Despite winning the International Bluegrass Association’s 2007 Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year in for their first album, Fork In The Road, The Infamous Stringdusters have always insisted that they’re not a bluegrass band—until now. “I’ll be honest with you, there was a period when I did all I could to avoid using the word ‘bluegrass’ when I was talking about what we do,” said guitarist Andy Colson in a recent telephone conversation. “But you know what, I’m not afraid anymore to say, ‘Hey, we’re a bluegrass band.’”
According to their website, along with The Earl Scruggs Revue, New Grass Revival, Hot Rise, Nickel Creek and Leftover Salmon, The Infamous Stringdusters are part of bluegrass’s ever-evolving “transgressive tradition.” Transgression, it seems, is woven into the fabric of the music. Ever since a very nervous Elvis Presley told Bill Monroe he’d had the temerity to turn Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” from a gently swaying waltz to a hopped-up rocker in 4/4 time, musicians have been messin’ with the music. Monroe reportedly was all for it. After listening to Presley’s take on his song, he began playing it the same way.
The Stringdusters aren’t performers; they’re players. Dobro player Andy Hall and the fleet-fingered banjo picker, Chris Pandolfi, were both schooled at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. After leaving school in 2005, they moved to Nashville where they met fiddler Jeremy Garrett and mandolin player Jesse Cobb. They found bassist Travis Book through an audition. The other original member was guitarist Chris Eldridge, who’d been with Hall and Pandolfi at Berklee and was the reason they moved to Nashville. He left soon after the release of their first album in 2007. That’s when Andy Falco joined the band. He’s still the “newest” member.
One reason the band’s lineup has been so stable is because they are all players and they’re having a blast. “I think the beauty of what’s going on here is that the hard part is over,” Pandolfi said. “I think we all have the universal feeling that we will never find a playing situation that will be anything like this, even close to as satisfactory. And the beautiful thing is that when we came together it was a musical attraction. We’re five very different guys in the band, but there’s just such camaraderie, and that, above all else, is the thing that makes the music.”
Falco echoed those sentiments, saying more than once during our conversation that he felt “lucky” to be a part of the band. He is. Most musicians would give a year’s pay to be playing in a band with such a democratic and freewheeling approach to music making. Pandolfi usually writes the set list, but everybody in the band has an opportunity to add or subtract songs.
“Somebody might say, ‘Hey, you remember that bluegrass tune? Let’s do that tonight,’” Falco said. “Oh yeah, that’d be fun, let’s do that,” is apparently a typical response.
That same let’s-just-have-some-fun attitude carries over into their life offstage. While we were talking, Falco’s bandmates were all out skiing in Park City, Utah, a stop on their February ski tour. “We love doing outdoor stuff,” Falco said, who would have been with them but for a knee injury sustained skiing a couple of years ago.
“We love skiing, we love cycling, we love mountain biking, we love all these things,” he added. “We don’t go out on tour and eat fast food and sleep as late as we can. We want to go out on tour and play music, but we also want to do all the other things we love; and the people who come to our shows are just like us. They love the outdoors. I honestly feel when I look out at the people who’ve come to our shows that they’re people I could be friends with.”
They call their music “high country.” It’s acoustic music but it has the energy and intensity of rock as played by a group of friends energized equally by the music and the life it allows them to lead.
The Infamous Stringdusters with Old Time Travelers
$15/$17 • 8 p.m. • Friday, March 8 • Track 29 • 1400 Market St. • (423) 521-2929 • track29.co
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.