Chris Eldridge – also known as Critter to his friends and fans – is an exceptional guitarist with bluegrass in his pedigree and his own long musical career. In addition to his work with Punch Brothers and his guitar duo with Julian Lage, he regularly joins the band on Live from Here, playing acoustic and electric guitar and singing backup on everything from bluegrass standards to covers of The Strokes.
How did you first get into playing music? Was it part of your family growing up?
I'm from Fredericksburg, Virginia, which is about an hour south of D.C. Both of my parents are musicians, banjo players in fact. My dad plays in a pretty famous bluegrass band called The Seldom Scene, so I grew up going to bluegrass festivals and going to their shows. I got to be around all this great music as a kid. I'm very fortunate because of that. So, for me growing up, people playing music – it just seemed like the natural thing to do. Just like if you would go play intramural baseball or something. That was just, like, the thing you do if you're a person. I didn't realize until I was older that it actually was pretty unusual and I was very lucky to have these people who were like uncles to me, these wonderful musicians. And then on my mom's side, music was really sacred in her family. There was always tons of music in the car when I was growing up, we were always listening to Glenn Gould or Oscar Peterson and all kinds of stuff. I was lucky that I grew up in an environment where [music] was really rich.
When did you pick up your first instrument, and what was it?
In a way I would almost say my first instrument was singing. I love to sing. I was really interested in singing and even harmony when I was a boy, probably five or six. I used to sing show tunes in the car with my mom, Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff. But, as far as picking up an instrument, I was about nine years old and my friend Jay Starling, who was two and a half years older than me and whose dad also played in The Seldom Scene, he started playing the guitar and was kind of a prodigy really. He became really good really fast. Jay was my hero. I wanted to be like Jay. When Jay started playing the guitar and was so good at it, I was just like, “Man, that's cool, and it must be really easy too. I want to do that.” And it turns out it was not easy. I was anything but a prodigy, but I really loved it.
When you picked up the guitar, did you start getting formal lessons?
I took lessons at the local guitar shop for the first year. To be totally honest, I don't think much of that really stuck. When I started doing my real learning and started really getting good, it was all very self-directed and self-taught. I’d sit in my room with a CD player – that's what we were using in those days – and I'd just rewind a thing over and over and over and try to understand it, be able to sing it, know exactly what it was, and try to figure it out on the guitar. So, for me, playing music was this solitary enterprise.
What other kinds of music did you listen to while you were growing up, beyond bluegrass?
Well, to be clear, I was not into bluegrass. My parents were into it, so as soon as I got old enough to realize that's what they did, I was like, “I don't know, I don't want that.” So I got really into a bunch of electric guitar players. It started out with Eric Clapton and The Allman Brothers and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And then it kind of evolved into a guitar player named Robben Ford. And then Eric Johnson. I was just so obsessed with the electric guitar and I was trying to play music that was way more advanced than I had any business being able to do. But I really was fascinated by it and passionate about it. And I worked on it a bunch. But I kind of sucked. I was like really, really bad at it. It’s not false modesty, that's just true.
But then I discovered Tony Rice, a great bluegrass guitar player who, in the 1970s, hooked up with this guy named David Grisman, a mandolin player. And they started coming up with their own cool hybrid of different music that they called Dawg Music. It had this rhythmic drive of bluegrass, but more harmonic sophistication. This was stuff that really perked me up because I had that bluegrass rhythm in my bones, but the music was more rich and complex. When I got into Tony Rice, that's when it all kind of crystallized and I went back to the acoustic guitar and started really working it all out.
It’s funny, whenever you pick up the electric guitar on Live from Here we always get audience comments like, “Ooh, he's playing electric guitar.” And when Julian [Lage] picks up an acoustic guitar we get the reverse.
Yeah, it's so funny. Well, we've kind of built our careers on these other things. When I left off [playing electric guitar] I could barely play guitar at all. I didn't start getting good until after I got into Tony Rice. All the studying I had been doing, it lived in my brain somewhere but, until I picked up the acoustic guitar, I couldn't get it out via my hands.
Live from Here has been so fun because I actually can play electric guitar on this show. It’s been really cool for me because I'm trying to learn how to do it in real-time on the show. You guys have been seeing me figure it out over the last year. Electric guitar presents its own challenges but, really, let's be honest: it's just so much more fun to play than an acoustic guitar. It's loud and has sustain and it's just fun.
What are your favorite parts about being on the show, what do you find challenging about it?
I love being in the house band. I really enjoy the challenge of having a lot of new music to reckon with from all over the musical map. You might have Beyoncé and Beethoven, or Burt Bacharach.
I feel really proud of being a part of a show that highlights all this different music. It's cool to have something like that in American culture, and I feel very lucky to be a part of that.
Do you have any favorite moments from being on Live from Here in the last couple seasons?
Just getting to hear some of these people do their thing, like hearing Chris Stapleton sing was a pretty awesome, awe-inspiring thing. He is one of the most amazing singers in popular music, and we got a front row seat to him singing these songs with an acoustic guitar. It's great to have a front row seat to all these truly extraordinary musicians.