Bluegrass Guitarist Chris Eldridge Named Visiting Faculty at Oberlin

November 9, 2020
Erich Burnett
bluegrass musicians on stage.
Chris Eldridge (third from left) and his Punch Brothers bandmates have taken the stage of Oberlin’s Finney Chapel numerous times, including this September 2017 performance as part of the Artist Recital Series. Photo credit: Walter Novak

Punch Brothers founding member will teach college and conservatory students beginning in January 2021.

Chris Eldridge
Photo credit: Courtesy of Chris Eldridge

Guitarist Chris Eldridge, a driving force behind the Grammy Award-winning bluegrass ensemble Punch Brothers, has been named Visiting Associate Professor of Contemporary American Acoustic Music at Oberlin.

The renewable appointment was made possible by actor-musician Ed Helms, a 1996 graduate and trustee of Oberlin College and an avid supporter of American roots music. It begins with Oberlin’s spring semester in January 2021 and continues through fall of next year, encompassing three semesters in all.

Eldridge will teach courses on American string band music and conduct private lessons with guitarists and singer-songwriters selected via audition. All courses and lessons will be available to students in the Conservatory of Music as well as the College of Arts and Sciences.

A 2004 Oberlin College graduate, Eldridge cofounded the Infamous Stringdusters in 2005 before moving on to help forge Punch Brothers later that same year. Since then, the band has served as a sort of creative home base for its five musicians, each of whom also thrives in a multitude of other collaborative settings. In addition to Punch Brothers, Eldridge is one-half of a guitar duo with Julian Lage, with whom he earned a Grammy nomination for the 2017 album Mount Royal. From 2016 to 2020, he was also a member of the house band on Live from Here, the public radio program hosted by fellow Punch Brother Chris Thile. Eldridge has collaborated with the likes of Paul Simon, T Bone Burnett, Renée Fleming, Justin Timberlake, Marcus Mumford, Elvis Costello, and John Paul Jones, among many others.

Punch Brothers’ latest release, All Ashore, won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album in 2019. That same year, Eldridge was named Instrumentalist of the Year by the Americana Music Association.

musicians jamming together
Late-night jam sessions with students were a hallmark of Punch Brothers’ Oberlin residency.
Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

The band’s members are no strangers to Oberlin: From 2013 through 2015, they served as resident artists, interacting with students in a variety of settings and performing numerous times, from boisterous late-night jam sessions to gigs in a packed Finney Chapel. The residency was made possible through support from Ed Helms.

Like his bandmates, Eldridge delights in the opportunity to share his knowledge and further explore an essential but relatively little-known facet of American music.

“There are a lot of people who don’t really know what this kind of music is,” he says. “You almost have to be an enthusiast to know about it. So that’s one thing I want to do: Just sharing the joy and depth and richness of the music, and all its roots and branches, is something I’m really excited about. It’s incredible stuff!”

The appointment is a return to Eldridge’s roots in more ways than one: In addition to his college music major, he taught an Experimental College (ExCo) course on bluegrass as a student. His sophomore-year Winter Term project was a life-changing week of study with guitar legend Tony Rice—a dream-come-true experience he still sounds hard-pressed to believe actually happened. And his senior recital was a hoedown at the Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse for which he enlisted a lineup of accomplished guest musicians.

“Chris Eldridge is one of my favorite musicians on the planet,” says guitar professor Bobby Ferrazza, Eldridge’s Oberlin mentor. “His accomplishments are fantastic as a guitarist, but he is also an amazing person. To have him here at Oberlin is such a thrill for me for so many reasons. Chris' presence makes us better as a conservatory, and he is the perfect example of how the conservatory can function for a great budding musician whose musical interests are many and varied.”

In his new role, Eldridge will teach remotely for the time being, a move necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. A resident of Nashville, he plans to return to campus regularly and engage with students in person as soon as conditions allow.

“I’m really excited about coming back and mentoring young musicians, and of course I’m interested in learning from the students too,” he says. “It’s very much a two-way street. That was actually the biggest thing about me being a student at Oberlin, and that is something that has stuck with me to this day: I had truly amazing teachers, but the most important thing was being around other students who were so dedicated to whatever it was they were into.”

Eldridge’s appointment represents the latest step in Oberlin’s ongoing commitment to making the resources of its world-class Conservatory of Music available to students throughout the College of Arts and Sciences. All Oberlin students are invited to pursue minors in the college as well as the conservatory—including five interdisciplinary courses of study that unite both facets of campus. Those programs include minors in Arts and Creative Technologies, Music and Cognition, Music and Popular Culture, and Interdisciplinary Performance, as well as an integrated concentration in Arts Administration and Leadership.

For the year 2021, Oberlin established a trimester system of study that includes a summer session. The new system was created to effectively de-densify the campus while allowing for a safe, in-person experience for students. Eldridge will teach during all three semesters in 2021.

“One of the fundamental advantages of our conservatory is the opportunity we have to share our magnificent resources with students throughout campus—and, conversely, the opportunities our conservatory students have to avail themselves of the resources of the college,” says William Quillen, dean of Oberlin Conservatory.

“We truly are one Oberlin, and that includes ensuring that our college students enjoy access to the conservatory’s preeminent teachers, incomparable facilities, and singular experiences. We are extraordinarily grateful to Ed Helms for making this appointment possible through his generous support, and we are overjoyed that Chris Eldridge will be joining the faculty, sharing his vast experience and artistry with our students and further bolstering this synergy between college and conservatory.”

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