Infamous Stringdusters have always pursued their own muse. While they retain an obvious allegiance to bluegrass, they’ve never felt obligated to always stay within its parameters. Their latest album, Toward the Fray, finds them confronting the issues that have plagued the world over the course of COVID and any number of political perils, doing so in a way that ensures an incisive commitment to speaking out from a personal perspective.
“This record is a culmination of a lot of the thoughts and feelings that we were processing while the pandemic was was happening,” Andy Hall, the band’s and reso-guitarist and founding member notes. “A lot of other things were happening in the world as well, and it was a very weird and bizarre time. We were all home and writing a lot of songs, because that’s how we sort of deal with stuff as musicians. Toward the Fray was the end result of a lot of that, a lot of those thoughts and feelings and things we were experiencing while at home.”
Still, Hall makes it clear that the band still revels in its roots. Prior to that album, the group released A Tribute to Bill Monroe which recently got nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album. Indeed, they’re no strangers to those accolades, having garnered three awards from the IBMA in 2007 at the very outset of their career —— Emerging Artist of the Year, Album of the Year for their album debut, Fork in the Road (tying with J.D. Crowe and the New South’s Lefty’s Old Guitar), and Song of the Year for the album’s title cut. In 2011, they were nominated as Entertainer of the Year by the IBMA and also nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance for their song, Magic No. 9. The following year, they secured their first Grammy win for Best Bluegrass Album.
“Yeah, that was cool,” Hall agrees. “We’ve always kind of been trying to sort of sprint forward in a manner of speaking, not necessarily away from bluegrass, but rather towards just taking everything we learned and integrating it into our music. We’ve always wanted to push things forward, but we never really had a chance to record the type of songs that really did influence us in that way. It’s the stuff that a lot of times we play like backstage, or if we’re just jamming to warm up, or just to have fun when we’re together. It’s a traditional bluegrass repertoire that so many people know from jam sessions and picking around a campfire. Still, the public hadn’t seen a ton of that from us. We’ve always been wanting to write our own music and let all the other influences that we have, like rock and jam band music and jazz and whatever, come through. So we thought it was high time we sort of recorded some of the stuff that has been so influential for us and just put our own stamp on it. We wanted to just play some of those traditional Monroe songs the way we like to play them, and it turned out to be a really a fun project to do.”
Of course, towing the line between a traditional template and more contemporary credence does run the risk of alienating fans on either side of the divide. Hall, however, doesn’t find that a cause for concern.
“To be honest with you, I have no idea how that album was received by the traditional bluegrass audience,” he demurs. “I feel like we’re maybe a bit out of the loop when it comes to the world of traditional bluegrass. However, we love it, we appreciate it., and we play it all the time. We’ve done that our whole lives. I hope that people appreciate it. The one thing that traditional bluegrass fans really like is the musicianship element within bluegrass. So hopefully we were able to, to some degree, click that box and just kind of show that we didn’t just graze over bluegrass and use it as a springboard to do other stuff. We spent years deeply invested in learning how to do it, and so I think that was kind of part of the idea behind the Bill Monroe tribute. I’m not sure people maybe necessarily appreciate how much work and time we really did invest in the world of traditional bluegrass while we were paying our dues. But these days, we just kind of turn our focus to what’s inspiring us in the moment. It was just time to try our hand at recording some traditional stuff. We actually have another project that we’re working on, and though I can’t say exactly what it is, it’s kind of in a similar vein. Ultimately, we’re charting a lot of different courses at the same time. And why not? If we can find the time, we want to do as much as we can.”
In that regard, Hall eagerly offers some insights into how the band’s original material comes together.
“What happens with original albums is that we are all mostly writing on our own,” he allows. “Occasionally, we’ll collaborate on a song, but a lot of times, when we’re at home and when we each have a little downtime, we’re writing songs. That means that an album doesn’t quite reveal itself until we get together for that first song-sharing session. At that point, we see what everyone’s been writing, and then it’s like, we can kind of see if there are some themes that we can pick up on. In the end, the decision comes down to what’s the best song, what we all think are the best songs. And sometimes, that may not involve a lot of bluegrass, although sometimes it might. We’ve spent years trying to develop ways to play rhythms and things that are not necessarily bluegrass, whether it’s a funk beat or a rock beat or whatever. We want to be versatile enough so that we can serve the song the best way possible. There’s no template, and that means you’re sometimes second guessing yourself. Oftentimes, it means we have all these big decisions to make, and there’s no right answer.”
Nevertheless, given all the accolades they’ve received over the course of their career, it would seem they have a certain standard to live up to, a high bar that they set for themselves. For Hall however, it’s not necessarily a factor.
“It doesn’t worry us one way or another,” he insists. “Those are nice, and sometimes you get them, and sometimes you don’t. We’re definitely grateful, because we know many bands don’t get that recognition. It doesn’t mean they’re not good though. We got a Grammy nomination for this Bill Monroe tribute album, and yeah, it’s awesome. But there are a ton of great bluegrass records that I’m sure could have been on that list for a Grammy nod. So the accolades are not the only thing, because mainly what we want to do is just feel like we’re making a difference and doing something good that’s affecting people. We’d like to think that what we do as artists is having some kind of impact. We tend to judge our acceptance on the fact that we see people coming out to the show. Honestly, it’s really just the crowd reaction that we gauge things by. So whether it’s a small crowd or a big crowd, if you see them just loving what you’re doing, then you know you’re doing it right. The only pressure I feel is to show up and give 200% at every show, so that we can give people that feeling that I love when I go see great music. It’s those moments that we want to continue to create.”