Most musicians of any genre will readily admit that their real work doesn't begin until their artistic voice emerges. The catch is that a good stretch of time spent learning their craft and woodshedding their musical chops is usually required for such a voice to emerge.
Take the Charlottesville, Va.-by-way-of-Nashville band known as The Infamous Stringdusters. Its debut album, Fork in the Road — released five years ago almost to the week — reflected a strong sense of string-band tradition in its lively instrumental interplay and its rich blend of vocal harmonies. The International Bluegrass Music Association took notice and awarded the Stringdusters three major prizes: for song, emerging artist and album of the year.
The last honor was shared with a more proven bluegrass brigade, Central Kentucky's J.D. Crowe and the New South. The Stringdusters might bear little in common stylistically with Crowe's crew, but there are definitely threads that they share, including the use of bluegrass tradition to launch head-first into deeper, more progressive waters.
Crowe's music has gone full circle during the past decade, back to more traditional turf. But on the Stringdusters' fifth album, Silver Sky, due out March 13, the song structure steers far from what many might perceive as bluegrass. The harmonies take on an expansive, almost orchestral hue while the playing falls more into jam-band land with a dash of vintage country. Imagine the post-Richie Furay albums of Poco laced with vintage Pure Prairie League and bolstered by the more streamlined music of Leftover Salmon, and you at least have a departure point in identifying the music of the Stringdusters.
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"In many ways, whatever changes you find in our music are simply a result of us discovering what we want to do as a band — you know, just finding out what we have the most fun doing," Stringdusters dobro player Andy Hall said. "A lot of times, when you're out on the road, figuring that out can be difficult. It can become more of a job than it should be, or what we would want it to be.
"We're just trying to find a balance in music that is fun and creative and engaging. So it just took a little time for us to feel comfortable being who we really are."
With the release of Fork in the Road and the band's self-titled 2008 follow-up album, the band was regularly pegged as bluegrass. When a Grammy nomination came the Stringdusters' way last year in the best country instrumental category (for Magic #9), naturally there was chatter that the band might be shifting course, heading to country waters.
But today's Stringdusters replied by making some changes. First, mandolinist Jesse Cobb parted amicably with his mates, making him the second defector (guitarist/co-founder Chris Eldridge left after Fork in the Road to join Chris Thile in the group that eventually became The Punch Brothers). Then, banjo player Chris Pandolfi, guitarist Andy Falco and bassist Travis Book all moved to Charlottesville; Hall and fiddler Jeremy Garrett remained in Nashville. But the biggest changes might have been in the company the band kept.
In November, the Stringdusters hit the road with Yonder Mountain String Band, the wildly popular jam band that relies strictly on bluegrass instrumentation — as opposed to inspiration — for its music. The like-minded ensembles hit it off so well that not only are they touring again this winter, but both, for a brief time, overlapped personnel. At the onset of the winter tour, Yonder Mountain bassist Ben Kaufmann had to bow out for several dates after becoming a father. Stepping in was Book, who took on bass duties in both bands.
"That was a lot of playing for Travis," Hall said. "But the shows were great. We have just hit it off great with Yonder Mountain.
"We started off playing more in the traditional bluegrass realm as a band. But as musicians, we really didn't come from that background. A band like Yonder Mountain really showed us that there is a whole world out there of different things you can do with a string band. We've learned a whole lot from those guys."
Before the Stringdusters formed, Hall worked extensively with another string-music maverick, Earl Scruggs. Known for essentially rewriting the book on bluegrass banjo via the staunchly traditional bluegrass he cut with Bill Monroe and longtime musical partner Lester Flatt, Scruggs became something of a string-music renegade during the '70s and '80s by touring with his sons in the progressively minded Earl Scruggs Revue.
"Most people remember him from his Flatt & Scruggs days," Hall said. "But he spent years and years with the Earl Scruggs Revue doing what was essentially jamgrass. He had drums, electric guitars, funk beats. I mean, that was Earl Scruggs, too. But the music he did earlier that really was traditional was also considered innovative.
"People like Earl I find to be very influential. And that's what we want to be. We want to look for that inspirational spark from someone like Earl Scruggs and, if we can, kind of continue down that path."