The Infamous Stringdusters have always done things their own way. Even in their pre-Dusters days, when they performed as Wheel Hoss, this accomplished group of young pickers had a knack for taking things in a different direction.
When their sound began to drift away from the mainstream of bluegrass, they set out to build their own audience, finding a hearty welcome among devotees of the emerging jamgrass scene. Now the band has built a substantial following that allows them to tour in clumps instead of heading out every weekend for short runs, and they now headline their own annual music festival, The Festy Experience.
For their seventh album, they have gone against all advice the music business offers and released a record on which none of their members sing lead. Instead, the band has invited some of their favorite female vocalists to handle the vocals on a set of new songs written within the band.
Ladies & Gentlemen boasts contributions from a dozen of the top female voices in bluegrass, Americana, and alternative string music, settled atop the groove created by the five gentlemen of The Infamous Stringdusters.
Bass player Travis Book told us recently that the idea evolved fairly naturally after the ‘Dusters were tasked with providing accompaniment for his wife, Sarah Siskind, one of the more gifted songwriters in her generation of acoustic musicians.
“A couple of things inspired it. One thing we realized was that after having a couple of female voices sit in with the band, we found that we really enjoyed the sound and the aesthetic. We did a bunch of sessions with Sarah and found that creating music for a female voice offered us a new challenge that everyone enjoyed.
Our band is kind of a testosterone-filled jam-based show, and this allowed us to soften the edges and give our music a different flavor. Plus we are really inspired by these singers and the music they make. It should be a really fun year touring with some of these ladies when we can.”
Since the band wrote the material, it still feels like a Stringdusters album, even without the familiar sound of Travis, Jeremy Garrett, and Andy Hall’s voices. They also brought in a producer they hadn’t worked with before, Chris Goldsmith, which Book said was suggested by their management. It was Chris that convinced the guys to try plugging the acoustic instruments into guitar amplifiers to find some different colors.
“Chris has a lot of experience with large collaboration projects. When we talked on the phone he kind of revealed himself as the right guy. He had a really great engineer, and between the two of them they urged us to try a lot of new things.
He had a unique vision for this record, and helped create something that sounds totally unique. Running dobro, fiddle, and banjo though a Fender Twin – going for something that was retro – was unique, and the amplifier tone allowed the banjo and dobro to work with more sustain, plus it gave us the plate reverb vibe.
This record really challenged a lot of our preconceptions, pushed us out of our comfortable patterns. These completely different voices and these new tones was a really mind-expanding experience for our band.”
So how did it turn out? Your answer may depend in part on how and which of the guest vocalists you especially prefer. The whole project has the vamp-based feel the ‘Dusters do best with grooves that depend as much on rock and blues elements as they do on bluegrass.
Things start out with Joan Osborne on Listen with a slow rock feel, followed by country songstress Lee Ann Womack singing I Believe, a country/bluegrass ballad extolling the virtues of the middle of the road. Sarah Jarosz is featured on Won’t Be Long, a pure Stringdusters song that is elevated by her plaintive voice.
A surprise choice is Joss Stone, known for her successful pop and blues recordings. She is a friend of ‘Dusters guitarist Andy Falco, who wrote Have A Little Faith for her to perform on the album. This performance is a bit out of the realm of the typical alt-bluegrass band, but is in keeping with Stone’s consistently excellent work.
Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek fame turns in a fine reading of See How Far You’ve Come, where you can hear the amplified banjo and reso-guitar tones Travis mentioned. You hear it as well on Old Whiskey Bottle, sung by Della Mae’s Celia Wordsmith whose smoky voice fits this bluesy song well.
Travis said that another aspect of this recording sessions that was new for them was the fact that the band wrote, arranged, and recorded their parts separately from the singers.
“Because of schedules or timelines, we had to send most of the tracks off. And it was really fun to hear them come back. In retrospect, it was kind of nice to have the vocalists record away from our influence.
It was really surprising how seamlessly the two concepts came together. Every tune is so distinct and unique, and they all fit so perfectly with their voices.”
Nicki Bluhm works many of the same festivals as the Stringdusters, and her band and theirs have become close friends. Her contribution, Still The One, combines her slightly girlish voice with an acoustic setting that sets it off perfectly. She and her group, The Gamblers, will be touring with the ‘Dusters on part of their current tour.
Bluegrass star Claire Lynch sings Ladders In The Sky, the album’s first single. Her voice is lovely as always, and it is interesting to hear it in such a different format. Mary Chapin Carpenter is tasked with Coming Back To You, another bluesy piece driven by fiddle and dobro.
Run To Heaven is sung by Aoife O’Donovan, with an arrangement reminiscent of her acclaimed work with Crooked Still, but with amplified banjo. The piece is held together with a traditional-sounding riff played by the banjo and reso-guitar, and hearing them with just a touch of distortion offers a new feel. O’Donovan’s voice is perfect.
Rock and Roll utilizes the sweet sound of Abigail Washburn, against a ragtime-ish accompaniment. It’s a swingy tune that also features Jen Hartswick’s trumpet. Jen sits in on the album’s final track, Hazosphere, a jammy instrumental, as well. No way the ‘Dusters could release a project without at least one!
To perform these songs on the road this year, the band will be including female-fronted acts as openers as much as possible. Della Mae will do some dates with them, as will Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys, and Mandolin Orange.
Ladies & Gentlemen is released on Compass Records, something else new for the Stringdusters who had been producing their recent records independently of late. Book said that the guys decided that they could best get this unique project out using a label.
“We’ve been talking with Compass about working together for about five years.
We had sort of experimented with putting stuff out on our own, and retaining ownership. That had advantages and disadvantages, and we really wanted to make sure that this record could be heard by as many people as possible. We just felt that Compass, and their position in the market, makes them the perfect fit for us and this project.”
The contrast between the many different styles these ladies present makes for a very enjoyable listening experience, unified by the musicianship and songwriting skills of The Infamous Stringdusters. I would expect this album to be warmly welcomed by fans of the band, those who follow these talented ladies, and anyone willing to open themselves to new ways of hearing the instruments of the bluegrass band as a vocal accompaniment vehicle.
Well done, Ladies & Gentlemen.