Infamous Stringdusters: overnight success leads to dealing with soph slump

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.

"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.

"Stylistically we've really broadened the circle that our band encompasses," says Book.

To help bring this unique musical vision to life, the group called on Tim O'Brien, a true luminary of acoustic music, to produce. When asked why O'Brien was selected to produce the record, Book answers. "Tim is probably one of the most consistent across-the-board influences in the band."

"Everybody in the band will cite him as a major influence, and when he agreed to work with us on the record, it was really huge for us."

"Tim O'Brien was perfect for our band. We needed someone who was really focused on the song, focused on an organic approach to making a record," Book says. "The phrase ‘dream producer' gets thrown around, and I hate how it sounds, but it's so true in this case. He was great."

Under O'Brien's deft supervision, the group used The Infamous Stringdusters to showcase the individual talents within the band while also displaying the magic that is created when these accomplished musicians click as a unified ensemble.

Even though the members of The Stringdusters have been recognized for their work as a straight bluegrass group, they have also demonstrated a real proclivity for the kind of improvisational jamming commonly associated with bands categorized as newgrass or jamgrass.

"We're still really exploring new sounds, new textures and learning to improvise with each other and trying to take the music farther," says Book.

As displayed on the album, one of the greatest strengths of The Stringdusters is that all six are also accomplished songwriters, thus giving the group a seemingly endless supply of songs reflecting a broad range of voices and styles.

Book says, "We all write songs, and we all bring them to the band, and we play them, and the one's that work we keep playing."

With these many voices contributing to a singular musical statement, it can sometimes be a real balancing act keeping everyone happy and involved in the creative process. "Collaborating as a band, it's not always the easiest thing figuring out what songs are going to work and keeping everybody happy, but for the most part that's really one of the things we are unified on," says Book.

Along with the songs written by members of the band, the album also features contributions from some of the best songwriters in the industry. "Three Days in July," penned by Jon Weisberger and Mark Simos, is a touching Civil War ballad focused on the famous 1863 conflict in Gettysburg, while "Lovin' You" from singer/songwriter Sarah Siskind is a haunting meditation that steadily builds to an improvised instrumental release, resulting in one of the real musical highlights of the album.

"Lovin' You" has a history with the band that predates the recording of the album. Long a fan-favorite in the group's concerts, there was little doubt that the track needed to be included. "People really like that song," says Book. "We just decided we had to put it on there."

By augmenting the band members' best songwriting work with tracks from some of the industry's most talented writers and by combining the stellar musicianship of the band with O'Brien's considerable skills in the studio, the band has created a potent mix that makes The Infamous Stringdusters easily stand out as one of the best bluegrass albums of the year so far.

The immediate future is looking very bright for The Infamous Stringdusters. The band will be touring throughout the remainder of the year. "For the rest of the summer that's what we are doing, we're playing a lot of big festivals, doing a lot of traveling," says Book. "This fall we'll be buckling down and doing some more hard-touring, some big stretches of touring and doing more clubs."

Book also talks about how the band will continue to try and expand its audience base, "We're just really hoping to take our music further, get in front of some more jam band audiences and maybe play some major country festivals, some more folk festivals."

The Infamous Stringdusters' recent success has also created some new and unique opportunities to showcase the band's music. "We're working now with Lionsgate Films. We're working on getting our music placed in some television or movies," explains Book. "There's possibly some scoring opportunities that might come up for doing some full films with them."

Along with the collaborative work of the ensemble, the individual members are also working on plans of their own. "You're going to see a lot more solo projects coming out of the band just because everybody writes so much, and there's only so many tracks on the record," says Book."

Although the band's brief history has been marked by a constant string of successes, Book seems to think that the best may be yet to come for The Infamous Stringdusters, "We're always trying to figure out exactly who we are or what we are as a band at the moment and always experimenting with new sounds and new textures and new ideas," he says. "I think we're feeling good about the way things are heading."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •