The Punch Brothers’ website refers to the band as a folk group, which is appropriate considering they are steeped in traditional bluegrass, yet rarely perform as a traditional bluegrass act. Far more experimental in their song selections and in their arrangements, the group explores the creative frontier of acoustic string band music. Its new album, “Hell on Church Street,” is a homage to one of their most beloved heroes, the late Tony Rice, and is a re-imagining of Rice’s 1983 album, “Church Street Blues.”
“We knew we wanted to make an album in 2020,” says Chris Eldridge, guitarist for Punch Brothers. “This was before anything with COVID had happened.” The band faced some immediate challenges. For one, the members of Punch Brothers live in different parts of the country. And then there was an issue with time. Each member is involved in multiple projects.
“We couldn’t get together without extreme planning and isolation,” he continues. “It wasn’t flexible, we weren’t going to have the time to make a record the way we usually do.” Their process, according to Eldridge, “requires quite a long period of writing together. We’re not really a band where one person writes the songs and everybody else just shows up. It’s way more work intensive than that.”
They were able to nail down a couple of weeks where they could get together to record, knowing that they would have to start and complete the process within that time frame. “We thought, what can we do? We thought maybe a record of covers, people had been asking us to do that for a long time.” The band settled on the idea of covering a single album, creating a re-imagining of it. It was banjo player Noam Pikelny who suggested the Rice recording.
The late Tony Rice was an innovative and influential bluegrass guitar player, known for his progressive approach to playing and for his ability to blend elements of folk and jazz in his recordings. “Church Street Blues” was compelling; the album consisted of just Rice and his guitar covering songs by folk and bluegrass performers. In addition to his take on songs by Bill Monroe and Norman Blake, Rice turned in stirring covers of Bob Dylan, Ralph McTell, Tom Paxton, and Gordon Lightfoot. That means one unique thing about “Hell on Church Street” is that it is a cover of a covers record.
The band members had performed the album only once before, at the 2019 RockyGrass Festival in Colorado. “It was an unusual all bluegrass set. I kind of view us as being a part of the bluegrass tree, but we’re about as out on the edges as you can get while still being connected to it,” Eldridge says. The Punch Brothers were looking for some sort of theme, some organizing principle, when they chose to perform Rice’s album at the festival.
The band members saw an opportunity. Since “Church Street Blues” was just Rice and his guitar, it was open to interpretation by a full band. “His record is sort of a blank canvas from a band perspective, but it is also such a beautifully curated one. The songs on the record, the pacing and the track order, all of it is great.”
There was a personal connection as well – Eldridge was the son of Ben Eldridge, founding member of the much-loved Washington, DC band, The Seldom Scene. Rice was friends with the elder Eldridge, and also took time to mentor Chris.
“It was amazing. He wasn’t interested in talking about guitar playing at all. I think that is what most people assumed that we did.That it was guitar lessons or something,” Eldridge recalls. “We didn’t play guitar together once. The only time I played with Tony was on stage. It was more about dealing with music on a deep philosophical level. Why are we musicians? Why do we play music? What made the musicians we love and cherish so great? What were they motivated by? What do you want to share with the world?”
It was just what the 19-year-old Eldridge needed. “My orientation, at that time, was that I wanted to be the greatest flat-picking guitar player, ever. Which of course, I’m not.” Rice adjusted and refocused the young Eldridge’s perspective. “Tony said, ‘Fine, but who wants to listen to that? Your whole deal here is to make incredible, beautiful music.’”
Beyond the personal connection, Rice’s career and artistry had a profound impact on the entire band. Once they had decided to record “Hell on Church Street,” the band knew they would do it their way. “We weren’t going to do the songs the way he did.”
As the band immersed themselves into the recording process it became more than just another Punch Brothers album.
“We made this record when Tony was still alive; this is not a tribute record. We couldn’t have made it without him, but in a very real sense we made it for him,” says Eldridge. “We were very excited to give this to him and say, ‘Thank you for making all this music possible. This is our next album, but it is also a real genuine thank you-gift to you.’ Unfortunately, he passed away after we had recorded it, but before we got it mixed.” Instead, the Punch Brothers will share this gift with Richmond.
WNRN presents the Punch Brothers with Haley Heynderickx on Wednesday, Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at The National. thenationalva.com