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When Sammy Shelor won the $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo in 2011, he decided to put the cash towards his retirement. Noam Pikelny, on the other hand, who won the first-ever Martin Prize the year before, spent the money on recording this awesome solo album called Beat The Devil And Carry A Rail. Unlike some solo projects where an all-star cast is added to raise the quality of the overall sound and to provide some high profile names to the back album cover, here the guest musicians have been brought in for blatant and overt collaborations with Pikelny.
Pikelny is known as a progressive banjo player, performing in bands ranging from Leftover Salmon to his current stint in the exciting and innovative Punch Brothers. But, surprisingly, there is plenty for the traditional bluegrass lover to sink their teeth into on this album. One fun example is the banjo duet on the classic “Cluck Old Hen,” featuring Martin on clawhammer-style banjo and Pikelny on three-finger. The arrangement is unique and the two banjophonists intermingle sublimely.
The list of collaborators on this venture consists of a who’s who of the modern acoustic world including Martin, Jerry Douglas, David Grier, Bryan Sutton, Chris Thile, Mike Compton, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Mark Schatz, Aoife O’Donovan, Chris Eldridge, Jeff Taylor, Paul Kowert and Alex Hargreaves. Pikelny writes or co-writes eight out of the twelve cuts on the album, which is produced by Punch Brothers bandmate Gabe Witcher. Pikelny and Witcher even wrote a reel for the project called “Milford’s Reel,” and by God there is even an Art Stamper tune picked called “Pineywoods.” But there is also plenty of fun, progressive and atmospheric sounds here as well. This album puts Pikelny’s 1941 Gibson RB-7 banjo to great use. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.)DH