On The String: Twenty Years Of Greensky Bluegrass
At the turn of the millennium, bluegrass music enjoyed one of the periodic booms that have helped it grow and change over a 75-year journey as a great American genre. Ricky Skaggs had fired up his band Kentucky Thunder. Dolly Parton released her ripping, heart-rending album The Grass Is Blue. And the Del McCoury Band was in the middle of its long reign as the most influential band in bluegrass. That’s why we can trace the origins of a lot of today’s coolest bands to those years, when teens and early twentysomethings came together - often at colleges and universities - to learn the music on the fly. It happened in Kalamazoo MI, where open-mic scenes and a music loving craft brewery boosted the rise of Greensky Bluegrass.
“I purchased a mandolin sort of on a whim,” says founding member Paul Hoffman, then a Phish and Grateful Dead fan who’d discovered Jerry Garcia’s acoustic side. “And when I moved to Kalamazoo, I went to an open mic night, where, lo and behold, Dave Bruzza (guitar) and Michael Bont (banjo) were playing bluegrass. Being a new college student at that time, I was pretty outgoing. And I approached them and asked if I could come play with them sometime. So we all sort of learned it together.”
In Episode 196 of The String, I spoke with Hoffman and bass player Mike Devol, who joined a year or two after the group began playing shows around the area. He says at the time, he was a cello performance major who’d abandoned any notion of a classical career, and he was so taken by Greensky that he lent a hand on their business and promotion side. But the band floated the idea of his switching instruments and joining the group. He addressed how Greensky evolved from a regional left-of-center bluegrass ensemble to their breakout recipe of original songwriting and extravagant improvisation.
“That journey was like an exercise in becoming ourselves,” Devol says. “We didn't come to bluegrass through the tradition. So you know, for better or worse, it wasn't ever about ‘correct’ performance of the right repertoire. It was about playing music that we enjoyed and the music that we enjoyed listening to was not always this traditional bluegrass. I remember an early conversation with our manager, and it was a decision - what are we trying to be? Are we trying to be a traditional bluegrass band? Are we trying to be something different? And the very clear answer for all of us is that we were trying to be something different.”
By happenstance or design, that direction led them into the warm embrace of a rapidly galvanizing audience that loves outdoors sports, mountains, craft beer, cannabis and danceable musical celebration. Hoffman says it’s been a rewarding ecosystem.
“There is a lot of mutual respect amongst all these bands. We're not a huge genre, so to speak, jamgrass, with (Yonder Mountain Stringband, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Billy Strings). We play a lot of the same events and we all get along real well as friends. There's been some collaborations of the bands mixing together. And so for the fan base, and for the band's, I think there is a genuine community of something that's bigger than all of us.”
For all their prowess as a live band, Greensky Bluegrass has long taken care with and pride in their recordings. 2014’s If Sorrows Swim and 2019’s All For Money are good contenders to start a collection. Work began on the new project in 2019 but the pandemic threw a wrench in the works as it did for everyone. The result though was more time to think and refine and more opportunity for more band members to contribute songs into what has been a nearly all Hoffman songbook. Bass player Devol stepped in with songs for the first time, and one became the epic title track “Stress Dreams.”
“We tour a lot. So we found a lot of time that our material was developed in moments between two or three of us backstage, sort of chipping away at ideas and letting them simmer. And the process for this was just so different being separate,” Devol says in the interview. “I had to explore what was my process for writing. I'm still trying to discover what that is. It's new to me. But I've had some successes with this album. It was cool (for) each of us to be working separately and then have this very collaborative approach once the material was introduced to one another.”
The album landed last Friday with a resounding impact. Glide magazine said it “perfectly exemplifies, once again, why Greensky Bluegrass is heralded as one of the most important & influential bands of the modern progressive-bluegrass era.” Holler.com credits it with “a palpable sense of self-awareness and renewed joy.”