By Greg Cahill | From the September-October 2020 issue of Strings magazine
The Rodeo is back in town—the highly acclaimed classical-crossover band Goat Rodeo, that is. Classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma has reunited with Americana musicians Chris Thile (mandolin, fiddle), Edgar Meyer (double bass), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle) on Not Our First Goat Rodeo, the follow-up to the group’s first project nine years ago. Their debut recording, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, received Grammy Awards for Best Folk Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. In addition to four Grammy-winning soloists, the album on three tracks features guest vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, also a Grammy-winning soloist. “There was never any question that we would bring her back,” says Duncan, during a phone call from his home in Gallatin, Tennessee, outside of Nashville. “That was a no brainer. One of our only missions on the second album was to make the balance between vocals and instrumentals, and the personnel, exactly the same.”
The Los Angeles Times has described the collaboration on these projects—an amalgamation of classical, Celtic, Appalachian, and jazz—as featuring “unlikely musicians on unlikely instruments . . . part blues, part bluegrass, and a smidgen of Bach.” The ten tracks range from the fiddle-forward bluegrass of “Waltz Whitman” to the bass-centric chamber-folk vibe of “Not for Lack of Trying.”
With the coronavirus pandemic precluding a tour to support the new album, Goat Rodeo has released a video compiled from five separate videos of each member playing in seclusion. It has been released on YouTube.
Strings asked fiddler Stuart Duncan about life in quarantine, as limited professional activities resume, and the Goat Rodeo album’s recording sessions, which took place last fall in New York.
How are you holding up?
The quarantine is strange for everybody. But it’s magnified because at least half of the people in middle Tennessee are non-compliant with mask requirements. So it becomes uncomfortable. You go to a recording session and half the people are wearing masks, but are very nervous about even being there, and the other half don’t care at all and aren’t wearing masks. And they’re looking at you like you’re weird for even wearing one. But at least I have been doing some recording sessions, so it feels good to be working, at least somewhat.
As a country fiddler, what’s it like working with Yo-Yo Ma?
He’s a true gentleman and extremely generous with his time. He is as genuine as he seems on camera.
What’s it like to have the new Goat Rodeo album released in the midst of a pandemic when you can’t tour to support it?
We have a three-song promotional video recorded in our individual studios. Production folks have gotten those segments color-corrected and synched up. So, that’s a good thing.
What was the impetus for coming back together?
I think the reunion was born on the last day of the first project. Everyone had a strong sense that this was really good, that the instrumentation sounded great together, and that we all got along really well and should do it again. But schedules being what they are, especially with Yo-Yo and Chris [host of NPR’s weekly music program Live from Here with Chris Thile], it took a while just to find the time when we could all do another one.
What did you set out to accomplish on this album?
Probably the easiest way to explain it would be to give “Not for Lack of Trying” as an example. That was entirely Edgar’s baby with a few “what if we did this or thats?” from Chris and me. The play on words in the tune’s title is intentional: “trying” is a play on “triad.” The song is written off of all the different triads [and supportive triads] that are available in any given key. He went through each of those on a piano. He threw out the most dissonant ones. We agreed to use all of the rest, writing arpeggiated melodies that went with those triads. It was a different way to write than to say, “Here’s a lick” or “Here’s a chord pattern.” We used the spirit of the Goat: how differently can we approach something and still make it musical? I think that’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. Elsewhere, my contributions were more to act as the referee when Chris would throw out six different ideas on the mandolin just to see which we liked. And “Your Coffee Is a Disaster” was a pizzicato thing from me that was incorporated into a bass melody we had left over from the last sessions.
So it’s a collaborative process.
Yes, for example, the lyrics on “We Were Animals” are by Aiofe but based on a melody we had been working on as a possible instrumental.
You’ve played on hundreds of sessions. What makes Goat Rodeo unique?
The most amazing thing about this group is how unlikely it is for us to arrive on any piece from where we start to where we land, and to get there unscathed. There’s always a certain amount of anxiety in the process, but it’s also a pretty great feeling to be dealing with anxiety like that only to find that it helps you accomplish what you did when you finally get to the end, and you’ve almost amazed yourself. Speaking for myself, every time we finished a tune I would say, “I can’t believe that I just did that.” I don’t mean to sound cocky, but it’s the most amazing thing to have accomplished any performance of writing that is that varied and so all-over-the-map in its influences.
I didn’t grow up playing classical music at all. I don’t read music, though I can follow along on a chart enough to know where everyone else is and when I should come in. A lot of things that were ultimately transcribed for fiddle didn’t happen until the final take, or whatever take we chose to use on the album. For example, there’s a place on “Waltz Whitman,” about three-fourths of the way through, that has fiddle and cello weaving around each other. I had been searching for something to go with the cello, but we had been concentrating on other parts of the song. I realized there could be some harmony that could work with that, but I didn’t find it until the very last take. It was successful enough that it is the way I will play it any time we perform that tune in the future. That’s what I’ll be trying to chase, but it didn’t happen the first ten times we recorded it.
The album reveals a talent-laden group with an embarrassment of riches.
Yeah, I’m proud to be a part of it. I didn’t see it coming and wouldn’t have expected those guys to want to give me a chance to do what I didn’t even know I could. Apparently, they believed in me and I’m thankful.