Infamous Stringdusters – Thou shalt not mash
Chris Pandolfi, the Berklee-schooled banjo player for the Infamous Stringdusters, has just used the term “mashing,” sending his five bandmates into hysterics. The joke was lost on me, but mandolinist Jesse Cobb nearly fell off the couch laughing. Their dobro player, Andy Hall, explains: “With young bluegrassers the ultimate aesthetic is mashing. Like that is what you want to do, is mash. As hard as you can. And we just think it’s really funny.”
Above all else, it is this conscious — and good-humored — sense of restraint that separates the Stringdusters from their peers. And there is, naturally, no mashing to be found on Fork In The Road, their Sugar Hill Records debut.
The band — with members who hail from New York, Virginia, Colorado, Idaho, and Wisconsin — has recently made Nashville its new home. After stepping to the fore at the 2005 IBMA World of Bluegrass Show, they have quickly developed into an entity that is surprisingly democratic. At one point, when the group jokingly points to Pandolfi as their leader, he quips, “If by ‘in charge’ you mean that I’ll be doing the taxes, then, yes, I am in charge.”
On this, though, they are unanimously agreed: The Infamous Stringdusters will not be pigeonholed or restricted by any genre.
“We are the biggest advocates against being stereotyped,” says fiddler and vocalist Jeremy Garrett. “That’s like our mission statement, because we don’t want to be lumped into any type of category.” In this they share a creative and artistic vision with other contemporary acts such as Crooked Still, Uncle Earl, and the Duhks.
Pandolfi notes that this vision was on everyone’s mind as they shopped for a record label. “We knew that we wanted to reach out to audiences far beyond bluegrass,” he says. “And even though bluegrass is where this whole thing started — and I think we’ll always give a nod to what’s great about bluegrass — I think we have a real ambition to blur some of those barriers between different genres of music.
“Bluegrass music is anything but simple,” he continues, “but one thing bluegrass does suffer from is being a little bit generic. We really realize and embrace the idea that, as a form of music, it’s really complex. There’s nothing simple about it. But in an effort to stave off what’s generic about the music, we’re always embracing ideas that come from different styles of music.”
In spite of their varied influences — they discuss ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin alongside Earl Scruggs and Josh Graves — several of the Stringdusters do have solid bluegrass pedigrees. Guitarist Chris Eldridge is the son of Ben Eldridge, who plays banjo with the legendary Seldom Scene. Garrett grew up playing in the Grasshoppers with his father, Glen. And Cobb’s older brother, Shad, tours with the John Cowan Band.
While the band may not spend much time trying to fit into a particular bluegrass/newgrass/jamgrass mold, they are learning to be more comfortable with the labels themselves. “We’re not scared of being called anything,” says bassist Travis Book. “Sometimes I read something on the internet about us having almost a contemporary country feel with some of our original material. That doesn’t scare me one bit. That’s the kind of thing that would have terrified me five years ago.”
Though the band members tend to downplay their own songwriting, their original material is intriguing lyrically as well as instrumentally. In “Tragic Life”, a literate, haunting Garrett/Hall composition set in the old west, a cowboy shoots his cheating wife’s lover in the back. On the surface, that may seem a cowardly thing to do. But it’s exactly where you’d shoot your cheating wife’s lover. “He got what he deserved,” sings the narrator.
Overall, the album has a certain thematic quality that suggests being far away from someplace — or someone — you love and the decisions you must make along the way. “No More To Leave You Behind”, “Fork In The Road”, “40 West”, “My Destination”, “Dream You Back” — the titles accentuate the lonesomeness.
The jewel at the center of this collection is an understated beauty by songwriter Benny “Burle” Galloway: “Poor Boy’s Delight” tells the story of a young man cautiously asking a girl to dance on a cool Saturday night. Pandolfi recognizes the appeal of their most-requested song. “A song like ‘Poor Boy’s Delight’ was almost like an exercise in restraint,” he says. “Songs like that, as we develop our sound more carefully, really allow us to play music that’s more abstract.”
Blue Highway guitarist Tim Stafford, who produced the album, helped them hone their craft without picking it to pieces. “Individually we’re all really intent on trying to get our stuff that we do right and make it be as good as we could possibly do it,” says Garrett. “Sometimes it was helpful to have Tim involved in the project, because he was the one who brought us back to, ‘But this solo is a magical moment that was captured.'”
“You trust in the overall band aesthetic and let that be the ruling thing,” Hall concludes. “We don’t try and analyze it too much. We just try to give each other space and let the ideas flow.”