Something that always catches my eye (or my ear, rather) quickly when I’m looking for new music is the word “crossover.” When it pops up, I usually find upon further investigation that it is referring to an unexpected blend of two or more styles of music that are not normally put together. Although this may sometimes result in the unfortunate weakening of the overall effort, that is not the case at all with The Goat Rodeo Sessions. One glance at the illustrious names appearing on the record further confirms such a proclamation; the featured musicians come from a variety of different musical backgrounds, spanning from the strict discipline of Baroque music to the looser, more informal structure of progressive bluegrass. Described as “an ambitious and groundbreaking project that brings together four string virtuosos,” The Goat Rodeo Sessions is a collection of original compositions that are sure to bring about the intellectual appreciation of well-thought-out classical pieces and the homegrown nostalgia of energetic bluegrass.
Of the four maestros on the album, the most well-known is perhaps Yo-Yo Ma, who is considered one of the most famous cellists of the current era. He has the most notable classical background of the four, and certainly brings the full extent of his experience with such music to the project. On mandolin is Chris Thile, who was a member of Grammy Award-winning progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek. He has also released a collaboration album with Edgar Meyer, who plays acoustic bass on The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Edgar Meyer, in addition to having released six solo albums to date, has played and collaborated with the likes of Alison Krauss, Béla Fleck, James Taylor, and Mark O’Connor, to name a few. The fourth and final member of the group is none other than Stuart Duncan on the fiddle. He has been recognized on numerous occasions by the Academy of Country Music as Fiddle Player of the Year, and he has won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album as part of the Nashville Bluegrass Band in both 1994 and 1996.
Now that we know the players, let’s take a look at the music itself. For only four individuals, they certainly seem to accomplish a tremendous amount with their instruments, although such is surely to be expected from such distinguished musicians. The album takes you on a journey through delicately crafted scenes of serenity (“Franz and the Eagle”) and the kind of rousing jams that compel everyone to dance on tabletops (“Hills Justice”). The group brings in celebrated folk singer Aoife O’Donovan on “Here and Heaven” and “No One But You” for quintessential bluegrass experiences that are sure to be crowd pleasers. In contrast, there are several moments when the group sounds more like a string quartet playing chamber music. In head-spinning compositions like “Where’s My Bow?” and “13:8,” there is nothing to do but sit in awe as the group plays through the complex arrangements of a piece somewhere between a sea shanty and a Baroque movement. There are enough meter changes and polyrhythms in The Goat Rodeo Sessions to satisfy even the most rhythmically inclined. Although there is no percussion of any sort on the album, the unique strumming of the strings (mostly on the mandolin, though all of them partake in it at times) helps to create a distinct percussive quality to the more upbeat sections.
The opening track, “Attaboy,” is an excellent portrayal of the overall mood of the album with its emotional melodies and spirited chord progressions. Classical aficionados should appreciate this album as a showcase of an incredible string quartet playing chamber music with an unusual collection of instruments and a folksy twist, while bluegrass lovers will enjoy it as a flavor of the traditional music with which they are familiar, but with a more technical edge. Within the notes of this music can be found the energy and human “feel” that is incredibly difficult to communicate on paper. It is truly heartening to return to the roots of American folk music and find that it is still alight with musical passion and innovation. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is a collaboration between the greats, and it is a necessity for those well-acquainted with the style, but it is also an outstanding celebration of music from the heart that anyone can relate to.