For Chris Thile, Charleston is a place of complexity and inspiration. It’s full of spirits, both historical and musical.
“When I’m in Charleston, I feel like I’m in a musical,” said Thile, mandolin player of the bluegrass group the Punch Brothers, which will perform at Spoleto Festival USA on May 26. “The music is just hanging in the trees, waiting for you to pluck it.”
From the centuries-old antebellum architecture to the lush Lowcountry greenery, “it feels like you’re walking amongst the totality of the American experience, in all of its complicated grandeur — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful," he said. "That’s where music comes from.”
Thile and his fellow band members — bassist Paul Kowert, guitarist Chris Eldridge, fiddler Gabe Witcher and banjo player Noam Pikelny — look to harness this energy once again as they return to Spoleto for the third time in 10 years.
The band’s previous visits, in 2009 and 2013, were monumental in the group’s growth.
“The first two performances were such formative Punch Brothers affairs,” said Thile, who also took over as host of the radio program “A Prairie Home Companion” (now called “Live From Here”) in 2016. “The first time, we were just starting as a band and it was a big moment for us.”
During its second visit, the band wrote “My, Oh My” and “Julep,” two of its most popular hits.
Bluegrass scholar Joti Rockwell said this ability to draw upon the environment around them is a testament to musicians like Thile (who has performed with stars such as Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, and who has released a solo album of Bach sonatas) and the rest of the Punch Brothers.
“They’re tapping into all sorts of styles and influences,” said Rockwell, a professor at Pomona College, in Claremont, Calif. “Chris Thile is the kind of musician that can listen to anything and play it. His ability to synthesize music is just astounding.”
But he also stressed that “everyone in that band is an omnivorous musician,” just as likely to play a Bach concerto as they are an Earl Scruggs bluegrass standard.
This eclectic taste shows in their discography.
The Punch Brothers have received five Grammy Award nominations in three separate genres since their first Spoleto performance. Their first win came this year for best folk album for their latest work, “All Ashore.”
The 12-track album is an exploration into what Thile called “the difficulties we have connecting as people, as individuals.”
It’s a struggle he sees everywhere he looks, Charleston very much included.
“Y'all are really living right in the thick of this tension in America, and how we have so much trouble relating with each other,” he said. “There’s a ton of different types of Americans down in Charleston.”
Now, one year removed from the release of “All Ashore,” the band returns to Charleston with a new perspective.
“We’re at a stage where we’re taking stock,” Thile said. “We’re looking at the whole catalog and figuring out what’s next and where we’re going.”
He said he and the rest of the band don’t feel any of the added pressure that would normally come with writing or premiering a new album. Instead, they see this as an opportunity to reconnect with one another as a group of musicians, and re-engage with the songs that have come to define their careers.
“It’s not about the urgency of the album,” Thile said. “It’s about what makes us a band. What makes our music emotionally resonant? Which of these songs are really essential to a Punch Brothers set?”
Regardless of what makes it into the set list, one thing is constant in a Punch Brothers show, Rockwell said.
“Musician or not, anyone in the audience can come away having learned something about music or having been inspired,” he said. “I think they’ll come away with a new way to look at bluegrass, as well as classical music.”
This relationship between audience, musician and music is what Thile looks forward to about Spoleto.
“Live music is a dance, and we’re just one of the dance partners,” he said. “What ‘Julep’ or ‘Angel of Doubt’ mean in Charleston will be different than what they mean in Milwaukee. That makes me feel like we’ve done our jobs as musicians, like we’ve created this vehicle for people to have different experiences.”
Mike Zawisza is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.