Somewhere, the music gods are smiling over the holidays. The stars aligned and brought classical music together with bluegrass, achieving some truly astounding results. But let me take a step back.
Yo-Yo Ma is a world-class cellist who has made a career not only out of gorgeous classical music, but for pushing boundaries and collaborating with musicians of any and all genres, from a cappella maestro Bobby McFerrin to one of the preeminent violinists of the last century, Itzhak Perlman. In addition, he has worked with orchestras around the world and helped out with music education efforts worldwide. Thankfully, the world has recognized his efforts and he’s been awarded multiple awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. He currently serves as a UN Messenger of Peace and on the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities.
And now he can add a collaboration with bluegrass artists Chris Thile (on mandolin and member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers), Edgar Meyer (bass), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). The result is a collection of songs in The Goat Rodeo Sessions that not only debuted at #1 on the Bluegrass, Classical, and Classical Crossover Billboard charts, but has made it to #18 on the Billboard Top 200 and at #11 on Soundscan’s Digital Album chart. And if all that attention isn’t enough to get you to listen to this album, I encourage you to watch this video of their performance on The Colbert Report:
Though I’ve listened to my share of classical music over the years, one of my more recent discoveries has been the life and energy in bluegrass music. Groups like Crooked Still and the Greencards have brought a new joy to my ears in recent years. So I think I was on a collision course with this album from the first time I heard the quartet play in the videos on Colbert.
What blows my mind is the control of these musicians and the dynamic passion that ebbs and flows through every note. Sure, there are some slower songs, but damn if these folks don’t fly across the strings. Chris Thile sums it up nicely: “The arrangements on the record are ‘like a reverse game of Jenga‘” he says, “trying to get all the players to land at the same place at the end of the songs.” It’s rare these days that I’ll find that a song is so quiet that I need to turn it up to hear the beginning. Yet with songs like “Here and Heaven,” I had to do just that, and then had to hear it build to such a satisfying crescendo with the vocals and harmonies of Aoife O’Donovan and Thile … I literally am in heaven every time I hear it.
“Quarter Chicken Dark” has a groove that just sticks in my brain long after the song is done, forcing me to go back and listen to it again before too long. Meyer’s bass, merged with Ma’s cello, drives this song from the bottom up. It’s one of those grooves that rises and falls. I swear they could just keep playing this one song from sunset to sunrise and I’d still be listening. “Less is Moi” has the same addictive quality with a different riff that uses Duncan’s plectrum banjo and Thile’s mandolin to drive things forward.
So just what is a “goat rodeo,” you may ask? Mr. Ma puts it like this: “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork, the right decision was made, then you get to a goat rodeo.”
I don’t know about you, but this album proves that sometimes you can put lightning in a bottle. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is now among my favorite albums to listen to for no reason but the sheer pleasure of doing so. I can only hope that the success of this album will lead to more collaborations in the future!