Pikelny, the recipient of the first annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo, calls Universal Favorite "my musical manifesto. It's the most personal statement I've put forward. The setting couldn't be more stark, and I think it lays bare my musical core. At times it's autobiographical, as these songs I gathered illuminate the path I've traveled so far. Most importantly, it's an incredibly honest solo album, in that there are honestly no other people on this record other than me."
Universal Favorite also marks Pikelny's debut as a multi-instrumentalist. In addition to his 1941 Gibson Banjo, Pikelny plays a carefully chosen assortment of vintage and exotic instruments that includes a four-string resophonic guitar from 1928, a 1953 Telecaster, and a 1938 Kalamazoo flat-top guitar. An obsessive collector of vintage instruments, Pikelny is fascinated by the insights they provide into bygone days-the way these objects connect the present with the past.
"Each of these instruments has a unique story and has known the world much longer than I have. Picking them up makes me feel more connected with generations that have come before. Perhaps this bond with old instruments that are filled with character and charisma makes performing solo feel less lonely."
In fact, the title Universal Favorite was inspired by a banjo made around the turn of century. "I stumbled upon an old catalog from the S.S. Stewart Banjo company and saw their 'Universal Favorite' model and thought, 'That is the most audacious thing I've ever seen. Who would have the gall to make a product and officially name it 'Universal Favorite?'"
The album, produced by his fellow Punch Brother Gabe Witcher and engineered by longtime collaborator Dave Sinko, features a dozen new recordings of original compositions as well as covers of tunes by Josh Ritter ("Folk Bloodbath"), and Elliott Smith ("Bye"), Roy Acuff ("My Tears Don't Show"), and Roger Miller ("I've Been a Long Time Leavin' (But I'll Be a Long Time Gone"). No Depression premiered "Folk Bloodbath" today.
Universal Favorite carries a great deal of history, yet it remains relevant and bears the artist's own innovative touch. "I've always loved the ability of a great bluegrass or country song to conjure up days gone by but simultaneously be current and ripe for reinterpretation. And the real power is that when music really does its job, when it fully resonates, our world becomes more interconnected. It cultivates a community of people who share in that response. That community can be encapsulated on stage within an orchestra or within a five-piece band. That bond can be between one person standing alone onstage and the people in audience."
Pikelny will embark on a solo tour that commences February 1 in Provo, Utah and concludes in Nashville in early April.