In recent years, after seemingly leaving the traditional bluegrass scene, the Infamous Strindusters have made a conscious effort to show the traditional sound to a more diverse audience. Banjoist Chris Pandolfi of course created waves with his article introducing the big tent bluegrass philosophy, but that big tent seemed to focus on the outer corners rather than in the middle until recently. With the establishment of the Bluegrass Generals, a rotating cast of some of Jam Grass’s biggest stars centered by Pandolifi and dobro player Andy Hall, traditional war horses are now being recognized and heard by a diverse audience that was more accustomed to Leftover Salmon than Danny Paisley. Continuing this trend, the Stringdusters most recent EP A Tribute to Bill Monroe is exactly how it sounds, yet not without downfalls that may not be perceptible to the Stringdusters audience, but will be recognized by fans that treat the 1940s sound as gospel.
The album begins with a hit of adrenaline with “Sweet Blue Eyed Darling,” a version that is instrumentally superb, and vocally strong, yet too polished to allude to the 1940s harmonies. The call and response vocals on the chorus sound closer to doowop or 1950s pop than the high lonesome sound that made bluegrass become such a breath of fresh air when it is done right and with the right intentions in mind.
While I admire Travis Book’s singing on many original songs going back to their first albums, his timbre, phrasing, and note selection again do not fit a Monroe tribute on “Dark as the Night.” Adding to the issues is the over-swung rhythm with Falco’s rhythm being too choppy and strummy simultaneously giving the song an unnatural feel. The trading of the verse and chorus returning to and concluding with Garrett’s flawlessly complex right hand seems like a great idea in theory, but giving Falco the second to last section cuts all momentum at the heels.
It seems like some members more than others seem more comfortable with a return to a more traditional sound and song selection. Fiddle player Jeremy Garrett, known in bluegrass circles much before the Stringdusters were even formed, seems to be in his natural habitat. His kick off break for “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight” is full of attack and groove. Andy Hall, possibly due to his work in Bluegrass Generals, is able to mimic a slide guitar country break wonderfully on this track as well. Contrasting their comfortability, Andy Falco, although he is one of my favorite guitarist seems lost and restrained. Possibly a strange production choice, his breaks seem to halt the momentum that the other instrumentalists have created.
While many of these are subjective musicianship choices, there is one egregious song selection that completely ignores their band make up and shuns a traditional commandment. Ever since Jesse Cobb left the band, the Stringdusters have moved to a 5 piece without a mandolin player. That is all well and good, but without a mandolin player there is zero reason to pick “Toy Heart” as one of your 7 songs for this tribute. Even making a Monroe tribute without a mandolin player seems confusing in retrospect. Andy Hall tries his best to mimic the iconic song’s kick off, but it falls flat. To add insult to injury the song feels rushed and the sudden ending symbolizes a band possibly trying to get in and out of the studio as soon as possible.
Unsurprisingly, the album’s best moments come in the instrumental “Old Dangerfield,” one of my favorites, and a song that has become a showstopper for many instrumentalists from David Grier to Michael Cleveland. Here, each instrumentalist is allowed much more room to roam and it shows. Falco stays within the head for much of his break, but his flawless right hand and tone make it by far his most impressive moment on the record. Hall soars around the dobro like a man possessed, and Pandolfi’s idiosyncratic style works to perfection floating around the melody like a bird of prey.
While it seems I am overly critical of this album, I can also recognize its importance for bluegrass as a whole. The more opportunity jam grass fans have a chance to hear these war horses, the higher the odds that will slowly but surely move to the center of the big tent, which would be a major boon for bluegrass festivals around the country. While its execution leaves something to be desired, especially vocally, it is a great introduction to what many of us call the “real deal.”
While the Stringdusters didn’t quite ace the landing of venturing into the past, there is a podcast that has. Whenever I have a chance, I will plead with all lovers of bluegrass and country to begin or revisit Tyler Mahan Coe’s brilliant podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones. While the first season took seemingly disparate stories into cohesive themes, the second season takes those themes to their apex by focusing on the career of the greatest country singer ever: George Jones. With historical allusions to topics as diverse as the history of pinball legality, to Spanish bull fighting, to the Whiskey Rebellion, Coe’s research and narrative skills have improved by leaps and bounds since the first season. Equally attributed to his new research toys, such as the Country Music Hall of Fame’s archives, and his growth as a researcher, the second season reaches into the depths of one of country music’s most troubled yet alluring characters. Every bluegrass, country, and history fan should catch up to the most recent episode yesterday.