“Not Our First Goat Rodeo” is a follow up to 2011’s “Goat Rodeo Sessions,” which won a Grammy Award for best folk album in 2013. Which seems a bit unfair to all those folk musicians out there, because I’m not sure it’s really folk music, exceptional as it is, but also because all the players on these projects are so utterly within a class to themselves. There may be better cellists than Yo-Yo Ma, though they don’t do what he does in terms of scope, vision, and breadth. From Mozart to the Silk Road; contemporary pop to Steven Foster, the personality, technique and joy that he brings to what he does is his great gift to us all. Each of the other three key players on this recording—Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan—can easily be spoken of in similar terms.
The music here is part of a longer musical conversation going back more than a quarter century. Two of the principals—Meyer and Ma—have been collaborating formally and in a similar vein since 1996 with the release of Appalachian Waltz, which was reprised in 2000 with Appalachian Journey. Those albums included re-settings of traditional tunes, as well as new compositions that clearly reflected a range of folk and popular nineteenth century styles, using them as a palette with which to communicate contemporary ideas.
The “Goat Rodeo Sessions,” and now this new collection, do that, too, with each step being an opportunity to do “more” in every meaning of the term. Yo-Yo Ma admitted as much in a recent interview when he said that “we thought this was time to put another set of ideas down to mark a certain kind of progression.” It’s an extension of a whole range of musical thoughts, with the American folk vernacular at the heart of it all. You can hear some distinctive Appalachian fiddle styles in Voila, for example, with all that twinning and shuffle bowing. You can hear bluegrass guitar influences in “Nebbia.”
The pieces are rich, layered, and thoroughly composed. The term “goat rodeo” suggests mucking about, engaging in a bit of musical chaos. It may have started there, but the result is anything but. The tones that introduce “Waltz Whitman” (the one thing they could improve on is writing titles) are challenging and precise, moving from one texture to another, raising the hair on the back of your neck as they go. The vocal harmonies in “The Trapping” are masterful. But then again, everything here is.
I suspect that this project will earn another folk Grammy, though, again, it’s not necessarily a good candidate for the genre. The work is one-of-a-kind in every sense, the product of specific personalities, specific musical relationships, and at a specific time. That’s true of any music, but doubly so in this instance. The work can be challenging—there are, to be sure, lots of harsh moments and sharp edges—but it serves to create a room that you enter where you can sit and take part in a brilliant conversation. You’ll disagree with some points, and relish others, and you’ll want to say a few things, too. All of that is what makes this music so great. (Though even saying that—“great”—feels too pedestrian, diminishing. Just listen already.)