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Cellist Yo-Yo Ma Joins 'Goat Rodeo'

Famed musician teams with bluegrass and other luminaries

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Most classical music lovers know cellist Yo-Yo Ma as one of the world’s greatest classical virtuosos. But what happens when this unique mega-star teams up with luminaries from bluegrass and other genres in a rural setting, with no agenda other than to have fun and see what kind of musical magic they can make?

(Video courtesy Sony Masterworks)

You just might get their runaway hit “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.”

That’s the title track from “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” a CD featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello; Chris Thile, the mandolin virtuoso from the Punch Brothers bluegrass band; Edgar Meyer on the classical bass; and the famed fiddler Stuart Duncan. All four are stars in their own right.

Goat Rodeo refers to something where 100 things have to go absolutely right, or it all goes terribly wrong. It captures the spirit of this experiment.

Getting these overly-scheduled musicians in the same place to record for a week was a feat in itself. But they also came together without knowing what the outcome would be.

Most of the music on the album hadn’t been written yet. What these four friends did have, they say, was creativity, an openness to where the moment might lead, and mischievous good humor.

"You know, what’s nice is that every time we get together we seem to start to get sillier and start to feed off each other’s energies and then in between serious stuff gets done," Ma says.

Thile agrees. "I think levity is essential toward establishing intimacy and trust. There is a lot at stake in a situation like this, a musical process. There is a lot riding on us doing a good job."

"I find that I play better right after someone has said something so clever," says Meyer, "it’s all I can do not to burst out laughing."

A hint of that levity is apparent in “Where’s My Bow,” one of the cuts on the CD.

Their studio was nestled in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts, next door to the home of Yo-Yo Ma’s friend and sometime collaborator, James Taylor. The singer/songwriter fashioned a state-of-the-art facility in an old wooden barn on his property.  

"There was a little bit of anxiety attached to that of thinking about one of the world’s greatest guitarists down in his shop with a power saw and a hammer," Duncan says.

The music itself is varied. There is more than a hint of bluegrass, funk and jazz in “Quarter Chicken Dark.”

Ma concedes that all three genres are far from his home turf in the classical world. But he relished exploring new musical terrain with his buddies. “It’s that kind of feeling where I know I am going to be taken care of and I will do my best. But they will more than meet me halfway.”

Sometimes the music seems steeped in specific genres, yet transcends them. For stars accustomed to being in control of their studio sessions, collaborating as equals was a challenge at first. But Thile says things eventually fell into place.

"We’d gotten our bearings and we started to get more comfortable with the kind of writing I like which is just sitting there with a group of people and talking about what you want to hear that you are not hearing yet."

It appears to have worked. "The Goat Rodeo Sessions” is topping the charts.

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