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Shuffle: Eclectic Bluegrass Band Punch Brothers Finds Inspiration In Oberlin

Punch Brothers is back in Northeast Ohio this week for the band’s fourth year as artist residents at Oberlin Conservatory. The group that mixes bluegrass, pop and classical is fronted by mandolin virtuoso and A Prairie Home Companion host, Chris Thile, and includes Oberlin College graduate Chris Eldridge on guitar. For this week’s Shuffle, Eldridge talks about the band’s ongoing residency.

Artists in residency

Punch Brothers has been in residency at Oberlin Conservatory since 2013 through the American Roots Residency Fund, created by actor-comedian and Oberlin grad Ed Helms

The bluegrass quintet usually spends about a week on campus, conducting master classes and holding listening parties and -- Chris Eldridge’s favorite -- off-the-cuff jam sessions with Oberlin students.   

"Thile, who's just a brilliant showman and musical force, winds up being this conductor of this mad jam session," Eldridge says.

"We'll play these simple songs and I think a lot of people [participate] who don't necessarily play improvised or folk-based music. But the cool thing about folk music is that anyone can do it. Part of the charm and the appeal is you have a guitar and three chords and you can sing a song and make music with people."

Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge talks to students during the band's Oberlin residency.
Credit Oberlin College
Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge talks to students during the band's Oberlin residency.

Fuel from young talent

Eldridge says the band finds inspiration among the students. 

"It's great to hang out with people who are that age; They are just so lit up. They have no roadblocks. They are so clear and so passionate. As you get older, of course, life becomes more complex and more things are vying for your time and focus."

Eldridge says the most common question the students ask the band is how to get into the music industry.

"You have to love it, first and foremost," he says. "It's not an easy career. It's not smooth sailing."

Punch Brothers' future

The five band members, who include Gabe Witcher (violin/fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo) and Paul Kowert (bass), spend a lot of time doing other projects. Eldridge, for example, is in a duo with jazz guitarist Julian Lage.  

"For Punch Brothers, in the early days, it was a full-time band. As time has gone by, it's still a really primary thing for all of us. And it's a lifer band. We all kind of pictured this as: We're going to do it until one of us croaks," he jokes. 

He says the band reunites and finds energy at Oberlin.

"We get go do our other projects and be lit up in other ways that we don't in Punch Brothers. And I get to do that and bring it back to the band."

Eldridge says a new Punch Brothers album is in the works, and they'll spend some time working on it in Oberlin. 


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Amanda Rabinowitz
Amanda Rabinowitz has been a reporter, host and producer at WKSU since 2007. Her days begin before the sun comes up as the local anchor for NPR’s Morning Edition, which airs on WKSU each weekday from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. In addition to providing local news and weather, she interviews the Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto for a weekly commentary about Northeast Ohio’s sports scene.