Generation Gab — David Grisman Interviews Chris Thile

chris_thile56When we were offered the chance to do a story about Chris Thile, our initial excitement gave way to a mild sense of panic. Even at this early stage of his life, Thile’s story is unusually complex.

He was in the process of retiring Nickel Creek, the band that he formed in 1989 with siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, and had formed a new band called Punch Brothers with Chris Eldridge, Noam Pikelny, Gabe Witcher and Greg Garrison. He had also recently divorced, an event that caused him to bury himself in his work, and he emerged from that stint with a piece called “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” an epic 40-minute composition in four movements for bluegrass quintet. The piece blends the bluegrass music he grew up playing with the classical music he studied in school and the jazz he picked up during his years on the road. And, to top it off, he just purchased a 1923 Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar-labeled mandolin.

While I was pondering which of our writers would be best suited to tackling the assignment, a friend suggested I get in touch with David Grisman, who–along with being a mandolinist, bandleader and recording engineer–had once run a magazine called Mandolin World News, in which he conducted lots of interviews. David said he would be happy to test his journalist chops and talk to Chris.

David Grisman first met Chris Thile at a bluegrass festival about 20 years ago, when Thile was 7 or 8 years old, and he has watched Thile grow into, well, the David Grisman of his generation. Thile, for his part, grew up listening to Grisman’s music and had even jammed with David’s son Sam, a talented bass player who has played in the Gypsy Kids and the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience.

When the interview transpired, Grisman was at home in Petaluma, California, and Thile was in New York. Happily, the allotted 45 minutes stretched into two hours as the “formal” interview turned into a true conversation, with Thile asking almost as many questions as Grisman. It all went off without a hitch–except for a brief break in the recording caused by a dying phone battery.

“We talked about the meaning of life and had it all figured out, but neither of us wants to repeat it,” Thile explained when I returned to the call. Sorry to have missed that, but hearing two of our greatest mandolinists talk about their music and their instrument just about makes up for it.

Early Days

David Grisman: Let’s go back and talk about your past. I guess early childhood was when you discovered music and the mandolin. What was the initial impulse?

Chris Thile: I remember hearing music from the beginning. There was a lot of music in my family. My dad was a piano tuner and he played a lot of bass. Jazz bass mainly, but by the time I was born, he wasn’t playing that much. He started again when I was little, especially after he saw how I was. There was always music in the house. I remember very early on my parents had a tape of Flatt & Scruggs. I particularly remember Scruggs’ version of “Sally Ann” and I remember loving that banjo sound. Also, very early on we started going to a place called That Pizza Place [in San Diego], and I saw John Moore play mandolin. He later became my teacher. Did you ever meet John?

DG: No, I know about him and I’m not sure if we’ve ever met.

CT: John was as good a teacher as he was a player, and he was a good player. Looking back, I have to say the best thing about him was that he never seemed to be impressed with me. I picked up the mandolin very quickly, but there was never like this big, congratulatory, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe how fast you picked that up” or anything like that. It was always just, “All right, cool, now here’s what else you need to do.” That was really good for me.

Along with John’s playing, I would hear Jethro Burns on A Prairie Home Companion. There was lots of mandolin on that show. I used to hear [Peter] Ostroushko there, too, and some other really great acoustic players.

DG: So the mandolin grabbed you rather than the banjo?

CT: Well, I loved the way the mandolin looked–just everything about it, you know?

DG: Yeah, yeah. The same thing happened to me. I used to draw them.

CT: I would draw them every day, too! I would draw them all the time. I would pore over the Gibson catalogs just looking at the photos of the F-5. I just loved the way it looked and I loved the way the mandolin sounded. And it was small. I was small; I was just a little kid when I started, and every little thing about it was just so great, so magical and perfect. And so I started begging my parents more when I was 2, and they finally let me have…

DG: When you were 2?

CT: When I was 2.

DG: Wow.

CT: They didn’t have any money to buy me a mandolin and they also felt like I didn’t really know what I wanted. Finally, when I was 5, a buddy of theirs just gave one to me, and so all of a sudden, I had a mandolin and I never looked back.

DG: What kind of mandolin was that?

CT: It was called a Delta, and it was, well, looking back on it, it was crap. It was really hard to play, but at the time I didn’t care. I was like, “I have a mandolin!” What was your first mandolin?

DG: I had a Sylvia. It was made by Kay.

CT: You know, my Delta was kind of like a Kay, too. Did you start out on mandolin, too?

DG: No, I started piano when I was 7. My dad was a professional trombone player before I was born. He passed away when I was 10, but he got me started on the piano, and when he died, I kind of lost interest. Also, I didn’t really like a lot of the music that I was learning.

CT: Right, right.

DG: Anyhow, I really got into rock ‘n’ roll in the late ‘50s. On the radio things were going really well, Chuck Berry and Elvis and Buddy Holly. Who else? Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, amazing people that all more or less evaporated around 1960. Buddy Holly died in the plane crash, Elvis went in the army, Little Richard found the Lord, Berry went to jail. I mean, it just all disappeared almost overnight and popular music became so bland, but along came the Kingston Trio.

CT: My parents listened to the Kingston Trio all the time.

DG: And they caught my ear. That guitar-and-banjo sound got me into folk music. My friends and I discovered an FM radio station that sometimes played bluegrass. And one day one of my friends came home with the [Folkways compilation] LP Mountain Music Bluegrass Style, and he invited us over to hear it. When we got there, he had already picked the track he was going to blow our minds with. I remember him putting the needle down on the LP and hearing Earl Taylor’s “White House Blues” for the first time, and from then on bluegrass was all I listened to. Taylor was just an amazing fast banjo player.

CT: Wow.

DG: It kind of changed my life, hearing that. It was the banjo that did it, that got me into bluegrass. But then I met Ralph Rinzler–he came into my English class to play the mandolin–and that was the first time I ever heard or saw a mandolin in person. One of my friends already had a banjo, the other one had a guitar, so I decided to get a mandolin. I went down to Third Avenue in the Bowery, Third Avenue around Ninth and 14th Street…

CT: Wow, that’s about two blocks from my place right now.

DG: Back then, that area was full of pawnshops. I didn’t know anything about mandolins, but I saw that Sylvia that sort of looked like a Gibson, and it was only $19, which was all I could afford. It was a pretty bad mandolin.

CT: But it didn’t matter, did it?

DG: No, no it didn’t. Later, I became friends with Ralph Rinzler, and it turned out he met me when I was a baby. My mother was an art teacher, and she used to take me to class. Ralph was one of her students. And the whole real amazing thing I found out later: Ralph said that the way my mother taught art opened up his creative side and that she totally changed the way he viewed the world. I had a very rough time with my mom growing up, I couldn’t get her…

CT: Right, right, right.

DG: But I got her through him. He inspired me to play mandolin and was such a creative force in my life, and it was good to know that my mom inspired him.

Hey, do you know the five stages of a musician’s life?

CT: What’s that?

DG: Stage one is, “Who’s Chris Thile?” Stage two is, “Get me Chris Thile.” Stage three is, “Get me someone who sounds like Chris Thile.” Stage four, “Get me someone who sounds like a young Chris Thile.” Let’s see if we can get stage five.

CT: Who’s Chris Thile?

DG: Yeah, there you go.

Listening and Learning

DG: So you must have progressed rapidly.

CT: I played all the time. I loved it, and my parents were also very interested in my playing in a way that was really healthy and supplemental. You know, some people have parents who seem kind of indifferent to what they’re doing…

DG: Yeah, my mom, well, she just never paid attention to it.

CT: That’s interesting.

DG: It wasn’t like I was on my way to becoming something useful, like a doctor or a lawyer, so…

CT: I’ve known a lot of people who’ve had experiences like that–or who had the reverse, where there was far too much interest coming from the parents. So for me, it was always apparent that my parents saw how much I was interested and then would always be that interested along with me. If I was ever being too lazy about it, my parents would go, “Hey, do you want to practice?” It was never, “You have to practice,” but just kind of reminding me how much I cared about it.

And so I would play all the time and always with the idea that I wanted to get a little bit better, and the more I played, the more I was able to mimic my heroes–and the more I was able to understand what they were doing.

DG: What about the sound, the other elements of playing, like tone production?

CT: It’s kind of a funny thing, but when I was really little, I loved listening to that Stan Getz/João Gilberto record that had “Girl from Ipanema” on it. I loved Getz’ saxophone on that record. To me, that sound–that’s what I was identifying with as a little kid, as a baby even. That record was on in my house all the time when I was 1 year old and 2 years old.

Right from the start, John Moore made a real pleasing sound on the mandolin. And I started hearing you, David, and I started hearing John Reischman and I started hearing Sam Bush. But also, I was like John Moore in that I was tuned in to fiddle players, too, as far as the tone production was concerned. I always really loved Byron Berline, and I started getting into Mark O’Connor and Stuart Duncan, and the way that they were making sounds was really appealing to me. I started hearing pianists, and also hearing Béla Fleck. His warm, legato banjo sound–that started having a huge influence on me, too.

And I’ve always had this sound in my head that I was kind of going for. When I made my first record, that duo record with my dad, we got ahold of a real mixer with EQ, and my dad let me EQ my mandolin sound myself. It basically had no high end whatsoever. It was just like this big, kind of round sound.

DG: That’s sort of what I’ve always been after all my life. I’ve always tried to mellow out the treble on the mandolin.

CT: Right, your Dawg picks do that to the sound. I remember the first time I used your pick, I realized, Wait, that’s part of that sound that I love.

DG: And a lot of people think it sounds dead, but I find that with a point on a pick you get more click and brightness. It’s adding another element.

CT: It is. On a pointed pick, you’re going to hear more pick and less mandolin. It’s funny, I eventually went from the Dawg pick to something with a little more point, but still not like a Fender Extra Heavy kind of a point or anything like that. I think ultimately I just don’t have a terribly powerful arm.

Sometimes I feel like I’m a mandolin player sort of in spite of my general feelings about making music.

DG: What do you mean?

CT: Judging from the music I want to make, it just seems if creating music is your goal, playing the piano makes it a lot easier, because you’re able to realize so much stuff at the same time. At the same time, I love making music on the mandolin, and I feel like it’s my voice. You can do anything on any instrument. I think the musician is greater than the instrument. I think you’re like me: You were gonna play all types of music whether you played the mandolin or whether you played the zither or something.

DG: I’m a mandolin player because that’s the thing that was the easiest thing for me to do. So, I have my limitations with it. And I enjoy the interaction with other pickers. I wouldn’t want to play it all; I might want to write it all, but I also enjoy playing music with the other people.

I would have been scared off by the piano because there are so many great piano players out there. I like that fact that when I bought a mandocello early on and started playing it, I was automatically the best mandocello player in town, because I was the only mandocello player.

CT: That’s true. It’s wonderful to play an instrument where there’s a limited amount of history. For instance, classical violin and classical piano or jazz sax or jazz trumpet, they all have a tremendous amount of repertoire to assimilate. I think [those players] have to spend a huge amount of their time learning how to sound like all these great players.

That’s the beautiful thing about playing the mandolin, that it’s still, compared to the violin and piano, a relatively unspoiled instrument. I have the good fortune to come along after you guys–after you and Sam Bush and guys like Radim Zenkl and Mike Marshall. I can see that there’s a mess of things that have been done, but that there are still lots things I can do, too.

DG: Well, you’re growing your own crop there now. How do you feel about all the young guys chompin’ at your heels?

CT: I almost want to tear, well up in my eyes, when I see them play. Things will come up when some of these younger kids are playing, stuff I can hear they got from my playing, and it’s very exciting and moving to know I was an influence to them.

DG: I’ll tell ya, I confess. One of your performances a few years ago at Rockygrass had me in tears. You know, they were tears of joy.

CT: OK, thank you, thank you so much for that.

DG: And I saw my whole career going down the drain. I was thinking that nobody would want to hear me after hearing you.

CT: Hearing these young players reminds me of how I was when I was a kid and how I looked up to players like you. These players look to you for something, and it keeps you honest. You realize that…

DG: That somebody’s paying attention.

CT: Exactly! Someone’s there paying attention, someone’s listening, someone is gonna know if you’re not at your best. They’ve heard you at your best, and so it makes you want to play at your best more often.


DG: Do you have a practice regimen?

CT: I do, but it’s less structured than it ought to be. I try and play because I’ve noticed I’m not making progress if I’m not playing. This is all general, of course, because some days you’re just traveling and you won’t be able to play. And then some days you’ll play quite literally all day long. But I’ve definitely noticed that if I don’t get three hours in, I’m not improving. I feel like if I’m not playing for two hours a day, I actually start to go backwards.

DG: Do you play exercises? Do you play pieces?

CT: I kind of let how my hands and mind are feeling dictate when I’m actually practicing. If I’m feeling more creative on a certain day, maybe I won’t be playing as much and I’ll be writing a little more. On other days, I may do a personal upkeep on the mandolin, so maybe I’m making sure I’m keeping my hands limber and not losing ground.

But on days when I’m feeling less creative, maybe then I would actually hit some exercises, or maybe my hands aren’t feeling great, and I’m going to work more on tone production or that sort of thing. Or sometimes, if my hands aren’t feeling really good, then I’ll work on slowly improvising and try and work on my mind a little bit more. Or if I’m feeling great on my hands, then maybe I’ll work on something real demanding, maybe one of the faster Bach things.

DG: Do you have any suggestions on good pieces to adapt? I imagine Bach never wrote anything for the mandolin?

CT: Well, he never did, but I’ll just work through any of the solo sonatas or partitas for violin–all work really well on mandolin. It’s daunting at first, playing Bach on the mandolin, but really, once you start digging in, there’s a way to solve any of technical problems.

The first movement of the D minor partita is a great place to start because there’s nothing there that’s hard on the mandolin. It’s a real fun one, a good finger-buster that’s hard on your right hand, it’s hard on your left hand, but it’s great because it’s almost like a technical exercise that also happens to be the most brilliant music ever written. And the E major partita prelude really shows the mandolin off, too.

DG: That’s what Mike Marshall used to do, right?

CT: Yep, Mike used to play it. He still does, I think. It sounds wonderful on the mandolin, and it really shows off the cross-picking style on the mandolin. I played it for a violinist friend of mine, and she was saying how envious she was that our notes kept ringing after we had struck them. You know, once a violinist lifts the bow from the strings, they don’t ring anymore. On mandolin, we can hit a note, and if it’s an open string, that note will just ring out.

DG: Is there any other classical repertoire that interests you in that way?

CT: Not in the same way. I’m listening to tons of classical music right now, but not necessarily to play it. Lately I’ve been listening to Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra over and over again; I love it. Brahms’ Third and Fourth Symphonies, I’ve been listening to them a lot. Debussy’s only string quartet; I absolutely freak out about that.

DG: Have you ever studied composition?

CT: I did. I went to college for a year and a half, and the last year I studied composition. My instructor kept telling me, “You always come up with good ideas, but they’re always complete already.” I would write something, and I’d have an A part and a B part and–maybe I would get real crazy–there’d be a C, D and E part or something. But those parts were not necessarily thematically tied, and they were basically closed. They didn’t really allow for that much thematic development. My teacher was always trying to get me to write something that wasn’t done. He wanted me to write something really simple that could go in a variety of directions.

After I left school, I started working with Edgar Meyer a lot. I’d always ask him to teach me things, and he’d always want to present it more like we were working together, that–he wasn’t teaching me. He’d then show me something cool, tell me what he thought about it and ask me what I thought about it. I sometimes think that I apprenticed myself to Edgar, in a way.

DG: My son Sam has a lot of tapes of you in concert that I’ve listened to. On a lot of those solos, are you playing rehearsed parts or are you improvising?

CT: If they’re that ones I’m thinking of, I’m usually improvising.

DG: Man, you’re coming up with some great ideas there.

CT: I feel like when I’m up there onstage, I’ll get those sort of multiple-lightning ideas every now and then. But I’m one to sit down and think about what I’m trying to do and try and find a reason for playing something a particular way. That was something that Edgar taught me–try and find something and then test it. Come up with a melody and try to figure out how that new idea reacts to all kinds of various treatments. If it’s not like pulling teeth to get it to do a variety of different things, maybe you’ve got a good idea on your hands. But if it only seems to be able to be what it is, then a lot of times it’s just a little too closed or something.

How do you keep things fresh?

DG: For me, I’m trying not to repeat myself. After writing so many tunes, there’s always that challenge to write something totally different.

CT: Right, and you have to keep trying to transcend yourself.

Loar Lore

DG: Let’s talk mandolins.

CT: Well, I bought myself, like so many fellows before me, a Lloyd Loar. It’s dated February 18, 1923.

DG: That was the date of my first Loar.

CT: Your first was February 18, too, huh? Why don’t you tell me a little bit about that?

DG: I went to a guy named Harry West who was one of the first guys who kind of created the vintage instrument thing. This was a while ago, but back in the 1960s, the word was that if you wanted an old F-5, go to Harry West. The day I went up there, he had four F-5s from the 1920s.

CT: Wow.

DG: And two of them were Loars, although we didn’t know at the time what the significance of the label was.

CT: Right.

DG: But we had figured out that old mandolins sounded better than the new ones. Anyway, both of the Loars were dated February 18. One was $550, which is the one I bought, and the other one was $600. A friend of mine lent me the money, and I was in debt for several years paying my Loar off.

CT: So your first Loar was $550, and my first Loar was $200,000.

DG: Wow. Well, there is one advantage to being this old, I guess. I passed up a lot of Loars for $500 that I couldn’t get the money together for. Back then if you wanted a good mandolin, you had to track down an old one. There wasn’t this proliferation of builders making great new mandolins that there is now. So, why did you get a Loar?

CT: It’s fun to play, it’s fun to think about having in your hands. I’ve been longing to have one for years, and so I started looking around. I’ve played quite a few over the years, and there are only a couple mandolins in the world that I feel are better than my Loar. Crusher, your mandolin, is one of them, and John Reischman’s mandolin is another. And I really love Mike Marshall’s mandolin. After playing those mandolins, I just got envious and knew I had to have one.

DG: Do you think in a vacuum you would have felt that way? Would you have wanted your Loar if you didn’t know about…

CT: The legend of the Loar mandolins?

DG: Yeah, I mean, so many people reinforce this idea that Loars are these almost-magical instruments.

CT: I think that a Loar is, say, a ’61 Bordeaux. You know there are California cabs being made that are just unbelievable wines, [but] then the ’61 Bordeaux has a kind of interesting–oh, I don’t know how to talk about wine–but it has a vibe, an essence that you can only get in that old Bordeaux.

I’m not sure if my Loar will ever be a better mandolin than my Dudenbostel or if, for what I do, it’ll even be as good. But I’ll tell ya, since I got it I’m drawn to it; there’s something about it I don’t have with my other mandolin. Right now, I’m playing it more than my Dudenbostel when I’m at home, because there’s just something to it. If you want to get tangible, I feel that there is a tangible magic to the high mids that you can’t get on another instrument.

DG: And I can’t argue with anybody that’s getting off on the instrument they’re playing, but at the same time, when I listen to a John Coltrane record, I dig the music and I don’t say, “Wow, I wonder if that’s a Selmer Mark 6 saxophone.”

CT: You’re right about that. The craftsman trumps the tools.

DG: Tone is a very subjective thing, and I think it’s really colored by the usage that you’re hearing that tone in. I once heard a B.B. King record and I loved the playing, but the tones on this particular cut–if it was somebody else’s record, I wouldn’t like it.

Jethro Burns always said, “Hey, I don’t care what they sound like as long as they play easy.” How big a factor was the playability of this instrument for you? Or is it just the sound?

CT: Both, really. But playability is very important. For me, the neck has to have the right shape for my hand. Bad fingerboards I can always get changed and make into something I want because I know what I want. The neck shape, on the other hand, if that’s wrong, there’s nothing you can do about it, in my opinion.

DG: I know what you mean. I had a great Loar once that sounded incredible–January 5, 1923–but the neck was too big. I just couldn’t play it without it hurting me.

CT: That must have been hard. I’m definitely going to change the fingerboard on my Loar.

DG: Of course that’s going to change the value of it. But then once somebody like you owns one, I figure no matter what you do to it, it’s gonna be counter-balanced by the fact that it’s yours.

CT: You make a great point about the value. I’ve already made noises about replacing the fingerboard on this instrument, and a buddy of mine who reads Mandolin Café told me, “Hey man, people are giving you all kinds of shit that you’re gonna change this instrument.”

DG: You know, a lot of the people that make the noise have a vested interest in it. A lot of guys that can’t play own a Lloyd Loar and want to make sure that their investment stays intact. These were the kinds of guys who were pissed off at Andy Statman for peeling off half the finish on the face of the mandolin by playing it for 30 years.

Now everything is like postage-stamp collecting. I mean, I can recognize what the rules of the game are when it comes to old mandolins and guitars, but once the thing enters my possession, if I’m going to use it I’m going to do what’s necessary to make that usable.

The Punch Brothers

DG: You have a new band, the Punch Brothers, but you’re on your second name?

CT: Well, we’re kind of on our third name now.

DG: Your third name?

CT: Depending on how you look at it. We began as Tensions Mountain Boys; then we realized that we weren’t actually going to be able to tour as a band for very long with our original personnel. So we made this bluegrass record and toured behind that with Bryan Sutton, who sat in for the original guitarist, Chris Eldridge, under the name of How to Grow a Band. So that was the second name, and then we got Critter back–Chris Eldridge–and called ourselves the Tensions Mountain Boys again. Both management and the record company didn’t like that name, and a lot of people told us it was just kind of stupid, and so we came up with the Punch Brothers, which was taken straight from a Mark Twain short story called “Punch, Brothers, Punch.”

DG: Great.

CT: It’s a great story–about a poem that the main character just can’t get out of his head, and it kind of takes over his life until he passes it on to somebody else. So there you have the story of my band’s name. How did you name your band?

DG: I get to thank Tony Rice for that.

CT: Really? Did he just say keep it simple?

DG: No, he said, “Hey, this is your music, there are five of us in the band, so just call it the David Grisman Quintet.”

CT: There you go.

DG: I thought, with Tony, the band is going to have a great vocalist, and we were going to have songs mixed in with the instrumental music. Then it turned out that Tony wasn’t that interested in singing at that time. He wanted to explore instrumental music; he just wanted to explore the guitar.

How do you feel about maintaining that balance? You’re a vocalist and an instrumentalist, and singing is still a big part of your presentation.

CT: That’s kind of the crux of the issue for me right now. I always hear of these opposing forces in the music that I listen to, the vocal and the instrumental, and one is always kind of beaten into submission. Particularly in our genre, there’s a long history of these instrumental records being made that have maybe two or three vocals on them by different special guests. I’ve made several records that are mostly vocals, and then there’s a couple instrumentals almost thrown in to remind people, Hey, we play, too.

DG: Right. Playing becomes a different art form with a song. It’s half words and half music. And in the good old days–or the old days, because I still think the days are good–everything was very specialized. You usually had one guy doing the lyrics and another doing the music and still another doing the arranging.

CT: It’s very rare to find a complete package in a song, where the balance of words and music is more or less equal. Usually, when I listen to music, the words sung, that’s not what I’m listening to. That’s not what usually grabs me out of a song.

DG: It’s the music part with me, too. There are songs where both parts are married together perfectly, but these days, usually one has to serve the other. The words have to be dumbed down, or the music has to be fairly rudimentary. They just aren’t equal.

CT: That’s what I’ve found, and why I’m also railing against dumb lyrics. In my songwriting, I’m really trying to get the words and the music to kiss and make up, and take equal part in what is going on.

DG: Does the music suggest to you the theme of the lyrics?

CT: A lot of times it does. On my new CD, Punch, with the “Blind Leaving the Blind,” I wanted to tell the story of what happened after I got divorced, what happened to my worldview and how things changed for me. And not to dwell on the hurt that one feels after that, but rather to dwell more on the effect that it has on your approach to living after that.

DG: Well, I think for me, it has to have a purpose. The music has to be saying something or creating a mood. You know, in slow songs, it’s got a certain kind of mood, or a happy song, there’s a different kind of mood.

Working on film scores helped me think some of this through. You have a definite assignment because I was writing to order for, say, a romantic mood or a chase scene or whatever. And it’s not just mood you need to set–you need to do it in exactly 39 seconds and then it has to stop. In film music, you have all kinds of parameters.

CT: That’s interesting you say that because one thing that was really helpful in the writing of “The Blind Leaving the Blind” was to give myself directions as to what kind of thing I knew I wanted. What I started with was that I wanted to write a 40-minute, through-composed string quartet for bluegrass instruments and a couple of voices.

DG: You decided at the beginning it would be 40 minutes long?

CT: Yeah, 40 minutes, and I decided I wanted it to all be related to itself. I wanted it to be really involved instrumentally and to find a way for those things–the vocals and the instruments, the words and the music–to play nicely with one another instead of one of them beating the other to total submission. And I knew I wanted it to be for bluegrass quintet, you know, mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle and bass.

DG: With me, the bluegrass orchestration is a perfect one.

CT: It’s amazing, isn’t it? I feel like the textural possibilities are just limitless. And when you find players you really connect with, it’s certainly interesting. When you have banjo and guitar, they’re sitting there occupying a lot of the same sonic space, but when you find players who love each other and react to each other, that, in itself, is a wonderful thing. It’s kind of a great little dilemma to have, working to connect these beautiful sheets of midrange.

DG: The original Blue Grass Boys laid out a way for the rest of us to follow.

CT: That’s absolutely right. Bill Monroe really hit upon the truth. And David, guys like you took those ideas and really kind of fleshed ‘em out and suggested a lot of other exciting possibilities. Before I wrote “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” I thought I might write for a classical string quartet or maybe try my hand at writing a symphony or something, and I realized that I don’t really know those instruments like I know these instruments.

I grew up with bluegrass music and these instruments. Do you remember when I first met you? I think I was 7 or 8, and it was at the Grass Valley Bluegrass Festival.

DG: Yeah, man.

CT: So I’ve been studying what guys like you have been doing since I was a little kid and feel like I know what these instruments are capable of. I know something about their limitations and I know something about how far they can go.

This article originally appeared in the Fretboard Journal #10. Photographs by Matthew Spencer.