When a band makes a hit right out of the starting gate, it establishes a standard for itself that may be hard to equal or exceed. Two years ago a group of established Nashville sidemen began playing together at the Station Inn, discovered they meshed well, and formed The Infamous Stringdusters. They put together a bunch of songs, seven written by members of the band, made a recording, and hit the festival trail. Well known in Nashville, most were little known in the broader world of bluegrass, although they were all deeply experienced. It soon became obvious that they were a hit. Performances at festivals were received enthusiastically and their first album, Fork in the Road sold well. Fork in the Road was named album of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. The title track was named song of the year. The band was named Emerging Artist of the Year. Thus, 2007 will be a hard act to beat.
Andy Hall, Chris Pandolfi, Jesse Cobb
Athletes and students have always known about the sophomore slump. The Stringdusters must have gone into this project with more than a little trepidation, since they have so much to live up to. Their new album, titled The Infamous Stringdusters, will be released on June 10 by Sugar Hill Records. The disk contains thirteen songs, nine of which written by members of the band.
Travis Book’s “Won’t Be Coming Back” opens the album with Jeremy Garrett on fiddle and Chris Pandolfi on banjo establishing a lost and lonely keening sound. Book, whose voice has a pleasant baritone timbre sings:
I left my home and family
To seek my fortune fair
I went north into the city,
But I didn’t find it there
The song has a Celtic flair to it, with a wailing sound from Book complemented by the band. Jesse Cobb’s mando break supported by understated backup fills beautifully. Travel, loneliness, the search for true love, and loss dominate this very fine opening song.
In “Well, Well” Andy Hall sings lead to his own song:
Is there always something wrong?
Sleepless nights, same old song
Just let go, let your mind run free
Your eyes know it’s really hard to see.
The singer looks forward to another night full of tears, but urges himself not to fear because the future looks much brighter. It would be a mistake to focus too closely on individual performances in a given song, because the ensemble work of this group is so superb. They’ve learned to use quiet, contemplative sounds to surround a song with appropriate feeling. Jeremy Garrett’s fiddle, in “Well, Well” captures the singer’s desperation while his rising notes at the end reflect the essential hope of this song.
Andy Falco and Jesse Cobb
In “When Silence is the Only Sound,” Jeremy Garrett explores the loneliness and emptiness in a marriage gone wrong. The object of the song assumes social class and character with his glass of scotch and inability to communicate his longing and sense of loss:
Unconscious of uncommon ground,
The walls of pride can’t be knocked down,
when silence is the only sound.
This song lacks the sense of hope found in the previous one as the character never leaves his lonely seat in the dark. One of the real strengths of the three opening songs of this set is that they explore some of the traditional bluegrass themes but clearly exist in the world of today rather than looking back to the rural, agrarian world from which bluegrass sprang. This is clearly contemporary music in the sound, spirit, and rigor of real bluegrass. The structure of the songs is familiar, even when sometimes the instrumentation forges into new ground.
Andy Falco’s guitar supports Travis Book’s opening phrase with a sound that has a distinct mellowness as his arpeggio runs behind the lonely ballad of loss as the singer says, “I waited too long, now I’m bound for Tennessee.” This song, too, is quiet and thoughtful, expressing a deep sense of loss. Even though the romance is over, the memory lingers on in the lyric and the music. No instrument better captures this feeling than the Dobro, and Andy sets the tone which is then picked up perfectly by mandolin and fiddle. “It’s not the goin’, but the stayin’ that worries me”
“Glass Elevator,” written by Chris Pandolfi, allows the band to show off it’s instrumental versatility and strong sense of ensemble. Pandolfi, the first banjo graduate of the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston and one of the group of ground breaking, rising young banjo players on today’s circuit, introduces musical themes for the other instruments to pick up and continue variations on as they explore the ground he has prepared. Their ability to weave through sounds while handing off leads is simply wonderful.
Jesse Cobb and Travis Book
“Three Days in July” returns to a classic bluegrass theme, the battle of Gettysburg as seen through the eyes of a twelve year old boy whose father is Union soldier. As the sound of battle begins to rise in the distance, his brothers, too, pick up their rifles and head for the fight. This song, written by Jon Weisberger and Mark Simos, shows war and battle at its most horrific. “Boys I tell you true, I learned things I never knew” expresses the horror of war and helps us understand why PTSD has always been with us and. Perhaps. always will be. Garret’s moment of unaccompanied singing captures attention and the heartbreak of the moment.perfectly. The song uses traditional bluegrass content to tell a timeless story of war’s horror, death, loss, and grief.
“The Way I See You Now” explores the way our perception of the one we think we love changes over time and through experience. Written by Andy Hall and Mark Simos, the song has a tone of thoughtful regret in lyric and musicality.
Time makes us wise, Time makes us fools
I never looked in your eyes,
I looked past them somehow
Wish that I had seen you then,
The way I see you now.
Filled with regret and loss as well as a new understanding of the reality of a relationship that can only be understood in retrospect, the song contains a quiet sense of futility of those who can’t live up to someone else’s expectations and knowledge. Andy Falco’s guitar provides an undergirding of lonely and quiet background along with Jeremy Garrett’s fiddle. Having the song’s author sing lead on most of the songs on this disk adds significantly to the poignancy of the work.
“Golden Ticket”, an instrumental by Jesse Cobb, contains Falco’s strongest instrumental break on this record, showing his marvelous flat picking off to advantage. Again, the interplay of all five instruments shows this groups musical skill and sensitivity as they seamlessly hand off the musical lead, each contributing different tones and colors to the overall signature established by Cobb’s mandolin.
From time to time the Stringdusters demonstrate their connection to traditional bluegrass in music and theme together. “I Wonder” by John Pennell and Jeff White is such a song. While not lacking in the unique sound The Stringdusters create, the song still reflects the very deep roots in traditional bluegrass this band has. “Get it While You Can” by Danny Barnes, accomplishes the same goal in a bluesy bluegrass song. This song has unusual syncopations that create a new sound for the band. Travis Book, as he does throughout this disk, provides a solid beat as well as intricate and creative fingerings on his bass.
“You Can’t Handle the Truth” by Travis Book, Tim Stafford, and Benny Galloway is the most up tempo offering on this disk. It’s almost pure bluegrass. Jeremy Garrett sings lead on this one, which also features a rousing banjo break by Chris Pandolfi. The singer says:
You think I’ve turned to cheatin,
and your lookin’ for the proof,
You can’t handle the truth
as he walks out the door. The band uses a particularly big wall of sound on this piece.
Tim O'Brien (producer) with Stringdusters at Merlefest
“Lovin’ You” presents a sharp contrast to its predecessor. This song, an anthem of lost love, says:
Oh, the clock don’t tell time, it runs,
The heart don’t beat, it shatters,
The only thng in this old world,
Is loving you that matters.
Written by Sarah Susskind and sung in a particularly soulful voice by Jeremy, it aches for the lost love thrown away by leaving in “You Can’t Handle the Truth.” The sharp staccato notes from Cobb’s mandolin capture the sound of heartbreak along with Pandolfi’s long, lonely break.
Andy Falco and Travis Book
The disk ends with an Andy Hall instrumental called “Black Brook.” Hall has already established himself as one of the premier Dobro players in bluegrass music. This recording only strengthens his reputation. The Infmaous Stringdusters’ sound shows them as a progressive band with roots so deep in traditional bluegrass that careful listeners can hear their background as well as their contemporary quality. The Stringduster’s play is always characterized by intense concentration on each other’s play. Their careful listening results in a great unity of sound..The album reflects their taste as well as that of producer Tim O’Brien. The fact they can play traditional bluegrass at the very highest level and then go beyond is what should make them one of the best bands to play on both sides of the traditional/progressive chasm of the current era. They show exemplary restraint in their refusal to go over the top in their work. The disk demonstrates great versatility of approach to a range of kinds of sounds. Much of the work in it made my heart ache listening to the lean and thoughtful lyrics combined with music complementing it perfectly. There’s no sophomore slump here.
The Infamous Stringdusters will be released on June 10th and is available from the band’s web site or from Sugar Hill as well as at other outlets. This album has been carefully crafted and thoughtfully put together, making it a worthwhile purchase in its entirety. One of the great problems with downloading individual songs lies in destroying the unity of purpose that encompasses a good album. This disk deserves to be listened to whole.