The Infamous Stringdusters’ website includes what might seem like a bold statement from the group. It says simply: “The Future of Bluegrass.”
In talking to Andy Hall, the group’s dobro player, it’s clear the statement isn’t meant to necessarily say The Infamous Stringdusters see themselves as the world’s premier bluegrass group — although the band probably belongs in that conversation — or to slight any of the many other talented acts on the scene.
But “The Future of Bluegrass” does say something about what the group is trying to accomplish within its genre. While certainly rooted in traditional bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters are seeking to push the bluegrass form forward. And Hall sees three distinct areas where a forward-looking approach to their music has come into play over the group’s decade-long existence.
“I think a lot of it comes from the songwriting,” he says. “Over time, we’ve gone from being a more traditional bluegrass band to, I think, [being] more wide open. And the songs really guide it. What happens is, most of us came from non-bluegrass backgrounds originally. So I think when you’re first starting into bluegrass and you’re learning how to play it, you kind of narrow your field of influences and you stick to sort of the bluegrass influences. As we’ve grown, I feel like we’ve actually let more of our original influences, whether that be from rock or blues or jam band, come out. …So I think the writing guides us as far as our look to the future.”
A second way the group is stretching musically is with its arrangements and the roles of their individual instruments within songs.
“When you learn bluegrass, you learn that each instrument has a specific role that it does. We want to use that (bluegrass template) when we want to,” Hall says. “But we also try to dismantle it. And we take the time when we’re arranging songs to come up with new ways to play a rhythm or use our instruments in ways they’re not traditionally used, like dobro as a rhythm instrument or whatever.”
Hall also feels The Infamous Stringdusters, which also includes Travis Book (bass), Andy Falco (guitar), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle) and Chris Pandolfi (banjo), are trying to redefine the concert experience, which is another part of moving the genre forward.
“Our look to the future is not necessarily just a musical one. It’s the way we engage with fans and put on a live show,” he says. “We’re really trying to build something greater than come pay your money and watch us perform songs. We’re trying to create a community of people who are caring and community oriented and socially oriented. Hopefully there’s something a little bit bigger than just an exchange going on of money for entertainment.”
All three of those areas come into play on the group’s newly released sixth studio album, Ladies & Gentlemen, and current tour.
The new album features a dozen songs written and played by The Infamous Stringdusters, 11 of which feature a different female artist on lead vocals, and it may well be the best example yet of the group’s boundary-stretching approach to bluegrass.
“I think Ladies & Gentlemen sort of embodies some of the farther reaches for us away from our (bluegrass) origins,” Hall says. “It’s fun to see. You never know how a record is going to come out or how a project is going to come out, and it’s just fun to experiment. That’s where, if you quit experimenting and being creative, you’re sunk. So for us, that’s been a great challenge, and we do think Ladies & Gentlemen really embodies that more creative spirit.”
The instrumentation on Ladies & Gentlemen, obviously, is still bluegrass, and several songs — including “See How Far You’ve Come” (with Sara Watkins) and “Ladders in the Sky” (with Claire Lynch) — fit the genre. But many of the songs favor deliberate tempos and cross-pollinate bluegrass and other rootsy styles. Joan Osborne brings some soul to “Listen.” There’s some gospel running through “Have A Little Faith” (with Joss Stone) and a bit of blues in the vocals Celia Woodsmith delivers on “Old Whiskey Bottle.” Meanwhile, “I Believe” (with Lee Ann Womack) and “Rock and Roll” (with Abigail Washburn) and “Still The One” (with Nicki Bluhm) split the difference between folk, country, pop and bluegrass.
Taking the Ladies & Gentlemen material on the road will offer a new way for The Infamous Stringdusters to grow as a band and continue to create a sense of community with concert audiences. Bluhm will join the group for most of the spring/summer dates and will handle the female vocals on the Ladies & Gentlemen material. Della Mae will appear on some dates as well, and that group’s lead singer, Woodsmith, figures to also contribute vocals.
“We’re excited,” Hall says. “It’s not going to be a huge departure, but it will be a little bit different for us and for the fans. And that’s part of the idea with this whole record and tour — something a little unique and different.”
On the Bill: The Infamous Stringdusters. 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 7, The Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-447-0095.