Last fall, as a keynote speaker at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass conference in Nashville, Chris Pandolfi acknowledged that the Infamous Stringdusters had no interest in attempting to reach all bluegrass fans with their music.
“We’re not trying to reposition old bluegrass fans,” he said at the time. “We’re trying to find new ones.”
The music on Silver Sky, the Dusters’ latest project, backs up Pandolfi’s remarks. It isn’t for everybody. Truth be told, bluegrass purists will find very little to like here. But fans of jam bands – and not just jam grass – will find plenty to bounce along with on this record. And if, in the process, bands like the Dusters, the Hillbenders and Leftover Salmon expose some new fans to bluegrass, that can’t be a bad thing, right?
While none of the songs come close to the bluegrass feel of Poor Boy’s Delight, a Dusters’ hit of a few years back, there are a few tunes that can squeeze into a moderately sized bluegrass tent.
My favorite, far and away, is The Hitchhiker, which the band worked up with Jon Weisberger, one of bluegrass music’s most prolific songwriters. (He has four co-writes on this project alone!) Hitchhiker is a classic song about needing to get away, as proclaimed in the chorus:
“Anywhere your restless wheels are rollin’ is better off than stayin’ here alone.”
The melody is powered by the interplay of Andy Hall’s dobro and Jeremy Garrett’s fiddle — until the song is interrupted and extended beyond five minutes with a minimalist jam that probably comes across much better live than on the CD. Still, when this song is barreling along and Garrett is singing, it’s a winner.
Night on the River should be a festival favorite, too. It’s another Weisberger co-write, but with more of a mid-1970s country rock feel. In fact, after several listens I found myself hunting down old Firefall videos and audio files on the Internet.
Sounding like someone else? There’s a lot of that here, from Supertramp on Like I Do, to Little Feat on the funky piano and horn-infused Fire. But that’s not always a bad thing, especially when you know your way around fretboards and fingerboards the way these guys do.
Like I said, this isn’t bluegrass. But it is energetic and fun, and in the right hands – and to the right ears – Silver Sky could be a gateway to Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers or the Earl Scruggs Revue. And that’s close enough that some fans might actually stumble into the bluegrass tent, like what they hear and decide to stick around.