Take five string players residing in four locales, gather them together so the varied stylistic agendas they have designed for their songs can be hashed out, and you have the makings of a session with the Infamous Stringdusters.
Such summits — and, especially, the music that results — yield a crisp blend of bluegrass instrumentation, folk and pop song structures, jazz-rooted improvisation and more. On the Stringdusters' new Let It Go album, it all falls into place with a blend that sounds cohesive and cordial. Still, one can't help but wonder how a pack of geographically and stylistically varied players all can get their say in a Stringdusters song without it sounding like the musical equivalent of an arms race.
"You know, I wonder the same thing," says fiddler Jeremy Garrett, who will perform with the Stringdusters at its Saturday headlining set during the weekend-long Terrapin Hill Harvest Festival in Harrodsburg."
"We will come up with an arrangement and, I swear, there will be five different opinions on how something could go. Who knows why we chose one idea over another. Sometimes I have no clue. Other times, it makes perfect sense and I'm like, 'Oh yeah, that's obviously how that part will go.' But every time, the feeling is, 'Man, that's cool. If you want to do it that way, go ahead.'
"It doesn't really matter which way an idea goes as long as it's good and professional and fitting for the song."
The self-described "bluegrass guy" of the band, Garrett lives in Nashville, where the Stringdusters formed in 2005. Dobro player Andy Hall and banjoist Chris Pandolfi reside in Colorado, guitarist Andy Cobb works out of Long Island, N.Y., and bassist Travis Book has a home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The sounds and styles the Stringdusters employ are rooted in inspirations that are equally far-reaching.
"As a songwriter, I have certain things in mind for my songs and so does everybody else in the band that writes," Garrett says. "But when you bring your song to the band, it takes on a whole new life. That's when the magic happens — when the five of us are able to do our thing together by pulling on these different influences.
"I've been pretty much steeped in bluegrass since I was a kid. My dad was a bluegrass musician, too, but I also listen to Metallica and Nirvana and Guns 'N Roses. I was influenced just as much by that music as I was by the music I was playing. Those influences can't help but creep in — different little rhythmic things, vocal stylings and perhaps just the feel of a song. So it's not just Flatt and Scruggs-type bluegrass we're playing anymore, and the reason is because of all the influences that we put together.
"That being said, we're still drawing on that really solid bluegrass foundation, which has provided a sense of integrity to our musicianship. That's why we sort of come off as bluegrass. But, yeah, these other influences are definitely seeping through."
The stylistic breadth of the band also is reflected in the kinds of musical company it keeps. The notables who have sat in with the Stringdusters of late include Grateful Dead bassist and co-founder Phil Lesh, esteemed jazz guitarist John Scofield and New Orleans' cherished Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
"For me, the real treat was getting to play with true seasoned, veteran musicians," Garrett says. "To get to play with people like that is among the highest forms of satisfying moments you get as a musician."