Sometime last winter, Noam Pikelny grew restless. He’d recently wrapped up a tour with the Punch Brothers, plucking his banjo strings to songs from the group’s chart-topping album, The Phosphorescent Blues. Back in Nashville after the tour’s final gig, though, he found himself sitting at home, missing the road he’d just left behind.
“I wound up booking some solo dates as an experiment, to see what sort of material I could perform that would stand alone without a band backing it up,” says the award-winning banjo phenom, who had mostly performed as a member of larger groups. This time, though, the gigs were different. Pikelny took the stage alone. He sang. He played. He told jokes in a stone-faced deadpan. He wasn’t just a bandmate; he was the entire band.
A year after that initial round of one-man shows – shows that took place in off-the-beaten-path towns where, he now says, “if I humiliated myself, I could possibly live the rest of my life without ever showing my face again” – he’s doubling down on his solo career with this week’s Universal Favorite. Produced by fellow Punch Brother Gabe Witcher, the album takes its cues from Pikelny’s solo tours, featuring nothing but his conversational baritone and a handful of vintage stringed instruments.
This isn’t your grandpa’s banjo album. Universal Favorite offers its share of traditional-minded instrumentals, but much like Pikelny’s work with the Punch Brothers, the track list reaches far beyond the old-school roots of bluegrass and folk. For starters, there’s a lovely version of Elliot Smith’s “Bye,” transplanted from the piano to the banjo and stripped free of the woozy reverb that fills the Figure 8 original. Songs popularized by Roy Acuff, Josh Ritter, Roger Miller and Fleming Brown help complete Universal Favorite‘s handful of covers, while an equal number of originals show off the range of Pikelny’s fretwork. In a genre filled with top-notch pickers, Pikelny is a truly stunning instrumentalist, mixing the three-fingered attack of Earl Scruggs with the rule-breaking, all-genres-welcome attitude of Bela Fleck. Oh, and just for good measure, he plays a mean guitar, too.
“With Punch Brothers, we’ve subscribed to this idea that everybody’s going to stick to their main instrument,” he explains. “It’s just the five of us playing the five instruments that make up the classic bluegrass ensemble. But I’ve always enjoyed playing guitar, as well as some of these weird four-string instruments I have. Having those instruments is a real aid for writing and composing. I’m not trying to make the album into a rollercoaster ride, and the message isn’t supposed to be, ‘Look at all of these different things I can do.’ It’s just an organic process of me figuring out which songs and instruments make up the most honest setlist.”
The cornerstone of that setlist is “Old Banjo,” the kickoff track from the first album Pikelny ever owned.
“The album was called The Little Rosewood Casket… and Other Songs of Joy, which I still think is one of the greatest album titles of all time,” he says. “I grew up in Chicago and started playing banjo when I was 8 years old. A teacher of mine was playing this song called ‘Old Banjo,’ and when I asked him where he’d learned it, and he told me about this old Chicago folksinger called Fleming Brown. My dad took me to the record store and I bought the album. I still have it.”
In the video below, Pikenly performs the song in one live take, mixing a straightforward presentation with complex, fiery fretwork.
“I always thought it ‘Old Banjo’ was the perfect material for this album because it’s a traditional song that hasn’t been played a million times,” he says, striking the same balance of roots-music orthodoxy and left-of-center progressiveness that’s turned the Punch Brothers into festival favorites. “I felt like I could offer it to people who hadn’t heard it before, and put my own stamp on it, and tie myself to the tradition of Chicago players who came before me.”
Universal Favorite is out March 3rd.