There's a massive amalga-
mation buzzing around the music scene, combining musical traditions like bluegrass, country, folk, even reggae. At times, the ascendent popularity of so much of that eclipses the individual genres' legacies. The Infamous Stringdusters, hailing from Nashville, Tenn., work hard to advance traditions, all while maintaining the character of American roots music.
Scene spoke with banjo player Chris Pandolfi about the band's recent successes and their forthcoming album. Those successes have as much to do with the future of bluegrass music as they do with its past. The band — Andy Hall (dobro), Andy Falco (guitar), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), Travis Book (upright bass) and Pandolfi on banjo — is a natural outlet for each member's musical talents and inspirations.
They all got together in the mid-2000s in Nashville, coalescing musically around a mutual love for bluegrass lineage. They also happened to enjoy the music of bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead. The more they played, the more they found that those strains of legacy weren't so different after all. Whole segments of the American roots scene, in fact, have embraced jam band mentalities.
"Bluegrass and sorta jam-oriented music do go really well together, but they didn't at the very start," Pandolfi says. "At the very start, things were very regimented. Guys were creating these new techniques to create new music on instruments that, you know, weren't so genre-specific. It was all about songs. Now, many years later, all of these musical influences come together, and one of them absolutely was the Grateful Dead."
To that end, it's a sure thing that the Infamous Stringdusters are a road band. They've logged countless shows around the world, always seeming to expand on their sound. This year is no exception. Lately, they've been road-testing much of the new album, Let It Go, which drops April 1.
Building off the songcraft behind 2012's Silver Sky, the band members have come together really well and fostered a sense of true collaboration. "In a lot of ways, that's what this new album is all about," Pandolfi says. All writing credits are now shared.
"We were sort of in a long period of soul-searching where the one side of our business — touring — was so successful, and those decisions of what we wanted to do in that arena just came so naturally to us," he continues. "As fans of live music, we had a really clear concept of what we wanted to do. With recording, it was a little bit different. We record much more infrequently. And in recent years, especially, we were in sort of a record label no man's land, you know? We even asked ourselves at times why even record in the first place."
The band was looking for some sort of foothold amid the touring. Let It Go promises a portrait of the band as they are in 2014, which at times is a far cry from their earlier days.
The band began flirting with a broader audience upon release of 2007's Fork in the Road. The album stands tall as a fine example of what bluegrass can become when merged with poppier sensibilities. It was named Album of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Fork was recorded, however, in more piecemeal sessions than how the band works these days. Throughout late 2006 and 2007, the musicians (including former guitarist Chris Eldridge) would each bring their own material to work on in the studio, all of which culminated with the album. The whole thing predated both the band's impending turn toward becoming a beloved road act and the musicians' reach for more collaboration in the studio.
Of course, the Infamous Stringdusters have cultivated a name for themselves via relentless touring and a strong push for improvisational jamming. They've frequented Cleveland over the years, and they always return with an expansion on the last run-through.
"Visiting cities that you've been to a bunch of times before, and now that you've grown as a band musically, it's just cool to try to give something new to the fans," Pandolfi says. "For us right now, that includes a lot of new music."
He reflects, saying that it's an interesting thing to watch songs grow over time. Some of the stuff they're releasing on this new album will surely blossom into jam titans in the coming years. Other tunes will vault into the upper echelon of fan favorites. However it all turns out, he says, the plan remains fixed on constant growth.
In 2011, the band released We'll Do It Live, which similarly presents a portrait of where the guys were at that point in time. Doubly fun, however, is the opportunity to hear the band works its improvisational prowess. Songs like "Ain't No Way of Knowing" capture that relentless form of energy that fans clamor for on tour.
Looking back, the release of that album (which was culled from shows played that spring) signified the band's most recent turning point. It was the first album on their own label, High Country Recordings. It also spoke to the musicians' own desires to keep things loose and jammy onstage. When they first began playing together, that eventual improv incarnation wasn't even the spoken goal, really. They were just trying to play good music.
As time went on, of course, they accomplished that and then some. The influences that prodded them to push boundaries built up organically.
In the band's present state, that's sort of how they qualify their own goals and successes. They talk about the music pre- and post-show. They review the jams that each musician really enjoyed. They work toward that nameless sense of wonder that accompanies the most plugged-in five-part odysseys they can create.
"When music is going, it's like the machine is on. And when the machine is on, things happen, you know? I think that's how we work as a band," Pandolfi says. "When the music gets going, that's not a time necessarily to just recreate something that we already know how to do. That's actually when hopefully the magic happens — when not only do you get that one-of-a-kind, inspired version of a song that is predicated on the people in the room, but you also get that song in a form that maybe it's never been in before."
That's a skill, often wholly separate from the songwriting that takes place in quieter moments. And it's a skill that the guys in Infamous Stringdusters, from their disparate places of origin across the country, have spent years honing.
Roots music is certainly having more than a bit of a resurgence these days. With bands like Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers selling out massive amphitheaters and racking up Grammy nods, it seems to many that the entire Americana scene is becoming oversaturated. That's something that Pandolfi and Co. have considered, but, in the end, they're simply being true to the music they know and love.
"It's funny. The musicians don't really feel that way [about the sell-out narrative]. Not only do we embrace the notion of exposure, but a lot of those guys — particularly Steve Martin, that guy is an awesome musician — are incredibly talented," Pandolfi says. "It's not music that you can just kinda moonlight in. It's something that really demands a lot of time and energy, technical skills, and all those things."
Such dedication is on full display during this current tour. And selections from the band's upcoming album show an intense push toward the past, toward the traditions that first sustained these musicians as they were awakening to certain sounds. There's progress in introspection.
"We're just trying to become more essentially ourselves," Pandolfi says.
The Infamous Stringdusters with Fruition, 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 21, The Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd.,
216- 383-1124. Tickets: $16, beachlandballroom.com.