The Infamous Stringdusters eschew bluegrass dogma

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It’s been a big year for The Infamous Stringdusters. The dynamic five-man string band picked up a Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental, started an independent record label, High Country Recordings, and kicked off a sold-out bill in front of 10,000 people at Colorado’s legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre this past summer. But as far as long-term vision, perhaps the biggest thing the band did this year was move to Charlottesville. 

With a Grammy nomination and two Festy sets to their name, The Infamous Stringdusters are reviving local bluegrass while taking steps beyond the genre. Photo by Tom Daly. 

In many ways, the relocation from Nashville is more about musical identity than geography. When the band first emerged in 2007, it was lauded by the Music City bluegrass establishment as the genre’s next great upstart. The group won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year Award and immediately landed gigs at high-profile festivals. But frankly, the Nashville-centered old guard of the bluegrass world can be a stodgy crowd. Purists get miffed when young bands mess with the traditional parameters set by forefathers like Bill Monroe more than a half-century ago. From the beginning, the Stringdusters had bigger ideas about where they wanted to take their music.

“People who love bluegrass take it very seriously,” said the band’s banjo player Chris Pandolfi. “It’s like a religion. But our goal has always been to cross genres and reach new people—fans who aren’t judgmental and are willing to go along with us.” 

On stage, the group is armed with acoustic instruments and virtuosic chops. It’s easy to see what first attracted traditional bluegrass fans. With nimble, quick-picking fingers, the Strindusters trade solos with spitfire finesse and harmonize vocals with high lonesome grace. But the band often applies this roots-based skill set to broader sonic exploration. In current sets the band expands down-home tunes with energetic extended jams and dance-friendly grooves, while also lending fiddle and banjo treatment to a range of covers, including The Police’s “Walking on the Moon” and U2’s “In God’s Country.” Similar to what predecessors Béla Fleck and Sam Bush pioneered in New Grass Revival, and the current sound of contemporaries like Railroad Earth and Yonder Mountain String Band, the Stringdusters push their music beyond conventional boundaries, and enhance their country-hued romps with intelligent improvisation.    

“This year we figured out who we are as a band,” says guitarist Andy Falco. “People are shocked that a string band can rock. There’s nothing we love more than changing someone’s perception of what this music can be.” 

With a broadening sound and a creative approach to moving forward in an evolving music industry, the Stringdusters picked Charlottesville as a new home base. Pandolfi and Falco moved to town at the beginning of year to be close to the band’s management company, The Artist Farm, which operates out of the top floor of the Pink Warehouse building on South Street. Bassist Travis Book is a more recent arrival, as is the band’s sound engineer Drew Becker. Fiddler Jeremy Garrett and dobro player Andy Hall still live in Nashville. 

Although the band spends more than half the year touring across the country, making an impact on the local music landscape has been a priority. In April, the group played a sold-out show at the Jefferson Theater, part of which was used in the recording of the recent live album, We’ll Do It Live —the band’s first release on its new label. Then in October, the band and management hosted the second annual Festy Experience, a three-day festival on the grounds of Devils Backbone Brewery that drew nearly 4,000 people to Nelson County for a range of local and national acts, including Lake Street Drive, David Grisman, and Brett Dennen. Under the Festy umbrella, the Artist Farm has recently started promoting shows in town by bands in line with the festival’s musical aesthetic, and when the Stringdusters’ van is parked at home, the band members who live here have started playing local gigs as a stripped-down side project called the Founding Fathers. All of this has contributed to a revived spirit in Charlottesville’s new-school mountain music scene, which has been a bit disjointed since the closing of the Prism Coffeehouse in 2006. 

“This is an inspirational town for a musician—especially for the kinds of things we want to do,” said Falco. “We’re finding opportunities to help create a new scene.” 

This week the Stringdusters are hitting the road for a four-night run to ring in the New Year. In another act of localism, the band is bringing cello-looping indie tunesmith Wes Swing along for the ride to open shows in New Jersey and Baltimore. The brief tour will culminate in two hometown shows, including a New Year’s Eve bash at the Jefferson Theater and a bonus show the night before at the Southern Café and Music Hall—only available to Jefferson Theater ticket holders. The big New Year’s gig will also feature Swing, along with additional support from the rollicking horns of Richmond’s No BS! Brass Band. Rest assured, it’s not going to be a typical bluegrass show.

“At the end of the day, it matters very little what music is called,” says Pandolfi. “What we’re really trying to create is an experience.”

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