Earned or not, road musicians have a reputation for living the sort of lifestyle 13-year-old boys fantasize about: a night-owl existence of nonstop goofing off. There’s a lot they could learn from the Infamous Stringdusters. The five guys in this forward-thinking acoustic outfit have figured out how to mature as a band by having their fun, onstage and off.
One day, they’ll play a show for fans. The next, they’ll bond with those same folks by skiing or hiking or floating a river. And the Festy Experience, which the Stringdusters host annually in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, is a four-day outdoor party whose year-round preparation requires everything from selecting bands and craft beers to blazing 10 kilometers of run-able mountain trail.
Of course, trails have to be cut and recut. It’s the Stringdusters’ albums that hold their most enduring efforts. On their fifth studio album, Let It Go, they’ve teased out memorable melodies that serve as springboards for their wild, live jams.
It just so happens that the group’s banjo player, Chris Pandolfi, has a knack for explaining the industriousness behind their art.
CMT Edge: It’s clear from this new album that you all put a lot of work into the songwriting and arranging. Why are those pieces of the puzzle so important to a band that’s best known for live, virtuosic improvisation?
Pandolfi: Our show evolved out of the love of playing together — playing, picking, jamming, singing and just bringing the energy that was there when we would do that thing together for the crowds. That’s the thing that’s sustained us all these years. That’s the thing that’s gotten so much attention. So we focused really hard on that.
And we entered into a years-long conversation about what will be the thing that brings lots of people in the door and creates art that will relate to more people. And the answer is songs. I mean, all great musicians are remembered primarily for their songs. All music that lasts is predicated on the song craft. We remember so many great musicians, but we remember them all in a context. For us, we want that context to be our songs.
The liner notes of your earlier albums indicated which members wrote which songs. But with the album before this, you switched to sharing songwriting credit between the five of you. What difference has that made?
Sharing the songwriting takes the pressure off of individuals trying to have their songs on the album, and it allows us as a band to focus more on what is the best material, period. It fosters a real spirit of collaboration and allows us to embrace the fact that … though they’re largely initially written by one or maybe two members in most cases, what really makes them essentially Stringdusters music is the arrangement process.
When it comes to vocal arrangements, “Let It Go” is the closest I’ve heard the Stringdusters get to Southern gospel quartet style singing.
I think that that’s something about our band that’s unique. We have such a wide range of influences. The gospel quartet, a cappella, whatever you want to call it, I think that comes mostly from Jeremy [Garrett, the band’s fiddle player]. He grew up singing in church.
I think as we get older, the five of us, we’re able to shed more and more preconceived notions about what this music is or means and just really dig into what we feel like is good, has meaning. … It’s great to be able to embrace one guy’s thing and have everybody dig into it like that. It’s derivative of that gospel style, but in some way, it’s our own spin on it. And that’s sort of the M.O. of the band.
I doubt anybody’s going to confuse the Infamous Stringdusters with a Southern gospel group — not with your focus on environmental conservation and living an active outdoor lifestyle. Were the ski tours your first venture in that vein?
They were, actually. … In our second or third year as a band, we went out west and connected enough mountain town dots to co-opt the term “ski tour.”
You spend all this time and energy playing this mysterious game of “How do we get more people in the door?” … All of the sudden, there was this other thing going on. We were skiing with our fans. We had one or two really memorable days where we were able to organize a group of 10 or 15 fans, play one night in a town, and now it’s time to meet up the next day, ski and play again that next night.
I think most managers in the music business will tell you that environmentalism doesn’t sell. (laughs) I get that, of course. … We embraced it because even if someone does tell you that environmentalism or such causes aren’t a good way to attract attention, you know, what is a good way to attract attention is to just be yourself.
We’ve found that working with these outdoor groups and creating these outdoor-centric events — ski tour, river tour, beach tour or whatever — is something that is true to us. And when you do something that’s true to yourself, people really relate to it.
Do you feel like you’ve tapped into an existing audience or attracted a new one?
I think it’s definitely a little of both. … If you look out at a Stringdusters crowd, it’s not a bunch of indie fans trying to find out what the next band is. It’s much more a group of lifestyle people who are plugged into a pretty good balance of living and working and taking care of themselves and the world around them. They’re a pretty conscious group. I mean, ultimately we say sometimes that we wanna try and play for the people that we would enjoy being around.