BLUEGRASS AND HIGH TIDES: THE INFAMOUS STRINGDUSTERS BRIDGE GENRE, GENDER DIVIDES WITH LADIES & GENTLEMEN
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
There’s very little that can be described as conventional about the music and makeup of the Infamous Stringdusters – perhaps starting with this outlaw, genre-blurring five-piece unit’s moniker. Sure, their sound is rooted in bluegrass, but what these five fellas – Andy Hall (dobro), Andy Falco (guitar), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), Travis Book (bass), Chris Pandolfi (bango) – conjure out of their respective instruments is nothing shy of sorcery, in that their collective psyche seems to be genres be damned. If lazy critics and casual listeners contend the group’s sound is bluegrass, be forewarned that it’s bluegrass fueled by rounds of Red Bull. For example, if the first comparison one comes up with when you think of a fiddler fronting a band is Charlie Daniels and his band’s classic “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” then in the hands of the Stringdusters, the devil would detour past Georgia and head straight to hell. That, folks, is how hot this band is – on record and onstage.
Live, the Infamous Stringdusters are, well, infamous for playing Springsteen-sized sets, often clocking in at close to three hours long. With every member a virtuoso of his respective instrument, each enraptures the audience with Led Zeppelin-like (think the soundtrack from the film The Song Remains the Same) extended solos so awe inspiring, if you closed your eyes you could imagine Jimmy Page playing a fiddle, or Eric Clapton jamming on a dobro or banjo. Exhaustive (in the best sense of the word) battles between dueling banjo and dobro, or acoustic guitar and fiddle, or upright bass and any of the aforementioned tools of the trade, leave crowd members whipped from non-stop dancing, but always wanting more. In the case of a recent show, the “more” included rousing renditions of U2’s “In God’s Country” and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl.”
The Infamous Stringdusters’ current album Ladies & Gentlemen gathers a galaxy of superstar female singers, each of whom lend their respective voices to one of the dozen tracks on the record. The band is currently on a long trek across America, with dates stretching through April 10 in Hartford, CT. The following conversation with Andy Hall took place on a sun-soaked patio outside Harlow’s in Sacramento, CA, where later the group took the stage at 9p and minus a 15-minute break, did not let up until nearly midnight, when the exhausted yet ecstatic crowd finally spilled out onto the street and home – happy!
Andy, it’s good to me you. Welcome to Sacramento. It’s a beautiful day and we’re hanging out outside. Let me start with the sound of the band. The sonic tightrope you guys walk between traditional bluegrass and more modern music puts you in a category that I call current classic. How would you define the sound of the band?
The sound of the band is really informed quite a bit by the instruments, which is like a traditional bluegrass band instrumentation, but we’ve definitely from the beginning tried to strive for a modern sound, and modern songwriting, hopefully. So that mix of having the traditional bluegrass band instrumentation and that pedigree – because we all played in that scene for a good bit before starting this band, but then with like more of a modern rock and some jazz sensibility. That is the Stringdusters sound. It’s high energy. You definitely hear banjo, you hear dobro and fiddle, but it’s not in the, sort of, hayseed (laughs) contexts, do you know what I mean? It’s definitely more of a modern sensibility; it’s high energy, improvisational, hopefully great harmonies. Those are sort of the key things that jump out.
Well this will be the first time I’ll be seeing you guys out live, so I’m looking forward to checking all that out. Of course I’ve read about your sound, and certainly you guys live. So with the aptly titled six album Ladies & Gentlemen, you continue a balancing act of sorts, in that you traverse the gender gap. You work with a bunch of wonderful female voices. Tell me, how was it bringing in a group of girls into this five-member boys club?
Right (laughs)! Well we’ve been a band for 10 years and we’ve done five records with a sort of a similar formula, which is just our band, our songs, and that’s been great, but we were just ready to try something different. The title came to us after we did something with Joss Stone, where she was going around to different countries and playing indigenous music from each country with musicians, and one of the things she wanted to do from the United States was play with us – with a bluegrass band. So she came and sang one of our songs, with us backing her, and that kind of gave us the idea for the record, and then when the title came, Ladies & Gentlemen, sometimes just something simple as coming up with a title for a project helps guide you. But working with the girls was amazing. A few were able to come in the studio with us, which we wanted as much of that as possible. Some we had to do after the fact [due to] scheduling. When you have guests on every song it’s a bit of a puzzle, but it was really interesting to hear, because every singer has such a unique sound, and to hear what direction they took the song was just really interesting and fun and creative. It was kind of scary (laughs), you know, cuz it’s your stuff. We wrote all the songs, and so to give over a little bit of control in that way was not totally easy, but we believed in the idea and thought that maybe letting go of the reins in that regard a little bit was part of this process, and learning. It turned out awesome – we’re really psyched about it.
Well let’s talk about some of these outstanding vocalists, starting with Lee Ann Womack, who takes on the tough task of pleading with people to, I guess, just get along (laughs) in the song “I Believe.” Why was Lee Ann’s voice the right one for that particular tune?
Well, technically she’s an incredible singer; she’s just one of the best singers ever. And that song has more of a country flavor to it, and I think it required her level of ability to really get across. It’s a slower song, and like I said a little bit more of a country flavor, and she’s also just one of our favorite singers that is in that kind of style. When you have an idea of a singer on a song, you can kind of hear them – you can kind of hear what they would sound like on it. Once we had that in our head we just had to try and get her to do it. It’s not always easy to get someone of her stature to do it, and she wanted to do it and it happened and it sounded as good, or better, as you could have imagined. She killed it. But yeah, it is a tough message to convey, but it’s a message that I feel like you shouldn’t give up on (laughs).
I think now more than ever. Having said that, do you wanna weigh in on which current presidential candidate should hear this song first?
Oh, yeah, yeah! I wanna give you the details of that. I’ll speak on the whole band’s behalf about all our political views. No, probably not, but it’s a pretty crazy scene out there (laughs). It’s serious, but also sort of kind of strangely entertaining – sort of like a car wreck or something. As far as that stuff goes, the one cause that we’ve always championed is more of an environmental cause. But I think Lee Ann singing the song [and] kind of bringing people together does kind of fit with the ladies and gentlemen. Our band has always had a bit of, like, guys playing a lot of picking; it’s got a testosterone element to it. It’s nice to bridge the gap and bring those two things together and get a little different flavor. So that song, and the message of that song, is a bit of the message of the record, too. It’s just trying to bridge gaps, trying to bring people together, and that’s the vibe.
Thank you for the segue to my next question, because I think trying to find the common ground is kind of a common theme of the album. I think that thread runs through “Won’t Be Long,” which features the Grammy nominated Sarah Jarosz. Tell me a little bit about that one.
“Won’t Be Long” was a collaboration between Travis, our bass player, and his wife, Sarah [Siskind], who is a fantastic songwriter in her own write. She’s had hits with Alison Krauss and sang with Bonnie Raitt. She’s kind of like a secret weapon for the band, to help us with some songwriting things. We certainly wanted to bring her in for this project, because of the ladies and gentlemen element, and she’s a female singer-songwriter who’s had a lot of success. “Won’t Be Long” is [about] your time here being limited and you have to make the most of it. A lot of the messages of our songs tend to be a little bit broader. Sometimes we get into the nitty gritty details, but a lot of it is these broader messages. When your touring around, you can see the world in a lot of different ways, and it seems like we always see these broader, overreaching kind of messages. So that’s the message with that one, and Sarah [Jarosz] absolutely killed it. I mean she’s awesome. And she’s so young, she’s just like 25, and we’ve known her since she was 12 or 13. To see how she’s just grown and become such an amazing musician, and now to have her on our record is a neat thing to see young musicians blossom, so she was a perfect choice for it.
The tempo gets turned up on the stop-and-smell-the-roses saga of “See How Far You’ve Come.” That one features Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek fame. What role does wanderlust play in your songwriting, and your life?
That theme actually goes back to old bluegrass and country, for sure – kind of the rambling vibe. Obviously as musicians, we travel for a living, and so I think that’s something that’s something that’s really easy to tap in to. Sometimes you have to rein yourself in from writing too many travel songs, or I’m on the road type of stuff (laughs). Or you just have to get creative with how you approach that topic, because it’s been done. With “See How Far You’ve Come,” it’s wanderlust, but it’s a fast-paced song and I feel like the energy of it really carries it into a different place with that message. The lyrics are reflective, but the energy of the song is charging forward. And that has become one of my favorite songs to do live [because] I think the energy really translates really well to a live show. Sara, of course, is such a pro. That song is super rangy – not many people could sing it, so we called on Sara Watkins to do that and of course she did an excellent job. But wanderlust; it’ll never go away. That’s what we do, we’re on the road, we travel, we long for home, we love where we are and what we see and what we get to do. So I doubt those themes will ever vanish from our writing, but you gotta be creative. You can’t just rehash old ideas. And sometimes the creativity is easier to come by musically almost, than say lyrically. That depends on the artist, I guess, but for us I feel like we can take a theme that has been sung about, and somehow musically we can create something unique. That’s a strength of our band.
As you were telling the story, it just occurred to me that the last time I was sitting right here, I was with The Wild Feathers, and one of my favorite songs from them is “Left My Woman.” Ricky (Young) and Taylor (Burns) told me they lost their women, but they got the song (laughs).
(Laughs) Exactly! Well, you always get something in the end, hopefully, as a musician. The one thing you always end up with, hopefully, is the song (laughs). Hopefully you can end up with a significant other, too, but it seems like those come and go more so than the songs (laughs).
Yes, indeed! So mentioned her right at the top, and I’m glad you did, because I didn’t know from what I’d read that Joss stone was maybe the spark for the whole project. I’ve been a big fan of hers since the 2003 debut The Soul Sessions. Bottom line: that girl can sing! The track she’s on is “Have a Little Faith.” Tell me again how you really got her involved on this track.
Our guitar player Andy Falco had made a connection with her, and played in her band, actually. He went to Rock in Rio and played in her band and they became friends. We did a couple of collaborative things; she came and played with us in New York and then we did this video project for her, and so when we were coming up with the songs for this record Andy wanted to write something for her. So that song “Have a Little Faith” was written with her in mind. Having that sort of soul, gospel-y vibe – you know it’s spiritual, but not religious – that’s how that song came about. The cool thing about that song is that it’s a pretty simple format, which leaves her lots of room to embellish and improvise, which is what she really does. You send her the song with this straight, simple melody and she just blows it all apart and does her thing and just plays with it. I’ve never heard anything like it. Her singing is just beyond anyone else’s I’ve ever heard. Her ability to just hear a song and just riff over it – riff over the lyrics. One thing that soul singers do a lot – and she’s a master at it – is just riffing on a lyrical idea, adlibbing here and there and just owning it. Hearing her voice come in, there is a sexy element to it, too. I mean the song itself doesn’t necessarily have that, lyrically, but jeez louise she’s got all of that. And so it’s one of my favorites, for sure, and super fun to listen to.
She kills it! The last song I wanna ask you about is “Listen.” That one features the fantastic Joan Osborne. Let me quote a lyric here: “There’s a reason to fly, don’t ask why.” What I glean from that line is that we should all follow our passion, that we should go for it, screw the naysayers and do what you love and love what you do. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, yeah, very fair to say. The chorus is a very in-the-moment kind of vibe (quoting lyric), “listen to the rain fall, listen to the wind blow, listen to the dark clouds.” And the “listen to the dark clouds” line is like, you know, listen to everything, not just the happy stuff. It’s all gonna come at you, so just be in the moment, listen to it and do what you need to do. That one is not as specific – it’s more of a vibe song. I love that chorus. That is one of my favorite choruses we’ve ever written. It’s just so strong, and memorable and hooky. That song definitely has probably the most rock kind of vibe of any of the songs. For me, it’s been really neat to see our band go from being able to just do more of a bluegrass type of rhythm to being able to do rock songs – with no drums! There are some drums on the record, but when we do them live there’s no drums, just us, and have it rock! That’s been a learning process for us, on how to do that, and I feel like we’ve got it, and I feel like that’s one of the things that makes our band unique is the ability to play a rock beat with no drums, and have it work.
Man, you’re really getting me amped for the show tonight (laughs). As I said, this will be my first time seeing you guys. Now speaking of following your passion, which I mentioned in my previous question, let me ask you this: did you have what I call your proverbial “Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment?” Looking back, was there a song that came on the radio, a show that you went to, an album that your folks had around the house, or something where now you can go back and say, that’s when I thought, “Man, I wanna do this. I wanna make music for a living.”
Well, it was getting my first guitar. And I’m probably dating myself a little bit, but it was because of MTV. I would see MTV and I would be like, “That looks awesome! That looks like freedom.” And so we went to the pawn shop and got the cheapo guitar and a little amp and that was it. The first day I had it, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I played for four or five hours. The next thing that happened was – strangely enough I grew up on rock music and heavy metal and The Grateful Dead – but there was a moment when I got this Bill Monroe (& His Bluegrass Boys) box set. To me it was heavy metal with acoustic instruments (laughs) and these guys are ripping and it’s incredible, but it’s much rawer. It’s not as polished, but man all the energy and mojo is there. And so that was another big moment. I was the first-born Yankee – they’re all from Nashville and so for many years they would take me to the Opry (and) I never really got into it. I hated country music and then I got this Bill Monroe box set and somehow it all made sense, and the seeds that had been planted early on kind of started to grow.
Final question for you, and a fun one to wrap up. A few weeks back I spoke with Tom Cusimano, lead singer of The Walcotts, and I asked him this same question, and it took him a helluva long time to answer, so I’m gonna fling it to you because of the similar (musical) vibe of both his and your band. So here’s the question: if The Band and Little Feat were playing the same night, in your city, which show would you be at?
The Band and Little Feat! Well, I mean, that’s a tough one, but I know the answer (laughs). The Band just has this mystique about it that makes it something that you just couldn’t miss. I mean Little Feat is incredible, and you know what I love about them is that they were a little more jammy – they were a little more of the improvisation. So, honestly I love Little Feat’s music – it’s this sort of blues, kinda rock, good songs, but more improvising, which is what I really like but The Band has something that I think Little Feat doesn’t quite have at the same level. Maybe because of the short duration of The Band, or whatever, there’s a mystique and a magic about it where you just think, “Oh I missed it! If I could only have seen that!” So it would have to be The Band, but that’s a hard one to say, because musically they’re both good, but with The band there’s just a mystery and a mystique and the songs are so incredible, and you’ve got Levon (Helm), so I’d have to go with The Band.
Well it’s been a pleasure, Andy, thanks very much.
I love it. Thank you so much. That’s awesome.