Punch Brothers pay homage to Tony Rice with 'Hell on Church Street'

Banjo player Noam Pikelny discusses the band's reimagining of Rice's 1983 classic 'Church Street Blues' before a concert at the Southern Theatre

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Punch Brothers

Back in 2019, the folks behind the RockyGrass music festival in Lyons, Colorado, asked progressive acoustic quintet Punch Brothers to work up a “special” bluegrass set — an assignment the band is more than capable of completing, though, most often, the five virtuosic musicians use bluegrass instrumentation as a mere launching point for an ever-expanding catalog of modern chamber music. 

After talking it through, the band decided to play a set that revisited Tony Rice’s Church Street Blues, a landmark 1983 solo album that features only Rice’s guitar and voice. “The material on this record is just supremely wonderful. It has some of the best songs of all time, and it's a record that we all loved and grew up with,” said banjo player Noam Pikelny, who will join Punch Brothers bandmates Chris Thile (mandolin), Chris “Critter” Eldridge (guitar), Paul Kowert (bass) and Gabe Witcher (violin) at the Southern Theatre tonight (Monday, Feb. 14). “We all showed up in Colorado the afternoon of the festival, and we had two or three hours to try to cobble together a set based around this music.”

Despite the rushed nature of the performance, Pikelny said it felt good, and the bandmates agreed there might be more for them to fully excavate sometime down the road, opening the door to a more elaborate Church Street Blues project.  

By the fall of 2020, after the pandemic forced the cancellation of tour dates and disrupted plans for months-long writing and recording sessions, the five musicians found themselves with only two or three weeks to write and record new music in Nashville.

“I brought up the idea of revisiting the Church Street Blues music. It was great at RockyGrass, but we only scratched the surface, and we all know this material inside out. We all have an equal bond to this music. We could just come to Nashville and start on day one,” said Pikelny, adding that after some discussion, it became clear that “not only can we make this record, this is the record we should make. And wouldn't it be a shame to wait to make this record 10 years from now and not be able to share it with Tony Rice? We've never really gotten to communicate our gratitude to him.”

Eldridge’s relationship with Rice, who was his guitar mentor, added another layer of meaning to the project. “How special would this be for us to finish this record around the New Year, and when Critter goes home for the holidays, he could detour and deliver this record to Tony as a thank you?” Pikelny said. 

Punch Brothers’ resulting 2021 album, Hell on Church Street, was intended as a living tribute to Rice, but it wasn’t meant to be. “The deeply shocking and sad part of this is that we never had the chance to tell Tony we’d been working on this,” Pikelny said. “We were going to surprise him. We thought it would be more meaningful if we delivered it to him as a finished product. But he passed away on Christmas Day [in 2020], maybe a month after we finished recording.” 

Still, Pikelny wonders whether Rice would have enjoyed some of the band’s creative choices on the songs, which often deviate quite a bit from Rice’s versions — an approach that also pays homage to Rice’s boundary-pushing career.

“People like Tony Rice and Earl Scruggs, who changed [bluegrass] music, they changed it by always staying true to themselves. I'm sure at the time some people scratched their heads or weren't necessarily fond of them being revisionists. But they were taking what they had heard and refining it and revising it based off of what was in their head,” Pikelny said. “Critter isn't trying to play like Tony. We're not trying to arrange these songs like Tony. We're trying to recognize his ethos, which is no different than any of the other pioneers of this music, like Earl Scruggs. They found something unique in their voice and their story, and the music is through that lens, for better or worse, every time.” 

Approaching the album that way, Pikelny and his bandmates had to ask and answer some basic but challenging questions. “What defines this band? What do we do differently? What can we offer on this record that's true to Punch Brothers?” Pikelny said. “The wheels really started turning for everybody in a way that was different than how we approached the music at RockyGrass.” 

Pikelny said the band thought of each song as a different exhibition room in a museum. “You get to peek your head in for three minutes into these different versions of these songs and get something different from these instruments and these voices,” he said. 

On some songs, like leadoff track “Church Street Blues,” the band’s familiarity with Rice’s version made it even more challenging. “Chris Thile, he came with this idea of reimagining [‘Church Street Blues’] in a different time signature, and at first it was really disorienting,” Pikelny said, noting the song’s vocal line remained mostly the same even as the instruments played in 5/4 time. “You're used to hearing something sung at this pace with a certain rhythmic feel for your entire life, and then you hear it sung at the exact same pace, but with this completely different time feeling. … For me, that was the trickiest one because you just keep falling into that old groove.” 

Punch Brothers’ improvised, freeform take on bluegrass standard “The Gold Rush” similarly defies listener expectations. “It’s this deconstructed or imploded kaleidoscope of a fiddle tune that I don't expect to be played on Sirius XM bluegrass radio,” said Pikelny, again paying homage to Rice’s model of how to “break new ground, but also still exist firmly within the tradition — how to find your own voice without erasing or trying to hide what came before you.” 

Like all Punch Brothers music, Pikelny doesn’t see Hell on Church Street as complete until the band has performed the material in front of other people. “Our equation is not balanced if we don't get out in front of an audience and play this in person for a crowd in a beautiful room or at a festival,” said Pikleny, noting that the pandemic has only further convinced them of this reality. “I think we maybe didn't recognize fully what a privilege it is to do this for a living, but also how much we need it — and not as far as a career, but as far as nurturing our souls. … It's been a real joy to have the band back doing what it does. And for each one of us individually, I think it's been a reminder of how essential music is in life, and that we can find our way through all of this if we have it.”