Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe

If there is a God in heaven, this heartbreaking recording must win best recorded event, or best instrumental by people who don’t normally appear together, or whatever the hell IBMA has for award categories now. I found it a near-religious experience, so nominate it for gospel recording for all I care.

If you like bluegrass picking of ANY kind, BUY THIS CD WITHOUT FAIL! In 37 years it will be a classic, as Kenny Baker’s original LP is.

In 1976 I ordered the County 761 LP Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe to find out what the heck was this new Monroe tune “Jerusalem Ridge” everyone was writing about in Bluegrass Unlimited and talking about at festivals. Living up in Maine I hadn’t heard this tune. Glory be, when it arrived in the mail from County Sales it had terrific cover photos of a baleful Kenny Baker glaring at the camera of Jim McGuire (that’s before he become the photographer Senor McGuire). On the back cover Baker was holding his bow at rest like a swordsman prior to the call of “en garde!”

Even more pleasing, the 1976 LP liner notes by Ranger Doug Green (again, before he became “The Idol of American Youth”) showed that the full Blue Grass Boys INCLUDING Monroe were accompanying Baker on this recording (Bob Black and Vic Jordan sharing banjo, Joe Stuart on guitar and Randy Davis on bass fiddle)! That LP is as classic as Rounder 0044 and a select few others.

What led the Steve Martin Award-winning banjoist Noam Pikelny to engage in this labor of love, I have no idea. I’ve met Noam once, at a jam at Manhattan’s Baggot Inn. He astounded me with his ability to listen to and “pick up” the melodies (flawlessly) of host old-time fiddler Rhys Jones. And he was a very nice guy too. But to most traditional bluegrassers like me, he’s generally known as a banjo picker in the “way-out” mode like Bela Fleck. (No offense intended.) Noam basically doesn’t play Scruggs-style, he’s all melodic nearly all the time.

I first heard of this project when Noam emailed me to ask how to find a hat like Kenny Baker wore for the cover LP. Noam wanted the same look, and he’d been told I study old Stetson hats. In a trice we had Noam hooked up with Worth & Worth (THE Manhattan hat store) for a Stetson Rancher model, and he was in the photo studio within 48 hours. Noam promised me a “hat consultant” credit in the liner notes.

I must mention, besides matching Kenny’s Stetson, Noam also found a polyester blazer and a gigantic 1970s polyester floral necktie just like Baker wore for his photos. The knot in the necktie is nearly as big as the peghead of Noam’s RB 12 Gibson top tension banjo.

Lynn Lipton sent the pre-release CD for my comments. Oh I wish I were Tennyson or Longfellow or Shakespeare or Robert Frost or even Gil-Scott Heron to do this recording justice!

So, to details – Noam Pikelny studied Baker’s fiddling and broke it down note for note for his initial solo in each song. Each song is at the same speed, in the same key, and mastered in the same order as Baker’s LP. Now that’s just plain cool.

Noam is accompanied — nay, supported — nay, carried in triumph in a sedan chair! by today’s masters of their instruments. None other than Stuart “Stu-Bob” Duncan of the Nashville Bluegrass Band plays fiddle. (Fiddler Jason Carter told me once that “Stuart’s the King”.) Stuart owns Baker’s old fiddle named “Old Red”. The pre-release copy has no liner notes so I don’t know if Duncan played “Old Red” on this recording – I sure hope so. Ronnie McCoury plays mandolin. Bryan Sutton plays guitar. Good ol’ Mike Bub plays the bass fiddle.

Their music is gorgeous, and it’s recorded gorgeously. A pattern emerges early starting with “Road to Columbus” and “Brown County Breakdown.” Noam begins each with astounding note-for-note melodic banjo mimicry of Baker’s opening fiddle breaks. After that each number loosens up.

Stu-Bob usually starts right on the Baker line but by the end of his breaks he’s flying high.

Ronnie McCoury doesn’t attempt to mimic Monroe, he just flits along on his speedy way, dancing across his strings (except one astounding A-part in Cheyenne where his “salute” to Monroe dropped me to my knees).

“Ashland Breakdown”

I almost dreaded to hear Bryan Sutton’s first guitar break – would this be a machine-gun barrage of Tony Rice tune-less licks that didn’t fit Monroe/Baker songs at all? Imagine my relief! First, Sutton’s rhythm guitar is terrific, filled with great runs and quiet bass notes, not all back-beat slap (don’t get me started about today’s average bluegrass guitarist). Throughout this wonderful project Sutton stays mostly on the bass and middle strings for his breaks. I detected only one Rice-like passage near the end of one break. By the end of the CD, on “Ashland Breakdown,” the words came to me that describe what Sutton has done here on his guitar breaks. He’s playing flat-pick fiddle tunes like “back in the day” in the 1960s when folks were getting het-up about Doc Watson, Don Reno, and Clarence White’s ability to flat-pick right along with the fiddle note-for-note. Focusing on MELODY!

Everybody’s buddy Mike Bub plays much more interesting bass fiddle on this CD than Randy Davis did on the original LP, and I don’t say that to slam Randy Davis. Bub knows how to play interesting notes while keeping it down to earth and “not getting above bluegrass” like some hot bass players are wont to do. I won’t spoil it by saying which song, but Bub even gets a slap bass break on one tune! Yay for the surprise treat and Well Done, Bub!

I wondered if the “pattern” of their breaks would begin to wear thin – would I be able to start predicting the progress of the next cut? Oh no, those sly dogs soon started mixing it up to keep it from getting old. For instance, the original “Brown County Breakdown” had a Travis-style guitar break, and here Sutton flat-picks. But later in “Cheyenne” Sutton DOES play a Travis style guitar break, and in G major (not minor) like old Charlie Cline, to boot. I wish I had a photo of my grin! On the 5th song in, after Noam’s Baker-intro, Ronnie McCoury leads off the tune instead of the banjo (“Monroe’s Hornpipe”). Stuart’s fiddle gets OUT THERE on this one. “Big Sandy River” picks up its feet and GOES baby! Speedy picking! Noam’s second banjo break on “Big Sandy” boldly goes WAY OUT where no man has gone before. Any banjo picker may throw his instrument on the floor in wonder when he hears this (but then he’ll pick it back up and start working on this stuff!). “Stoney Lonesome” opens as a fiddle/guitar duet, then the mandolin takes off for the first full break. This one is restrained in pace, but as unstoppable as an ocean liner. Noam even salutes Baker’s afterthought fiddle ending!

“Mississippi Waltz” opens with fiddle just like the old LP. Noam waits some time to come in with some of the most beautiful key of F banjo picking I’ve ever heard, that immediately varies off the Baker original in unexpected ways. On this one Stu-Bob gets to take a second fiddle break that is all “variations.” “Wheel Hoss” opens up with the fiddle “signal” and then Noam burns it down with the banjo. Stuart Duncan comes back taking huge bites with his bow – real “angry” stuff. Wonderful! McCoury is at his swiftest on this one, just like you see him do with Del’s stage show numbers. “Wheel Hoss” is a total romp! I held my breath for “Fiddler’s Pastime,” which on the old LP was fiddle only, nobody else took a break. Noam does the same! Playing it three times through on banjo and fading out at the end (admittedly he plays some wild sh*t during that fade-out!)

I must give special mention to the astounding banjo arrangement for “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.” I love slow banjo playing and buddy this one is SLOW and bluesy in D minor. The mood is downright languorous, almost a lullaby, with delicious banjo picking featuring plenty of string bending. Duncan’s fiddle break is all melting notes.

Wow, is this CD satisfying to me, especially because I remember and love Baker and Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys on the original. But even if you never heard the original LP, this CD is attractive for the opportunity to hear good old solid bluegrass standards (and sadly forgotten standards) that any bluegrass fan ought to know, done by pickers who are WAY up at the top of the game. This CD is solid schooling for any bluegrass instrumentalist or listener.

I must say, when “Ashland Breakdown” ended I was almost tearful that Baker hadn’t recorded several more on the old LP, so these boys could keep playing. How I’d like to hear them do “Panhandle Country,” “Roanoke,” “Baker’s Breakdown,” “Land of Lincoln” and “Bluegrass Breakdown” in Baker’s inimitable style.

Ranger Doug’s original LP liner notes described Kenny Baker as “ornery and irascible”. Yup. Also, he was quite a dry comedian, I understand, and could crack up the boys any time, if not always Big Mon. I’ve seen exactly one photo of him grinning, and all the band (even Monroe) are showing their teeth. Baker must have gotten off a good one! Noam Pikelny is certainly not ornery, although he looks stern for his cover photo. He is a soft-spoken banjo WIZARD who has worked his a$$ off here to honor the masters with the greatest reverence, yet plowed new ground for banjo pickers everywhere. This CD couldn’t be more perfect. And I don’t say that because I offered hat advice!

I’ll add, a bit sadly, this CD may also be as close to bluegrass as you’ll ever catch Noam Pikelny again, so buy it for that reason too. Noam isn’t likely to come back this way, more’s the pity. Imagine what more he could do!

Compass Records


Glen Herbert: What a delightful piece! … I’m not sure I agree with your thoughts on Tony Rice, but this is a great read from beginning to end.Can’t wait for the album to come out so I can get a copy.

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

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