Goat Rodeo members harmonize in music, but not coffee choices: ‘It’s definitely a big matter of contention’

Goat Rodeo is the first group to ever top the national Billboard classical music and bluegrass album charts simultaneously.
Goat Rodeo is the first group to ever top the national Billboard classical music and bluegrass album charts simultaneously. Its members are, from left, Yo-Yo Ma, Aoife O’Donovan, Oceanside native Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and former Vista resident Stuart Duncan.
(Josh Goleman / Courtesy Sony Music)

Grammy-winning group, founded by Yo-Yo Ma, features Nickel Creek co-founder Chris Thile and fellow former San Diegan Stuart Duncan, plus Edgar Meyer and Aiofe O’Donovan


The members of Goat Rodeo couldn’t be more in harmony when it comes to fusing elements of bluegrass, chamber music, Americana, jazz, Celtic and more. But when it comes to coffee, there appears to be some major discord between the Grammy Award-winning group’s members — cellist Yo-Yo Ma, contrabassist Edgar Meyer, mandolinist/singer Chris Thile, violinist/singer Stuart Duncan and singer Aoife O’Donovan.

So much discord, in fact, that the the all-instrumental opening number on their exquisite second album, “Not Our First Goat Rodeo,” is titled “Your Coffee is a Disaster.” The song, if not its inspiration, should provide a standout moment at the 10-year-old group’s nearly sold-out concert Sunday night at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, the San Diego Symphony’s eye-popping new $85-million outdoor venue.

“It’s definitely a big matter of contention between us,” said Duncan, whose many past collaborators include Diana Krall, Robert Plant and Dolly Parton.

“Chris is very emphatic about his coffee and emphatically wrong about what kind of coffee is best. And I have other people within Goat Rodeo who agree with me.”

In a clear generational divide, Duncan, 57, and Meyer, 60, strongly favor dark roast over the medium light roast championed by Thile, 40, and O’Donovan, 38. Nickel Creek cofounder Thile dismisses dark roast as “burned” and a failed attempt “to disguise low quality” beans.

“This is one of our favorite games: ‘The Coffee Battle Royale in the Morning!’ I’m very fond of it,” said Thile, the proud owner of a $7,000 La Marzocco GS3 espresso machine.

“As far as Stuart and Edgar’s coffee (choice), of course, they’re wrong. I can’t pretend there are any absolutes in coffee and Stuart and Edgar are so deeply entitled to their incorrect opinion. ...

“We all came up with the title ‘Your Coffee is a Disaster’ because we all believe it to be true. Whether our belief in coffee is subjective, like everything in life, well, maybe coffee isn’t.”

Maybe, indeed, especially on this audacious piece of java-inspired music, which slyly suggests what famed contemporary classical music composer Bela Bartok might have sounded like if he had grown up in Appalachia rather than Hungary.

Geography aside, where exactly does Goat Rodeo mastermind Ma come down in his group’s good-natured dark roast vs. medium light roast debate?

“I think Yo-Yo is on neutral ground as far as coffee goes,” Duncan said, speaking by phone from near his Nashville area home. “Ha-ha! ‘Neutral ground.’ Get it?”

Thile, in a separate interview from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., agreed.

“I think Stuart is correct,” he said. “Yo-Yo is an agent of coffee unity — and an agent of unity in life in general. Yo-Yo has the correct stance, which is: ‘To each his own.’ ”

"Not Our First Goat Rodeo" is, fittingly, the second album by Goat Rodeo
(Sony Classical)

Kennedy Center Honors

It was cello superstar Ma, 65, who laid the foundation for Goat Rodeo more than a decade ago.

He did so by reaching out to bassist Meyer, who in turn suggested mandolinist Thile, who then suggested multi-instrumentalist Duncan. O’Donovan was subsequently invited to share vocals on a few numbers with Thile. She is a member of the Grammy-winning trio I’m With Her, whose lineup includes Sara Watkins, Thile’s Nickel Creek bandmate.

Oceanside native Thile and former Vista resident Duncan both began their lifelong love affairs with music in San Diego, albeit 17 years apart. Both became award-winning bluegrass virtuosos here in their pre-teens, then went on to achieve national acclaim for their sterling musicianship and stylistic versatility.

Both are elated to be in a group led by 2011 Kennedy Center Honors recipient and 18-time Grammy winner Ma, who has been the world’s most prominent cellist for the past several decades. And both are equally elated that Goat Rodeo’s concert repertoire, which leans heavily on original compositions, also ranges from Bob Dylan’s “Farewell, Angelina” to the concluding allegro from Bach’s first Viola da Gamba Sonata in B minor.

But Thile and Duncan offered distinctly different responses when asked how they would have reacted, as young musicians, if someone had told them they would one day be playing alongside Ma.

“I would have laughed!” Duncan said. “I’m still laughing at the absurdity that, as a strictly improvisational player, I’d get thrown into a pile with somebody who can sight-read and play as well as Yo-Yo and have everything come out so well. It’s been a bizarre twist of faith.

“There have been several things in my musical life that I did not see coming, and this is one of them. Working with Diana Krall is another.”

What about Thile, who in 2012 was selected as a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” Fellowship recipient?

“Knowing the little kid I was, I would have been more excited than surprised if someone had told me then that I’d go on to play with Yo-Yo as an adult,” he said.

“My imagination has always been pretty crazy. For me as a kid watching Yo-Yo perform on the ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ TV show, I was feeling like I met Yo-Yo through Mr. Rogers. And as a kid wandering around with his mandolin, trying to play with as many people as I possibly could and meeting all these bluegrass legends at the festivals Nickel Creek was playing at, I had a very warped sense of what I could expect.

“So, I would have been sitting here 30 years ago — I would have been 10 — salivating to hear that I would play with Yo-Yo. I would have been like: ‘Yes!’ And I would have learned to read music a little faster.”

‘Yo-Yo’s ears are gigantic!’

As honored as they were to be selected a decade ago for Goat Rodeo by Ma, Duncan and Thile admit they were both nervous at first.

But after feeling each other out musically, the fledgling group’s members took flight with an almost giddy sense of shared discovery. The music they create together is so seamlessly crafted and performed that it is often difficult to determine what is composed and what is spontaneously created in the moment.

This feat is made all the more impressive by the fact that — on record and in concert — Thile, Duncan and Meyer all freely improvise at will during written pieces, while Ma prefers to stick to the notated scores in front of him.

Ma also leaves all the composing to Thile, Duncan and Meyer, who co-wrote each of “Not Our First Goat Rodeo’s” 10 selections.

“It’s amazing how spontaneous Yo-Yo is, even if he’s playing a written-out part,” Thile marveled. “He is just as spontaneous a musician as any of us. And he has taught me how to play composed music with that same sort of spirit as if it were improvised music.

“Yo-Yo’s ears are gigantic and his sensitivity to the potential emotional resonance contained within any piece of music is staggering — and so inspiring. As a collaborator you start to try and hear the music through his ears. ...”

Duncan concurred, adding: “As far as I know, everything Yo-Yo is playing is written. What I don’t know is how much he is straying from what is written to playing it his own way. I don’t know whether he’s playing his crescendos as written, or if he’s adding his own to make them shorter, longer or more expressive.

“I’m guessing all of the above. As far as the rest of us, there are little areas written into the music to allow for improvisation from any one of us or all three of us.”

The group’s debut album, 2011’s double Grammy Award-winning “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” is a captivating work that showcases what the group’s members described at the time as “genre proof” music.

Or, as Duncan put it in a 2012 Union-Tribune interview: “The idea was that we would include every musical style we can think of, and we did.”

Under any name, “Goat Rodeo Sessions” became the first album ever released that simultaneously topped Billboard magazine’s national bluegrass and classical-music charts.

Fresh and innovative while steeped in tradition, it was a crossover success completely free of even a hint of contrivance or affectation. Its music is earthy and sophisticated, meticulously crafted yet invitingly organic.

On “Not Our First Goat Rodeo,” which was released in June 2020, Ma, Meyer, Thile and Duncan sound even more unified and daring. O’Donovan sings support on three numbers with Thile and Duncan, resulting in a wonderfully luminous vocal blend.

Of course, having had a decade to digest each other’s playing styles and musical personalities between Goat Rodeo’s first and second albums is a major advantage. This holds despite the members’ careers, which have limited the group to just a handful of concert dates in its decade-long existence.

‘Disaster is a very likely outcome’

“I love how the power in this ensemble sort of flows around,” Thile said.

“I wouldn’t say it is evenly dispersed all the time, but it’s flowing around depending on whose strength the material is playing to. At any given moment, one of us recognizes the music is right in our wheelhouse and takes charge. And I’d say all five members are fun to follow and fun to lead.”

One of the most striking pieces on “Not Our First Goat Rodeo” is “Every Note a Pearl.” It features initially dissonant notes on cello, bass, violin and tenor banjo that expertly slide into new keys as Thile, Duncan and O’Donovan sing wordless vocal parts which exude a beguilingly off-kilter charm.

“That started as: ‘How do we get the violin, bass and cello moving around with those sliding things?’ That isn’t common in the classical-music world, but is something you hear in jazz with horn players,” Duncan explained.

“So, it was like: ‘Why don’t we do that vocally?’ On ‘Every Note a Pearl,’ it’s a combination of the three voices and cello doing some of the slides. Then, after I put down my tenor banjo, I am plucking the strings of my fiddle, so there’s a duet with cello that sounds like a trio and a wordless vocal trio happening together.”

Meyer and Duncan will return to San Diego for banjo great Béla Fleck’s Dec. 16 “My Bluegrass Heart” concert at the Balboa Theatre. Thile and Ma have upcoming tours of their own, as does O’Donovan.

In the meantime, they are delighted to have reconvened as Goat Rodeo, a group whose frequent impetus is to stretch beyond the comfort zone of its members.

Their penchant for risk-taking accounts for the band’s sly name, “goat rodeo” (which is defined as an almost hopelessly perilous situation in which many things can go wrong at once and calamity ensues). Thriving while avoiding driving off a cliff, musically speaking, clearly has its appeal.

“Disaster is a very likely outcome if every little thing doesn’t go right,” Duncan said. “It’s an adventure. Every night we play there will be music in each of our comfort zones and way out on the edge of what we can do.”

“It changes a lot from night to night,” Thile agreed. “The musical bed remains the same, but what happens over the top changes a lot. If something is lacking in emotional resonance, Yo-Yo will be the first to know — and the first to seek a solution. I’ve learned so much from being in this band with him, and from Edgar and Stuart and Aoife.”

What remains to be seen, given the nearly decade-long gap between Goat Rodeo’s first and second albums and tours, is if the group might get back together more expeditiously for its third go-around.

“Gosh,” Duncan said. “It would be nice to have it happen more than every 10 years, so I don’t forget all the music from the first time.”

Goat Rodeo

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, 200 Marina Park Way, downtown

Tickets: $74-$256

Phone: (619) 235-0804