Album Premiere: Noam Pikelny’s Universal Favorite

A banjo virtuoso strikes out on his own

Photo: Justin Camerer

Noam Pikelny spent the better part of the last decade re-interpreting and invigorating the bluegrass tradition. A well-respected picker who took up the banjo at age 8, his work as one-fifth of the Punch Brothers has taken him all over the world, and his own records earned Grammy nominations for Best Bluegrass Album in 2013 and 2015. Pikelny’s latest solo effort, Universal Favorite, finds the banjo virtuoso performing in a way most listeners have never heard him before: completely alone. While the album marks his fourth solo release, it’s Pikelny’s first without additional accompaniment from other musicians.

“I’ve spent almost my entire musical career making music in a group setting,” says the Chicago native, who now resides in Nashville. “Until last year, I had never played solo on stage—not even for a song.” And that didn’t sit well. “I’ve always subscribed to the idea that any good musician should be able to hold his own with just his instrument and his voice.”

Universal Favorite showcases Pikelny doing exactly that. He plays every instrument, from a four-string resophonic guitar to his beloved 1948 Gibson banjo, and—for the first time in his career—he also sings. Pikelny’s distinctive baritone and varied instrumentation allow each track, including the album’s four cover songs, to take on a vulnerable, deeply personal quality. His voice is particularly haunting on the rendition of Josh Ritter’s “Folk Bloodbath,” a gothic tale of three folk singers’ ends.

“Performing alone lays bare one’s musical core,” Pikelny says. “It forces you to really define who you are as an artist, and what you can uniquely offer to the world.”

Universal Favorite is set for release on Friday, March 3, but in the meantime listeners can stream the album exclusively here at Garden & Gun. Check out the album in its entirety below. Preorder is available on iTunes and Amazon. For upcoming tour dates, visit Pikelny’s website.