition, which goes back to the Monroe brothers, which was Bill Monroe before he started the Bluegrass Boys," Daves says. "He'd perform with his brother Charlie, and they were big stars in the '30s throughout the South. The Monroe Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, the Louvin Brothers in the '50s, it's kind of a direct line from there to the Everly Brothers doing the teen-pop thing in the '50s and early '60s, and then in the rock world Lennon and McCartney were influenced by the Louvins and Everlys. So there's a whole lineage there, with a tremendous amount of music. It's just not something that people have done a lot with recently."
Daves followed a path back to bluegrass similar to Thile's. He played bluegrass with his parents in Atlanta when he was a teenager, then studied jazz guitar in college.
"After I'd been out of college for a while, I found myself gravitating back toward bluegrass music, right around the time I was moving to New York," Daves says. "So it coincided with moving here, and it turned out that there was a tremendous scene here, which is not something I expected when I moved to the city."
Sleep With One Eye Open features songs made famous by Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Louvin Brothers. It comes from a weekly jam session Thile and Daves have been participating in together since 2005, when Thile moved to New York after a divorce and the beginning of the end of Nickel Creek. The two have been planning an album almost since they started playing together, but found that the planning itself was getting in the way.
"We hadn't really gotten around to it because I think we got distracted and thought we needed to be writing tunes, or we needed to have some big concept before we recorded an album," Daves says. "What we do is really spontaneous and comes out of those jam sessions. We thought we wanted or needed to develop the concept more before going into the studio. Bob Hurwitz, who is the president of Nonesuch Records, set us down at some point and told us, ‘Guys, just do what you do.' And we were like, ‘Really? We can do that?'"
And what they do turns out to fit directly in the tradition of the Monroe Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, and the Louvins—male vocal harmonies accompanied by ensemble guitar and mandolin, with a little room for hotshot pyrotechnic playing.
"That's largely what we do when we go to jam sessions or at any of the shows we play," Daves says. "We've just chosen these songs because they're all part of a tradition with which we're very familiar, that we both grew up with. The songs are all songs we know like the backs of our hands. They've become a jumping-off point for the musical interactions Chris and I have. After having done other sorts of music and feeling like we needed to explore new and different types of music, we found ourselves really wanting to come back home to this spot, which for both of us is very comfortable and familiar. The songs are not high-concept, but they're just something we know so well that we can concentrate on expression and the spontaneity of playing together."
Daves says he expects the partnership to continue, as long as it can fit into Thile's schedule. (Last year he released the second Punch Brothers album, Antifogmatic, and the year before he wrote and performed a mandolin concerto for a consortium of U.S. symphony orchestras.) The pair are touring the Southeast and East Coast this spring, with a performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival scheduled for June and a Midwest tour set for the fall.
"We'll see what happens after that," Daves says. "We may end up going to Europe—see how the album does and who will have us. It's an ongoing project for us. It's not something we're just doing for the album. We've been playing for six years, just for the joy of it, and we'll continue to do so."