For the last 15-ish years, The Infamous Stringdusters have invested heavily in expanding the boundaries of bluegrass with interesting collaborations, inclusive instrumentation, and playful compositions that both flirt with and defy convention. Their artistic excellence and musical pursuits have earned them a very passionate fan base along with myriad awards and accolades.
These days, however, the ’Dusters have altered their course with a project that faces backward, toward bluegrass music’s greatest influences and heroes. With a new label to call their own (Americana Vibes), the quintet —Travis Book (bass), Andy Falco (guitar), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), Andy Hall (Dobro), and Chris Pandolfi (banjo) — have decided to issue a string of tribute works, and their first step is an obvious one: A Tribute to Bill Monroe.
As the father of bluegrass music, Monroe’s catalog is extensive, but the Infamous Stringdusters pared things down to a sparse seven tracks on A Tribute to Bill Monroe. Interestingly, Monroe’s elevation of the mandolin to a core instrument is left out entirely in the musical mix, but the band’s versions of bluegrass classics still sound timeless — lovingly-crafted takes that point back to the “ancient tones” that Hall said the ’Dusters wanted to honor.
The album kicks off with one of Monroe’s later singles, “My Sweet Blue-Eyed Darling.” The front porch romp is a textbook jam with dynamic solos and tight harmonies that would make Monroe very proud. It’s a strong opening on which Falco and Pandolfi in particular really take flight.
Other highlights here include the cheerless “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight,” originally released in 1957, which features the group’s most impressive vocal work on the album, and “Old Dangerfield,” another up-tempo breakdown originally recorded in 1981 and reinterpreted by the likes of Hot Buttered Rum and String Cheese Incident over the years. Though the ’Dusters version is a bit slowed, it’s loose enough to provide each band member plenty of room to show off his skills.
The biggest hit of the bunch from Monroe is “Toy Heart,” which landed on the charts in 1949. The Infamous Stringdusters tightly stick to Monroe’s script and the end result feels timeless. Other personal favorites included by the group include “Dark as the Night,” “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road,” and “The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake.” The latter is a quick yet jarring number about “reaching a girl too late,” but the music goes down as easy as the rest of this impressive mix.
Few groups are as well-positioned — with such an impressive platform of their own — to help educate younger listeners on the genre’s pioneers. The Infamous Stringdusters have not only served their fans but the greater roots music traditions of which they are a part with A Tribute to Bill Monroe.