The Infamous Stringdusters Put Own Spin on Bluegrass Tradition
Andy Hall of The Infamous Stringdusters was pondering just how many different songs the band has been playing in its live show. His sound engineer recently surprised him with the answer.
“He’s become sort of our archivist,” Hall says by telephone from Nashville, Tenn. “And he said that in the past year we’ve played 180 different songs. So I can’t tell you what we’re playing on any given day, but it definitely will be high-energy and a fun variety of the bluegrass-rock music we’re known for.”
Since emerging in 2007 with the acclaimed album Fork in the Road, The Infamous Stringdusters – Hall (dobro), Andy Falco (guitar), Chris Pandolfi (banjo), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle) and Travis Book (upright bass) – have built a reputation for original music rooted in bluegrass that isn’t afraid to stretch the genre. Combining virtuosic chops on traditional bluegrass instruments, rich harmony vocals, and a live show influenced by indie jam-rock improvisations has separated The Stringdusters from their peers.
“A lot of the guys in our band didn’t grow up playing bluegrass,” Hall says. “In fact, I was listening to Buddy Guy before I ever heard Bill Monroe. When I did get into bluegrass I got really into it. And that’s most of what I did for years. When we came together in Nashville, we were all pretty entrenched in the bluegrass scene, and I think we earned respect for taking the time to really immerse ourselves in that tradition.”
Reverence for traditionalism, however, always has been just part of the equation. The group has remained intent on fostering something bigger, more original. Their latest album, Let It Go, released in April 2014, proves that, featuring acoustic music with nods to tradition that doesn’t let genre hold them back.
“After a few years of touring I think we realized we weren’t letting a lot of our other influences come through in the music,” Hall says. “There were growing pains, but for us artistically it just felt natural to let everything come through.”
Although the band formed in Nashville, its roots first sprouted in Boston. Hall, a student at the Berklee School of Music, was about to graduate. And Pandolfi had just become the first student admitted there with the banjo as his principal instrument. Both had also met the band’s original guitarist, Chris Eldridge, in Boston. Hall, Garrett and original mandolinist Jesse Cobb also played in Ronnie Bowman’s band, The Committee.
“We all landed in Nashville and were side musicians in other bands,” Hall says. “A few of us were even playing in bands together. People of like musical minds tend to gravitate together, and that’s what happened to us. This formation started jamming together and we decided that we didn’t want to be side musicians our whole life and formed the band to make a go of it.”
The band’s debut album, Fork in the Road earned them Emerging Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year for the album’s title cut at the 2007 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards.
“Some of our first jams were at the IBMA conference, so that’s where our first real musical experience happened,” Hall says. “The awards for IBMA were encouraging because it makes you think you are on the right track. To get those early on gives you a boost, which was such help for a young band.”
The Stringdusters’ self-titled second studio album, released in 2008, highlighted by songs such as “Well, Well” and “You Can’t Handle The Truth,” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass chart. On 2010’s Things that Fly, the band hinted at their evolving sound with a bluegrass remake of U2’s “In God’s Country,” while the track “Magic No. 9” was nominated for a 2011 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental.
For Let It Go, the band’s fifth studio release, the members converged on White Star Sound, a secluded studio on a historic farm outside of Charlottesville, Va., to record an album that features expansive folk (“I’ll Get Away”), textured newgrass (“Middlefork”), anthemic country jams (“Colorado”), freewheelin’ acoustic rock (“Peace of Mind” and “Light & Love”) and dusty balladry (“Rainbows”).
“Bluegrass music can sound uplifting but often the lyrics are not,” Hall says. “It can be about some pretty tough stuff. The idea behind ‘Let It Go’ is that the song messages are all pretty uplifting, too. We kind of wanted to do a record that reflected how we’ve been feeling ourselves. When you tour around and you see people who are so excited about your band, your whole experience becomes very positive. So that’s reflective of a lot of the record.”
Hall adds that the band is “pretty far along on the writing process” for its next album with plans to “go back in the studio” in June. On May 12, The Stringdusters also announced the lineup for the sixth installment of The Festy Experience, the music festival they host Oct. 9-11 in Nelson County, Va. Among those joining them this year are Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt, Sam Bush Band, The Larry Keel Experience, and Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line.
“For bluegrass bands, and most acoustic bands, festivals are your bread and butter,” Hall says. “Those are the biggest shows you play all year, and the festival experience, in a lot of ways, is how we all got into bluegrass music. … For us, one of the most exciting parts is choosing the bands. When you see your friends pull up to your own festival and you’re welcoming them, there’s nothing better.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Herald-Palladium newspaper of Saint Joseph, Mich.