Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 17: Sleep With One Eye Open (Chris Thile & Michael Daves, 2011)

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"What is tradition?" Max Frisch asked within his 1954 book, I'm Not Stiller. "I thought it meant tackling the problems of one's own day with the same courage one's forefathers brought to bear on theirs."

Chris Thile and Michael Daves—singing pickers both—who met in 2005 at a jam session, and whose 2011 duet album, Sleep with One Eye Open, documents their chemistry and telepathy—acknowledge this idea of bringing to bear such fire and innovation to their own conception of quote-”traditional” bluegrass music. Thile talks of breaking out of the mold of the musical archivist who simply "swaps tales about the golden days" while Daves seeks to disrupt the spotless veneer of respectability that he believes has enveloped modern bluegrass as a backlash against a questionable vision of it as some "hayseed, backward, redneck thing." He doesn't believe either to be a helpful view and prefers not to dress the genre up at all—in overalls or Sunday best. "I'd rather take it and destroy things with it," he says.

At first overthinking what they might do on this album, they eventually decided to just record what they do best: they'd show up, play traditional tunes, and be spontaneous about it.  So they booked time at Jack White's studio, stepped up to a single vintage RCA77 ribbon mic, faced off, and commenced to destroy.  

Bluegrass is a modern tradition, coming into its own in the mid-1940s, when Bill Monroe and others were blowing audiences away in part with their virtuosic picking at breakneck tempos. Daves, looking to help contextualize the genre, likes to point out that bebop was developing around the same time. And, in fact, bluegrass and bebop share, among other things, a love of the line. The long line. Steady streams of eighth-notes whose internal rhythmic pops contain the conception itself. "Everybody's a drummer." 

You can hear that barn-burning speed in their version of one of bluegrass' more well-known tunes, the traditional "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms." The point of course is that it's a relaxed speed. When you hear Charlie Parker or Oscar Peterson, for example, you're not particularly anxious because you're pretty confident that they're gonna stick the landings. Same here. It’s makes you forget that these are prohibitive tempos for John Q. Human bluegrass player.

Within the bluegrass tradition, there is lineage of "brother duets"—The Monroe Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, The Louvin Brothers—and Thile and Daves continue this tradition, albeit as brothers from other mothers. The Louvin Brothers—another guitar/mandolin duo—in particular are a favorite of the pair. On this record, we're treated to "You're Running Wild," a gently off-balance tune that the Louvins popularized.

Daves' tenor is highlighted in their version of "Cry, Cry Darling." Cranking out full-voice high-Cs with abandon, he channels the tenors of the past against Thile's melody.

More than anything, you feel in these 16 essentially live tracks an excitement for making music together. Thile and Daves are a great pairing—fearless and fun-loving—and the tradition, whatever form it takes, should be glad to have them.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.