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A plucky revival

The mandolin is breaking out of bluegrass and becoming hip and versatile.

By Scott Baldauf/ Staff writer / March 6, 2012

Musician Evan N. Reilly of Candler, N.C. plays the mandolin at a recent Thursday night bluegrass jam session at the garage music house of Nelia Hyatt in Asheville in this November 2007 photo.

Diedra Laird/The Charlotte Observer/AP/File

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Somerville, Mass.

It's opening night for the tour, and the Punch Brothers have hit a groove in the Somerville Theater. The sound of their latest album, "Who's Feeling Young Now?," is modern, insistent, and rhythmic, and the lyrics tell of the 20-something's life of attraction, pain, and love affairs put on hold. Up front, band leader Chris Thile swivels like Elvis, ripping out solo after solo on his vintage Gibson mandolin.

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For self-identified traditionalists, it's a visual and aural shock to the system, a bit like holding a Metallica concert at the Grand Ole Opry. But the fans love it. Some have been following Mr. Thile since he was a chubby little grade school mandolin god, wowing the crowds at bluegrass festivals with the child-band Nickel Creek. Many more have joined the fan base, as Thile's tastes changed, and stuck with him as bands came and went.

It's been more than a century since the mandolin has been this prominent in popular music. In the late 1800s, there were mandolin orchestras in every major city of the United States. The guitar gradually overtook the mandolin in popularity, driven by the invention of amplified guitars in the 1920s. Until Bill Monroe appeared on the scene in the 1930s, the mandolin had been receding into the background. But Monroe's supercharged high-speed style, mixing white old-timey music with African-American blues, brought the mandolin back to center stage.

Today's musical changes are no less dramatic. The transformation has been led by Thile, Sarah Jarosz, Sierra Hull, and a host of 20-something pickers. Once an ethnic accent – think of R.E.M.'s song "Losing My Religion" or Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" – the mandolin has become an instrument that can hold its own in many different styles, from jazz to samba, from folk to rock, from klezmer to punk.

"I have to think of what it was like when folks at the Grand Ole Opry heard Bill Monroe for the first time; it must have seemed like that when people hear" what the younger generation is playing, says Stuart Duncan, fiddle player for the Nashville Bluegrass Band, who recorded the classical/bluegrass album "Goat Rodeo Sessions" together with Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer.

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