How The Infamous Stringdusters Found The Jam In Their Grass
In the winter of 2007, when my main storytelling vehicle was video, I had the pleasure of jumping in a long white tour van with the then-new Infamous Stringdusters to document them as they played some of their early dates in Colorado. Then a sextet, the Nashville band had just released their debut album Fork In The Road on Sugar Hill Records, and they were the subject of significant industry buzz. Their skills had been honed working in professional bands led by others, and they were devoted students of traditional bluegrass music while not being tied down by the genre’s conventions. They were young, attractive guys making an up-to-date sound, but they had enough grounding and cred to win the affection of the old guard, and with it IBMA Awards for Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year.
In the opening line of the resulting film, Four Days Of Infamy, banjo player Chris Pandolfi says, “Colorado is a good place for us” and he must have been seeing the future. Several years hence, as he says in Episode 194 of The String, the band started opening for wider-ranging bands in rock and roll venues. They befriended the pioneering Colorado-based Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon, architects of what’s now regarded as jamgrass. They played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. And the Dusters graduated from polite crowds of a few hundred into the realm of thousands, where they’ve lived and toured ever since.
Pandolfi says: “It was a huge turning point for us. And we put our heads together as a band after that, and said, This is what we want to do. And it was two-steps-back to take more-steps-forward down the line type of situation. We were ditching gigs that were better money but less desirable playing environments for us to start to kind of rebuild this thing. It had everything to do with the fact that when we played in front of a crowd that was more communal, standing, dancing, participating in the music, (it gave us) us energy from the stage, you know, versus just playing for a crowd that's sitting there and listening.”
To capture what’s going on with the Stringdusters now, I conducted three one-on-one interviews - with Pandolfi, guitarist Andy Falco and dobro player Andy Hall. Also in the quintet are bass player Travis Book and fiddler Jeremy Garrett. They’re coming on Feb. 18 with their tenth studio album, Toward The Fray, a collection of songs largely about engagement with a troubled world. All four lead singers in the band - Hall, Falco, Book and Garrett - contributed songs.
Andy Hall said the album was recorded in the heart of 2020’s gig drought when the musicians were extremely gratified to get together. And the resulting album took on the world as it was that fall. “There was a lot going on politically. There were riots happening in the street. There was a pandemic happening. We're locked down. You know, George Floyd and racial justice were really at the forefront of people's minds. There's all this sort of dense, somewhat dark, kind of hard understand stuff happening. And a lot of the songs reflect that. And the idea of toward the fray is really kind of trying to turn towards those things, particularly like the sort of the social inequities we have.”
With Andy Falco, I spoke about the band’s early years in Nashville studying bluegrass foundations so that they could expand on it in the jamband context while never losing their heart. He says the Infamous Stringdusters have built their present and by implication their future in a jamgrass world where a core of groups keep a whole lot of people dancing and coming back for more.
“We’re so lucky to have this scene that was really built by bands like Yonder and Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident…It's about the fans, really. They're willing and able to take this ride with us and with all these bands. I think that's really freeing. I think what's great about this world is, generally speaking, it's a pretty open-minded audience, where we can evolve as a band, which is ideal, you know, to be able to evolve your sound and not play the same stuff. To be able to evolve is crucial for the vitality of feeling like you're doing your art genuinely.”
The String is lining up a series of shows investigating jamgrass culture and its success. Coming soon is a conversation with Paul Hoffman and Mike Devol of Greensky Bluegrass, the veteran band out of Kalamazoo, MI, with whom the Dusters are sharing a couple dozen dates this month and next. And in the works is a talk with the foundational Yonder Mountain String Band. You can subscribe to The String wherever you get your podcasts.