Our scene doesn’t exactly lack for ace bluegrass and bluegrass-inspired combos, that’s for sure. But you have to tip your hat to the Infamous Stringdusters: a combo of pickers skilled enough to earn the admiration of serious bluegrass lovers, adventurous enough to stoke the interest of jaded jam-scene audiences long-skeptical of “next big things,” and buzzed-about enough to earn the professional admiration of fellow players and veteran scene staples.
Not bad for a band barely halfway into its first decade.
[Photo by Tom Daly]
Banjo player Chris Pandolfi, dobro player Andy Hall and former guitarist Chris Eldridge planted the seed for what would become the Stringdusters around 2005, after Pandolfi and Eldridge had met at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
Both musicians followed Hall to Nashville, and from there joined up with mandolinist Jesse Cobb and fiddler Jeremy Garrett. The last piece of the first incarnation of the band was Travis Book on bass, and almost right away – especially with the release of their debut album, Fork in the Road — the band started getting appreciative nods and industry laurels, including an armful of International Bluegrass Music Association awards.
Things changed, as they tend to do in a rising band’s formative years, and Eldridge exited the band in 2007, replaced by Andy Falco. And as the band gathered a measure of early acclaim for its music, it also began a subtle shift in how it marketed itself: less tethered to traditional bluegrass and Nashville audiences and swaying much more toward sweaty rock club and jamband festival crowds.
The gambit’s worked, and the Stringdusters audience has expanded throughout the years hence, drawing on both bluegrass and jam-scene fans as well as country and even jazz aficionados. But there was still one big change to come: mandolinist Cobb opted to leave the band in October 2011, citing the mental and physical toll his participation was taking. The Stringdusters have since continued as a five-piece, opting not to replace Cobb.
Pandolfi joined Hidden Track on the eve of the band’s annual Festy Experience for a catch-up.
HIDDEN TRACK: There’s been a lot of growth for the Infamous Stringdusters in the past year, even with a lot of changes. Take me through that.
CHRIS PANDOLFI: It has been a great year. The past few years have been a lot of transformation for us, but when you make changes to your band and your business model, it can be kind of slow to take root because you really only play in each city and for that set of fans maybe once a year. So the arc of growth and progress has been a slow and steady one.
HT: What was the biggest change, you think?
CP: A few years ago, we made the call as a band that we wanted to play in front of an audience that was ready to have a good time – that wanted to participate in the music we were making. That was a bit of a departure from the bluegrass audience we grew up playing to. They really cared about the music, but we found that a rock-club-type setting was what brought out the most in us as a band. It’s been a few years our decision to go that way, but we’re only now seeing it kind of take root.
Now, when people come to a Stringdusters show, they know what to expect, and we get an audience that includes bluegrass people and old Deadheads and young folks and people into cutting edge stuff, instrumental stuff, a little bit of everything coming together. The past year has too many highlights to pick out. The festival circuit is always exciting, we’ve gotten to play with a lot of our heroes like the Punch Brothers, and it’s been an awesome summer and tour.
[Photo by Michael Stein]
HT: Your decision to shift that focus was a calculated risk. Did you lose many of your early fans?
CP: No, I think it was a natural progression. The ones who want to follow us, do. There’s a very small portion of people who are turned off – it’s just not their cup of tea, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We really are a bluegrass band, though. Undoubtedly a modern-day bluegrass band but every show we do play traditional bluegrass and modern songs done in our style. To me, that’s a cool thing.
Bluegrass is a pretty wide-open description, so no, I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of fan attrition. When you change up your whole marketing and and publicity approach, you kind of reset and it becomes taking two steps forward and one step back. The bluegrass world likes what we do, though. We all cut our teeth in that Nashville scene – Andy Hall played with Earl Scruggs, and we’ve all played in straight-up bluegrass bands.
HT: Was there much hesitation in the band to shift gears like that?
CP: It was a little hard. When you concede that our real goal is to keep the band together, all that work, changing things up was a difficult year. But it’s a very small amount of time in the grand scheme of things. We knew this is what we wanted to do. We did a run of dates soon after supporting Railroad Earth and that helped us walk in both worlds while playing more standing-room clubs.
We had go to all-in. The big rule of marketing is that you don’t want to be at all ambiguous about your product, and if we were going to do it, we needed to lock that down. But it was something we were all unanimously into. It was a business decision. Ultimately, it really wasn’t a musical decision. Our music itself didn’t change all that much, it’s more we found an environment that brought more out of us. We were essentially becoming ourselves.
HT: It’s understandable that it was a challenge, though. Traditional bluegrass is ultimately a precision music, I think you’d agree, and bluegrass purists know what they want to hear and how they want to hear it. They want to trust their musicians, right?
CP: Yeah, the bluegrass fans are fierce and loyal and there’s a reason for that. The reason for that is that the music is so tough to play. People spend 10 years learning how to play this music well and only maybe then they can try to do it for a career. It’s not something you pick up in two months of playing. The musical side of things is very pure in this world – people have to really be able to play.
In the indie rock world, you can do a lot more with a little – indie music conforms to changes and trends. That’s not a bad thing. But when you play stringed instruments, you’ve tapped into something that’s very traditional and hard to change. It’s impossible to change at the drop of a hat. But the scene also brings things out. We improvise a lot as a group and take chances as a group. That gets translated out to the crowd and something very special happens.
HT: What jumps out about you guys is that high-intensity improvisation and how you can do that together and really listen and play off each other, like jazz players. That didn’t all come from the bluegrass world, I take it.
CP: Yeah, I mean, I grew up listening to the Dead and Phish, and I also loved Scofield and Zappa and all this experimental music. You didn’t hear a lot of rules, but you did hear a lot of creativity, a lot of regimen where it was intended, and a lot of spirit and freedom.
I think ‘jamband’ just kind of became a dirty word because the scene got inundated with musicians who…well, we all play music for the same reason. You don’t ever fault someone who isn’t as good as you are or who plays differently than you do. But improvising as a group is one of the hardest things we do. It doesn’t always go great for us, but we’re very experienced musicians and we practice and practice and practice to make progress. We’ll [have played] about 150 shows this year, and the most exciting moments at Bonnaroo or our big shows are when we jam on a dobro instrumental called Black Rock or another. Whatever evidence there is to the contrary, if that sort of thing is done well, and the crowd’s really on board with it, you know.
HT: If you listen to enough jambands it isn’t hard to tell which ones practice and commit and which ones noodle. But outside the scene, I’ll agree, the bands are just too often lumped together as a matter of perception.
CP: When you’re jamming up there, you have to ask, is it about you or is it about them, the people listening to you? It’s very hard to do, it is. One thing you learn pretty quickly is that the crowd really is paying attention. When you’re confident enough that it becomes about them, you can then be inside yourself and a more natural thing happens. But it is the hardest thing we do and the think we’ve had to work on the most. Now, it’s starting to set us apart. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there. I am the last person to be critical of someone else’s music. But that is something we’ve worked hard on and are getting noticed for.
HT: Will you be as active on the road in 2013 as you’ve been this year?
CP: We’ll probably play fewer shows because we’ll be working on the next album next year. But it only gets more fun when it’s going well. This fall, we’re touring with quite a bit more production and that really enhances the show.
HT: Do tell.
CP: We have a great lighting director [Brett Angstadt] with us now, and we’re working with GoPro, a camera company that’s helping us with onstage production. We have these custom-cut, LED, glowing kind of orbs we’re going to debut at our festival, and we have a cool light package that’s synced with the show, and then all these cameras around so we can capture everything we do off the mic stands and around us. We’re going to be releasing a lot of videos and photos in addition to audio the day after the show, and the goal is to be curating our own archive that’s more than just music. There are going to be videos and audio, and text-tagging from fans and all that.
HT: What will your next album sound like?
CP: We’re going to have spent more time on the songwriting than we have in the past. We have a great producer, Billy Hume, and he has a whole sonic thing going on that’s unusual in the bluegrass world. We’re just trying to make progress. We’ve done a lot of cool things, but we also feel there’s a lot more we can do and that the best stuff will come from a good and natural musical evolution. That really reflects where we’re at right now. These things take time.