Chris Thile & Michael Daves
Sleep with One Eye Open
4 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
I came to love bluegrass music in 1999 and in that year began attending the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual World of Bluegrass conference and Fanfest, which was at that time held at the Galt House in Louisville. One of the great attractions of that week was the incessant jamming in the hallways, rooms and lobbies of that grand but slightly seedy hotel. You never knew who you were going to happen upon. For a couple of years, the nucleus of what would become Old Crow Medicine Show played in the main lobby, and they were horrible. But they paid their dues and look where they are now.
A friend of mine reports a few different exciting encounters with a jamming Chris Thile, beginning with his days as a child mandolin prodigy on into his teen years. This two-instrument, two-voice album, recorded with master Brooklyn-based six-stringer Michael Daves in four days at Jack White’s Third Man Studio in Nashville, has the combination of playfulness and virtuosity that many of us were occasionally lucky enough to find riding the Galt’s service elevators (waiting on the ones in the lobby was for suckers) and roaming its hallways.
The duo’s sixteen-song repertoire is heavy on jamming standards from the songbags of Monroe (“Rabbit in the Log,” “Tennessee Blues,” and “Cry, Cry Darling”) , Flatt & Scruggs (“My Littler Girl in Tennessee,” “Sleep with One Eye Open,” “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” and “If I Should Wander Back Tonight”), Jimmy Martin (“20/20 Vision” and “It Takes One to Know One”), and early Del McCoury (“Rain and Snow” and “Loneliness and Desperation). All of these have the requisite hard edge, but there is a softer side too, brought by the gentle tenors of both singers.
The duet singing on the Louvins’ “You’re Running Wild” is simply gorgeous, as is “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.” Frank Rodgers’ “Ookpik Waltz” is a masterstroke of instrumental taste and restraint from two pickers who can rip and run as hard as anyone, with Thile’s mandolin exhibiting the expressiveness of an expertly played grand piano.
The best bluegrass singing and playing is the kind that runs up to and shoves a shoulder into the limits inherent in the genre, and Thile and Daves do just that on a fully satisfying 50-minute effort.