I owe a lot of where I am today to Grant Gordy. When I came back to Fort
Collins after four years on Long Island, all I had was a degree in Naval
Architecture and little direction. Like many listless dreamers before me,
I'd entertained the notion of starting a band.
Q: Where does one begin such a quest?
A: Music shops magical places functioning much like a bug-zapper for
would-be band-leaders. They're places brimming with both actual talent and
people who merely think they have it. The now long-gone Northern Rose
became my port-of-call, and that's where I first made Mr. Gordy's
acquaintance. He introduced me to a whole world of musical ideas,
demonstrating connections I never knew existed. Bluegrass. Jazz. Gypsy. New
Acoustic. I was blown away by the possibilities. One particular record he
shared with me was Chris Thile's Not All Who Wander Are Lost.
What a record that was (and is, for that matter). It masterfully combined musicianship and arrangements (both forward-thinking and backward-looking) into something beautifully combustible.
Now, here we are, three years later. Everything comes full circle. Oddly
enough, two weeks ago, my band opened for Nickel Creek, the band for which Chris Thile is perhaps most famous. Backstage, Grant and Chris spoke at
length about the future of music and how it would involve the smashing
together of different genres. Considering Thile's statements about music's
direction, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground is a strange listen since, in a lot of ways, this album is an exercise in tradition.
I missed the point at first. As much as I harp on people to just sit back
and enjoy the music, I didn't. I listened with a critical ear and thought
"I expected more from Chris." Then it hit me. Who am I to say that?
I don't think there's a single artist out there who's purposely putting out
something inferior (unless inferiority is part of the aesthetic). The point
is, everyone gives it their best shot each time they make an album. How to
Grow a Woman From the Ground is no different in that respect you just have to dig a little deeper to find the intent. It may not have the
surface-level, virtuosic flourishes we've come to expect, but it does have
When it comes to making records, the sound of a live band is all too often
lost in translation. Reactive, fluid playing becomes much more difficult in
a recorded medium. The nuance of imperceptible timing is lost. Vision and
feeling are key to a group's functionality.
There's no good way to get around this with most bands. How to Grow a Woman From the Ground accomplishes this feat by opting for two mics and a room full of musicians. The result is a sound akin to the olden days of bluegrass.
To attempt a live, two-mic recording, you'd better have a top-notch band,
since there's really no chance for overdubbing. Luckily, the How to Grow a
Band has talent up the wazoo. As a unit, they are unbelievably tight: Thile
on mandolin, Noam Pikelny (banjo), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Chris Eldridge
(guitar), and Greg Garrison (bass). All are masters of their respective
instruments. It's such a cohesive group that no one ever really exerts
complete dominance focus is always subtly shifting like lapping waves on a secluded shoreline. Yes, these are indeed reactive players.
As far as the material goes, it's a grab-bag of instrumentals,
bluegrass-ified covers, and originals. The White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and
the Dirty Ground" and The Strokes' "Heart in a Cage" stand beside Jimmie
Rodgers' "Brakeman's Blues" and don't sound out of place. In fact, "Heart
in a Cage" easily trumps the original and is one of the high points of the
Musicianship is constantly at the forefront. Take a song like "The
Beekeeper." Beautifully constructed and performed, it even utilizes a bit
of musical onomatopoeia, actually sounding like a swarming, buzzing mass of
bees at one point. (It reminds me of the feeling evoked towards the middle
of the first movement of Gorecki's 2nd Symphony.)
Another particularly notable fact about this recording is the use of varied
dynamics. The band exhibits amazing control, able to take it from full-out
to barely-there in an instant. With little to no compression on the
recording, these vast swings go a long way in amplifying the emotional
intensity. Instead of the flat production value permeating so much music
today, there are peaks and valleys. The variations only heighten the sense
that these are real, live musicians. It's a record devoid of produced sheen,
and that's a good thing.
Perhaps my favorite moment on the album, and one that made Grant and me laugh aloud when we first heard it, comes during "Brakeman's Blues." Towards the end, it features an uncharacteristically thrashing chord solo from Thile.
He smashes through his mandolin right up until the solo's denouement, when
he easily defuses it with a flashy, intricate lick.
How to Grow a Woman From the Ground is the sound of musicians having a great
deal of fun it only took a friend's laughter for me to realize that. Yes,
Grant Gordy has taught me a lot about music. How it's imbued with humor and
joy. How sometimes simplicity is the better route. How genre is
meaningless. And how there are many ways to define quality. I'd like to
thank him for that. I'd also like to thank him for not letting me become a