MELISSA BLOCK:, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Since its birth in the late 1940s, bluegrass has evolved in ways that its founding father, Bill Monroe, could never have imagined. For more than a decade, mandolinist Chris Thile has been in the vanguard of that change as a soloist and as a member of the popular acoustic pop band, Nickel Creek.

Now, Thile has composed the most ambitious work of his career - it's a four-movement, 40-minute suite for bluegrass instruments. We get the story from Craig Havighurst of member station WPLN in Nashville.

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CRAIG HAVIGHURST: It owes a debt to Bach and Bob Dylan and even the Beach Boys. It's part modern chamber music and part song cycle - an impressionistic picture of a young marriage gone sour called "The Blind Leaving the Blind."

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Mr. CHRIS THILE (Singer): (Singing) Walk me home we'll watch the sun come out. Don't leave me alone because I've been left nothing to offer. I'll get over you.

HAVIGHURST: Chris Thile started writing the work about the time he moved from Nashville to New York in 2005.

Mr. THILE: After I got divorced, all of a sudden I had a lot of pent-up energy and lots of stuff that had gone into trying to make this failing relationship work that all of a sudden got, kind of, reapplied.

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HAVIGHURST: Thile was a mandolin prodigy from Southern California who made his first solo album when he was 13. His heroes were the pioneers of progressive bluegrass. Banjo player Bela Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer were among the older musicians who mentored and collaborated with Thile as he developed into a widely admired virtuoso. But only after he assembled a group of likeminded musicians from his own peer group was he able to focus his emotions and ideas into a long-form composition.

Mr. THILE: The real work started getting done when I knew that I had a group of buddies who could actually play it with me.

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HAVIGHURST: The band includes a fiddle player who used to sport a mohawk named Gabe Witcher; acoustic guitarist Chris Eldridge, son of a star bluegrass banjo player; jazz-trained bassist Greg Garrison; and banjo player Noam Pikelny.

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Mr. NOAM PIKELNY (Banjo Player): When I first received the score and saw what Chris was asking for me to play on my instrument, I - that had to have been just as traumatic as him getting his divorce papers. So we're all right there behind him.

HAVIGHURST: Pikelny says the piece forced him to rethink what was possible on his instrument.

Mr. PIKELNY: He figured, hey, if you have the notes there, you'll figure out a way to play it.

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Mr. GREG GARRISON (Bassist): The first time we tried to play the first movement, it sounded pretty awful.

HAVIGHURST: Bassist Greg Garrison had worked with Pikelny in the eclectic jam band Leftover Salmon, but he was just getting to know the other musicians when they first gathered in New York to rehearse.

Mr. GARRISON: We were literally in Chris' tiny little one-bedroom apartment in the East Village with suitcases and air mattresses scattered everywhere, and we somehow found enough room to set up our instruments and play.

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HAVIGHURST: As they chipped away at the piece over months of rehearsals, the group also worked up a batch of more conventional songs and released an album in 2006. They tried out several different band names, eventually settling on Punch Brothers, from a Mark Twain short story.

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HAVIGHURST: "The Blind Leaving the Blind" had its official world premiere at Carnegie Hall's 600-seat recital space, Zankel Hall, last March, as part of a series curated by composer John Adams. But the band also booked three nights last year to workshop the piece in front of the discriminating bluegrass and acoustic-music audience at Nashville's Station Inn. An unusual journey, but one Thile says suits the work.

Mr. THILE: Even though the result is something that's maybe hard to put a label on, it comes from bluegrass, you know. And all of us grew up with bluegrass to a certain extent, and we're really comfortable with that music, and it informs everything that we play and that we think about.

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HAVIGHURST: Hard to label is exactly what dobro player Jerry Douglas thought when he heard the piece for the first time. He is one of the founding fathers of progressive bluegrass, but he says that what Punch Brothers are doing is even more complex and cerebral.

Mr. JERRY DOUGLAS (Dobro Player): Sometimes, I felt like I was working a crossword puzzle, emotionally wrung out at the end of some part of it because I'd concentrated so hard.

HAVIGHURST: And, he says, for that reason, it won't be warmly received by some traditional bluegrass fans. On the other hand…

Mr. DOUGLAS: The musician in me marveled at how well it all went together and how it kept my attention the whole way. And I just thought it was an amazing thing for somebody to do.

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HAVIGHURST: There were risks involved for the musicians who left steady work to support Chris Thile's vision. But banjo player Noam Pikelny says the chance to do something entirely new was too compelling to pass up.

Mr. PIKELNY: We are definitely not the same musicians today that we were the day of that first impromptu jam session, and I think that required some kind of faith on Chris' part as far as how we would grow individually as an ensemble. And I think when everyone found out how well we got along and how the music clicked, it was just like it was obvious that this is where everything has been heading.

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HAVIGHURST: That ensemble became part of Thile's post-divorce support group. He even wrote his friends into the end of the suite, conjuring a picture of the five of them on a night after an early rehearsal, sitting in the 11th Street bar in Manhattan, drinking scotch and trying to come up with band names.

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Mr. THILE (singing): Heaven shine through those stars. These city lights and the nearest bar…

Where I'll be with my friends, hiding to the bitter end. It's sort of a depressed happy, but happy nonetheless. And I thought that, you know, sitting there in the bar with the boys, having just worked really hard making some music together, and then kicking back afterwards, you know, it was kind of what life is all about, really.

HAVIGHURST: Having your friends there to support you personally and musically.

For NPR News, I am Greg Havighurst in Nashville.

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SIEGEL: You can hear entire songs from the Punch Brother's new album at npr.org/music.

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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