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Infamous Stringdusters: overnight success leads to dealing with soph slump

By Greg Yost, June 2008

The transition from overnight success to a long-term career in the music industry is definitely not an easy one for a band. Many a talented group has emerged from relative obscurity to obtain immediate commercial success, critical accolades and flashy labels like "the next big thing," only to fade quickly away. One band trying to prove it is here to stay is The Infamous Stringdusters.

In 2 short years, this 6-piece acoustic group experienced a meteoric ascension from a band in its infancy stage to an established recording and touring act and a 3-time winner at the 2007 IBMA Awards, a prestigious event held annually by the International Bluegrass Music Association. At last year's ceremony, the band won "Emerging Artist of the Year," "Album of the Year" for their debut release "Fork in the Road" and "Song of the Year" for the title track.

With all of this early success, it is completely understandable if people wondered whether the band could maintain the momentum, but with the recent release of its second album, an eponymous effort on Sugar Hill Records, The Infamous Stringdusters answered all of those concerns with an emphatic yes.

"For a band like ours to debut a first album and within two years were nominated for three awards and we won all three, it was really sort of validation, in a lot of ways, of what we were doing," says Travis Book, bass player and one of three primary vocalists for the band, from his home in Nashville.

I Won't Be Coming Back

"When your first record is that well-received, you know the words ‘sophomore slump' are on the tips of everyone's tongues, and we were in a position where we really wanted to continue to move forward and make strides as a band."

Book and company need not worry about the idea of a "sophomore slump." Not only does the group's new album live up to the lofty standards set by "Fork in the Road," but by focusing on expanding its sound and strengthening the musical interplay of its members, The Infamous Stringdusters actually manage to create a collection of songs that both exceed some of those expectations and set a new course.

Born out of casual jam sessions, musical and personal friendships and a love for bluegrass and other forms of acoustic music, the first hint of today's version of The Infamous Stringdusters came when Chris Pandolfi, the group's banjo player, and Andy Hall, the band's Dobro player and another one of the vocalists, joined forces with the group's original guitar player, Chris Eldridge, to play shows under the moniker Stablehorse.

This side project grew into something bigger as the lineup expanded to include some of the hottest up-and-coming talent in traditional acoustic music. The addition of Jeremy Garrett on fiddle and Jesse Cobb on mandolin, along with Book's replacement of Alan Bartram, currently with the Del McCoury Band, as the bass player during the recording sessions for "Fork in the Road" helped further mold the group into a fully-conceived unit. The current lineup solidified in September 2007 when Andy Falco replaced Eldridge as the guitar player.

"When we first formed, it was sort of like your typical batch of Nashville sidemen playing bluegrass songs and some bluegrass-derived songs that they'd made up," says Book. "I really felt like early on, our band didn't have a distinctive or unique voice. Everybody in the band had their own sort of style, but the band as a whole was just another group of people playing songs from the bluegrass canon."

Book also notes, "In the three years since we recorded ‘Fork in the Road' and since we've been touring, everyone's been constantly writing and finding more of their own voice as musicians, and the band now has evolved into something I really feel like has a much more distinct sound."

Although The Infamous Stringdusters are often classified simply as a bluegrass band, the truth is that the music the sextet creates really defies basic categorization. While all members have established themselves as some of the most talented young players in bluegrass, the group's spirit of collaboration combined with the broad range of musical influences each songwriter brings to the table takes the music away from what is considered traditional.

Book attempts to describe the band's sound by saying, "You know, I think we are really a bluegrass band…it's sort of like a bluegrass band with everything else mixed in."

"I like to think of it as more like American acoustic music because we really do integrate all these really American roots music styles – jazz, folk, blues, bluegrass, country. It's all in there."

The presence of these different styles is evident throughout the 13 tracks. While "Fork in the Road" was much more grounded in bluegrass, the new album uses bluegrass principles as a jump-off point for songs that draw from a more diverse set of sources. The traditional sounding songs on the new album are surrounded by lovely and meandering instrumental explorations; blues-inspired compositions, sentimental folk ballads and representations of other musical genres.

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