“High country.” That’s the term the Infamous Stringdusters are using these days to describe their music, but since many listeners will struggle to know exactly what that means, it may more familiarly be called a blend of progressive bluegrass, contemporary country and ‘70’s pop.
Whatever it is, if you like your bluegrass painted with broad strokes in a big tent, with lots of influences stirred together in a big pot of musical soup, you’re going to love their latest release, Silver Sky: Deluxe Edition. If you are more of a bluegrass purist/traditionalist, you may not be quite as drawn to the music, because as Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice so aptly put it in their IBMA-winning Song of the Year, these songs are a far cry from Lester and Earl.
It’s not just the music that leans to the progressive side; the whole Stringdusters act and presentation pushes bluegrass boundaries – they plug in, employ lighting effects in their shows, and are regularly featured on the jam band festival circuit around the nation. But in the same way of all fine bluegrass pickers, these men – Travis Book on the bass, Andy Falco’s guitar, Jeremy Garrett’s fiddle, Andy Hall on the Dobro and Chris Pandolfi on the banjo – are all highly-accomplished players, and they definitely don’t mind showing what they’ve got.
Originally released in March as an 11-song collection, the Stringdusters decided to re-release Silver Sky this fall as a “Deluxe Edition,” with an extra bonus track and an additional 13-cut live disc entitled We’ll Do It Live, the songs on which were taken from two 2011 performances. In solidarity with the few brick-and-mortar retailers who continue to stock music CDs, the band is only making this new edition of the project available in stores. A list can be found on the ‘Dusters’ web site.
There are some major stand-outs on the studio recording. The Hitchhiker features a traditional-sounding lead vocal in the Dan Tyminski vein, with tight harmonies. The song leaves room for everybody to shine, first with dueling banjo and fiddle, compliments of Pandolfi and Garrett, then later with ominous fiddle behind the mandolin and Dobro.
The Place That I Call Home would fit neatly on country Top 40 radio, which is a notion that likely doesn’t please many bluegrass fans. But it’s true; if you called it something from Little Big Town or Luke Bryan, it would almost certainly be a country hit. The longing-for-home subject matter is the stuff country fans love to hear, and the arrangement fits with the more “country-sounding” songs of the country-rock of today’s country sound, which is something that should actually appeal to fans lamenting the loss of the “real country” in country music.
The progressive bluegrass of Night on the River puts one in the mind of the Emmit-Nershi Band, and if the harmonies and sharp playing of Drew Emmit, Bill Nershi and Co. impress you, you ought to enjoy this one.
Interestingly, the last couple of the songs on the album feel a little out of sync with the rest of the record. Even the most liberal of bluegrass progressives would be hard-pressed to classify Fire, Walking on the Moon and He’s Gone as derivative of the genre. Walking on the Moon, despite the Dobro and fiddle, could have appeared on any album by the band Chicago from the 70’s or 80’s. Its horns are absolutely reminiscent of Saturday in the Park, and the easy bounce of the song might have come straight from the pop charts of 1973.
The album’s closer, The Grateful Dead’s He’s Gone, maybe sums up who the Infamous Stringdusters are at this time – a diverse, multi-talented group of guys who aren’t satisfied to be tied to any one (or more) styles of music. To call them a bluegrass band, or progressive bluegrass, isn’t accurate. Nor are they country, pop, or any similar label. I suppose if one must label, they could be placed under that broad tent of Americana, but it seems pretty clear that the band is not interested in labels.
The bonus of the Deluxe Edition of Silver Sky is the addition of the We Do It Live disc, which contains 13 tracks from two shows recorded in 2011. Maybe it’s from the live recording where the Stringdusters should be judged, rather than from their studio projects, for it’s here where the band shows what they can truly do in their playing, and why they are oft-touted as a progressive bluegrass band. Everybody shows off in long, extended solos with nimble, accomplished ease. Outstanding showmanship can be found on Masquerade, and Andy Falco’s guitar on Well, Well is stunning.
Essentially, whether or not one might enjoy Silver Sky: Deluxe Edition and the Infamous Stringdusters really comes down to this – if you are a “progressive” who likes the challenges of broadening the scope of bluegrass music into new and daring directions, you are in for a treat. A lot of vocal and instrumental talent is heard here, with great creativity. If you prefer the old-time sounds of traditional tones and styles in your bluegrass, you’ll do better to look elsewhere.
In any case, Silver Sky: Deluxe Edition shows off one of progressivism’s most popular bands, and if you’re undecided about which side of the fence you’re on, then take the time to gaze up into the heavens at Silver Sky. You will enjoy yourself.