Yo-Yo Ma's Bluegrass-Inspired 'Goat Rodeo' The world-renowned cellist's latest Americana exploration features his collaborations with Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan.

Yo-Yo Ma's Bluegrass-Inspired 'Goat Rodeo'

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CHRIS THILE: One, two, one, two, three.



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

We're listening to a performance here in our studios from a quartet of stellar musicians.


BLOCK: Yo-Yo Ma on cello. He's joined by three other virtuosos with roots in the world of bluegrass, Nashville musician and composer Edgar Meyer on bass. On fiddle, the renowned Nashville session player Stuart Duncan. And at 30, the youngster of the bunch, mandolinist Chris Thile, of the alt-bluegrass bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers.


BLOCK: Ma, Meyer, Duncan and Thile have played in various combinations over the years, but never all four of them together until now on a new project called "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." They came by to talk about the collaboration and we'll hear a full-length performance of another tune, in a few minutes.

This one is called "Quarter Chicken Dark." And, as you can tell by that title, the four musicians bring a sense of humor with them. They clearly are having a blast.


BLOCK: The tune "Quarter Chicken Dark" from Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. Their new project is "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." Welcome to all of you. Thanks for coming in.

THILE: Thanks so much for having us, Melissa.

YO-YO MA: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: You just did a salute with bows at the end of that...


THILE: Yes, that's called "Where's My Bow?"

"Where's My Bow?"


BLOCK: I was going to say by the words, my bow technique does put you at a disadvantage, as the mandolin player. Where's my pick doesn't quite do it.

THILE: In fact, at one point we did a salute at the end of a take that they were filming. And they had actually sort of crossed bows - Three Musketeers style - and I guess may be my role is like D'Artagnan or something. And so, I tried to get the pick and it actually fell out of my fingers and it was so - it was a traumatic experience for me.

BLOCK: The mandolin pick fell out of your hand.

THILE: The mandolin pick fell to the ground.

BLOCK: Humiliating.

THILE: It was shameful.


THILE: This is a shameful way of getting sound out of a string. Look at how - it's so small and insignificant in comparison.

EDGAR MEYER: And so precise.

MA: I'm glad you said that.


BLOCK: I think we're verging on some mandolin jokes here, if we're not careful.

THILE: Right.

BLOCK: Could be trouble. "Goat Rodeo," what exactly is the goat rodeo? Chris Thile?

THILE: It means it's an aviation term, I guess, where so many loose ends, so many things that could go wrong that you need to go right for everything to turn out not utterly disastrous. And we kind of felt a kinship with that concept.

BLOCK: And did it spring up organically, Yo-Yo, from the sessions or what?

MA: I think so because so many of the songs, their working titles, had rodeo attached to it. So, we had "Irish Rodeo." We had all kinds of rodeos. And then there was a "Goat Rodeo," and Chris looked it up one day and we thought, gee, that's a version of us. It's kind of everybody could be a leader or everybody could be a follower at various times.

And I think the vast amounts of fun that we have, which is, for me, that's the goat rodeo part. How can we ever get any work done...


MA: ...when we're laughing all of the time? And that's actually the part that we love the most. It's a great balance between the two.

BLOCK: Well, would you play another tune for us? What would you like to do?

THILE: "Atta Boy."

MA: That'll work.

THILE: One, two, one, two, three...


BLOCK: I'm talking with Chris Thile, Edgar Meyers, Stuart Duncan and Yo-Yo Ma. And that's the song "Atta Boy" from "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." Tell me some stories from your recording sessions. I'm trying to figure out who was playing, not which part on an instrument, but which parts are in the room.

MEYER: When you've been trying to conduct an interview about a fairly serious subject, have you ever had somebody take a bow and stick it in your ear?

BLOCK: I've never have, Edgar Meyer. If it happened today, I'm thinking.

MEYER: You haven't.

THILE: Right. Well, see, if it sounds appealing maybe you should join our band.


THILE: Because that sort of thing happens quite regularly.

MA: Yes. And what's...

THILE: We write new lyrics to the instrumental songs.

MA: That's true. And some you will never ever hear.


MA: But I think part of having fun is - and I think Stuart said something very interesting, he said some of the best playing that he feels that he has done was when he wasn't focused on himself, on trying to get something right. And the idea of poking a bow in someone's ear, for example, while they're about to do something serious actually makes you not think about the seriousness of what they're about to do, which actually releases them to do what they need to do.

BLOCK: That's your story and you're sticking to it?

MA: I'm sticking to that. Absolutely.

THILE: Although I have to say to Stuart...

BLOCK: To Stuart...

THILE: ...being the one with the ear in this scenario and the bow being a cello bow, at the time, it didn't seem like...

BLOCK: I think we know who's being poked.

THILE: ...a great idea. But in retrospect, it actually probably helped me.

BLOCK: You're playing here in our studio in a really tight circle - the four of you. When you recorded the album, which was at James Taylor's barn studio in the Berkshires, I gather. Was it a similar situation to this? Were you all crowded around?

MA: Very similar.

STUART DUNCAN: Very similar.

BLOCK: Edgar Meyer?

MEYER: With us in a tight circle, we all affect each other's playing very much. That's actually an aesthetic that we want, both, you know, in the local sense of one measure or one phrase, but also in the longer sense of a year or two years when, you know - want to come out different people than they walked in.

BLOCK: How does that work, Yo-Yo Ma, affecting the play of the other players when you're playing this close?

MA: We all like to go to the edge and we like to take calculated risks to go to the edge and all of us, in some weird way, is probably also a bit of a perfectionist. So, the tension between the two is what we play off of in each other. Therefore, the visual cues, therefore the tight quarters. So, when somebody does something that you know is special to them or different or they're going into a different direction, we almost intuitively will follow. It's like a school of fish. You know, suddenly, they will turn direction and that's part of the thing that makes, I think, a performance or music come alive.

BLOCK: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. Their new project is "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." Thanks to all of you for coming in. And it's been such a great time having you here.

DUNCAN: Thanks for having us, Melissa.

MA: Thanks, Melissa.

MEYER: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And would you play us out with something?

DUNCAN: Absolutely.


BLOCK: That tune, titled "Less is Moi" from Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyers, Stuart Duncan and Chris Thile. Their new project is "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." And you can watch them perform at NPR in what we call A Tiny Desk Concert. That's at NPRMusic.org.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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