RexBlog’s 2011 musician of the year: Noam Pikelny

Wednesday night at Nashville’s most awesome venue, the Station Inn, I enjoyed the performance of Noam Pikelny (and friends) so much, I decided to create a new feature called “Musician of the Year.” As I don’t blog about music except on the rare occasions when I do, the 12 readers of this blog might find it a surprise that I would have such an award. That is, unless one of those 12 readers were at the Station Inn Wednesday night.

As is the custom on this blog, let me first provide a few paragraphs of rambling background before actually getting to the point of this post. Nearly all of the music-related blogging I’ve done over the past decade has been about bluegrass, a genre of music I discovered through a fun (except when they didn’t want to practice) musical journey my children took me on as they grew up. Through sheer luck (and the mom-tastic gifts of my wife), my children participated in what now has turned out to be the early foundation of the Mark O’Connor violin method. If you read the eight principles of the method and you’re familiar with the Suzuki method, you’ll instantly realize that they’re the same, except Mark’s method begins with “Boil Them Cabbage Down” instead of “Twinkle, Twinkle.”

Now, if you are a parent and you believe that a musical instrument should be a part of any child’s life; and if you happen to be a parent in Nashville; and if you happen to think that classical music is wonderful, but not likely the best segue into a life-long love of an instrument for children of the current era; then you are indeed a lucky person if you happen to live in Nashville. While the city’s nickname is Music City and we have an incredible spectrum of musical resources that include classical, those types of musical styles and instruments that origninated in America’s folk tradition (and the old-world traditions that inspired them) are clearly in our wheelhouse. (Or, in bluegrass, wheel hoss.)

For example, because they played the fiddle and mandolin throughout their childhood, my children had the chance to jam with some of their genre’s legends. (Or, merely the chance to stand in line at a Macaronni Grill with Earl Scruggs — an experience my son had when he was 14, that he will recall one day with surreal awe.)

Because of my children’s journeys and the people I met because of them, one of the young “bluegrass” musicians I learned about and have been able to marvel at during the past decade is the now, 30-year-old banjo picker extraordinare, Noam Pikelney, who is probably best known as being a member of the Punch Brothers, or for his dueling banjo appearance with Steve Martin on David Letterman’s show about a year ago.

Or perhaps you didn’t know that it was Noam, but maybe you saw a funny cartoon in the New Yorker a few weeks ago that featured a business executive stuck on an elevator with Noam an un-named banjo player who looks exactly like Noam in which the caption reads, “I’m trapped in an elevator. Wait, it gets worse.”

It would be sacrilegious (about Fleck) to declare Pikelny as the successor to banjo-god Bela Fleck, as that would imply that Fleck has been succeeded. And frankly, Fleck is still doing incredible things.  So, really, even though Pikelny is to Fleck what Lady Gaga is to Madonna, you’ll never hear me saying it.

The performance at the Station Inn was in support of Noam Pikelny’s recently released album, Beat the Devil and Carry a Boat. Wednesday night’s performance is part of two-week tour (hurry, it goes through the end of next week) and, this being Nashville, included some walk-on performances with Pikelny by folks like Tim O’Brien, fiddler Luke Bulla, John Cowan, six-time International Bluegrass Association Guitar Player of the Year, Byran Sutton, and some guy named Dierks Bentley and Jon Randall, who produced Bentley’s 2010 accoustic album, Up on the Ridge.

In other words, just another evening at the Station Inn.

Lest I overlook them, the performers on the album and on tour with Noam are no slouches. In essence, they are 3/5ths of the Punch Brothers, fiddler Gabe Witcher (who produced Noam’s album) and guitarist Chris Eldridge (Critter) are touring. “Pickup” artists Jesse Cobb (mandolin) and Mark Schatz (bass) round out the tour’s all-star band.

With the angelic-voiced Aoife O’Donovan providing vocals.

However, the real reason I’ve named Pikelny the RexBlog musician of the year is the Funny or Die “album promo video” embedded below. For someone from the world of bluegrass banjo and accoustical “roots” music to have the circle of friends and fans to pull off such a hilarious video is worthy of the award. That, along with the cameo appearance in a New Yorker magazine cartoon a few weeks ago in which Pikelny represents the butt of all bluegrass jokes, the banjo, is more than enough to make him this year’s Rexblog Musician of the Year.


 Bonus: In doing some link searching for this post, I discovered that a collection of Christmas music by Mark O’Connor has been released this year: An Appalachian Christmas. If you’ve read this post down this far, you may be into bluegrass music enough to realize how wonderful this should be.

Bonus 2: I don’t know how, but this somehow showed up on my iPhone and then on my YouTube account. It’s  the Bill Monroe song, “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome too” performed at the Station Inn Wednesday by Tim O’Brien: