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The Infamous Stringdusters Biography

Stand for those things in which you truly, passionately believe to the depth of your core: the integrity of your work, the way you choose to do business, the people with whom you surround yourself. How and where you live your life.

A bit of a young person’s boast, that.

Harder to live up to when the compromises of career and adulthood come calling. Which makes The Infamous Stringdusters’ insistence on living out those hard choices — and taking control of their own business — all the more remarkable.

As is the constant, relentless, revelatory evolution of their music.

Pick-ups, in-ear monitors, lighting effects. Start there, for this is an acoustic band, right? Their live show isn’t a concert, it’s a performance, their music flirting constantly with risk and reward, the grip of the moment taking them way beyond the barriers of bluegrass, way out of that safe harbor where they began and into the deep waters of inspiration and innovation.

And they’re only beginning to grapple with the possibilities of all this freedom.

High Country, The Stringdusters have taken to calling that music, and it fits. “The High Country,” says banjo virtuoso Chris Pandolfi, winding his more complicated, carefully reasoned thought to a close, “is a beautiful, inspiring spot, wherever it may be.” Yes, exactly. High Country is also the name of the record label created by The Infamous Stringdusters, and the centering spirit behind everything they do.

Seven years ago the band’s first incarnation came together in one of the doorway jam sessions, which are the hallmark of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual convention. Their debut, Fork In The Road, tied with J.D. Crowe’s release for IBMA Album of The Year. Now, banjo player J.D. Crowe is a bluegrass legend, and in the insular world of bluegrass legends don’t tie with newcomers. The Stringdusters also won awards for Song of the Year and IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year. Those are heavy honors if you play bluegrass. Heavy honors. Their third album, Things That Fly, produced a Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental.

Stand together, for these Stringdusters are gifted musicians, knit together: Travis Book (bass), Andy Falco (guitar), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), Andy Hall (dobro), and Chris Pandolfi (banjo). Separately they can play, and play with anybody; together they have seasoned into a formidable, groundbreaking live act. Which is hard to do in these sated times.

“I think the beauty of what’s going on here is that the hard part is over,” Pandolfi says. “I think we all have the universal feeling that we will never find a playing situation that will be anything like this, even close to as satisfactory. And the beautiful thing is that when we came together it was a musical attraction. We’re five very different guys in the band, but there’s just such camaraderie, and that, above all else, is the thing that makes the music.”

They’ve been working up to this attack for a couple years now, but the key seems to have been recording their newest album, Silver Sky, with Billy Hume at the controls. True enough Hume started out on mandolin, but he’s best known for working with hip hop acts like Ludacris, Nas, and Ying Yang Twins. “He brings this new vision of how the music can sound,” Pandolfi explains. “And that informs the way that we perform in the studio, it informs the way the music comes together.”

“He’d never miked a dobro before,” Andy Hall says, “and we wanted that.”

Wait. That doesn’t mean they’re crafting arcane, challenging music, fit only for critics and pickers who can keep up with them. Not at all. They’re writing songs about the life they have embraced, simple as that.

“The type of people who listen to the music that we play, and are coming to the shows, are also people who go on epic hikes, or ski, or ride mountain bikes, or get out and experience life from all angles,” says fiddler Jeremy Garrett. “The new song on our latest record called ‘Night On The River’ has been going out to a lot of people. Rafters come up after the show to talk about it. My sister, she loves to go catfishing, sits on the banks of the river, singing that song every time she drives out to fish. The music sort of sets up the background for your life.

Stand.

Stand at the crossroads with The Infamous Stringdusters, for they are not a bluegrass band. Well, of course they are. In part; they play bluegrass instruments, and can certainly hold a bluegrass audience. But The Stringdusters are heirs to the transgressive tradition of bluegrass which links them to the Earl Scruggs Revue, New Grass Revival, Hot Rise, Nickel Creek, and Leftover Salmon. They are also heirs to the broader cultural tradition of rock ‘n ‘roll. Which means, depending upon which band member you speak with, nods to
Black Sabbath and the Grateful Dead, The Band and U2.

The point here is that in a wireless world nobody comes to music, even music as conservative as bluegrass, in isolation. Especially The Stringdusters, who came to bluegrass late and almost by accident. Andy Hall started at the Berklee School of Music as another shredding guitarist from upstate New York. A hand injury led him to the dobro, and the dobro led him to bluegrass. In fact, only fiddler Jeremy Garrett has a formal bluegrass pedigree, and it’s from Idaho, not Appalachia. “I remember listening to Flatt & Scruggs, because my dad was a bluegrass musician,” Garrett says. “But at the same time I was listening to Guns N’ Roses and U2. And those are, for me, equally important influences.”

And those influences have begun to seep into The Stringdusters’ music: a phrase here, a cover there, a quotation or a sound or just the cheek to try all of those things at once.

Stand.

Stand for something. The Infamous Stringdusters stand for the notion that, important though their music is, it’s only part of a full life. And so most of them have decamped from Nashville, where the best bluegrass players can be gobbled down the maw of session work and songwriting appointments, and settled in Charlottesville, Virginia, the musical oasis pioneered by the Dave Matthews Band.

There, the band has found a home. “We never had a hometown crowd in Nashville,” Pandolfi says. “That’s a tough town to have a hometown crowd in. Charlottesville, from the minute we got there, it seemed much more like home. That’s an important thing, for a band to have a hometown crowd and to have a place that you can rely on.”

They have returned the love, hosting The Festy Experience, a weekend festival (the third is scheduled for October 5-7, 2012) in Nelson County, VA. “We try to create that intersection between lifestyle and music,” Pandolfi says. “You get a 5k run, you’ve got a mountain bike race, you’ve got a rock climbing wall, lots of yoga, hikes. Lots of sustainable food operations and craft beer vendors. And just a general sort of over-riding acknowledgement that these things are important and they make for a great quality experience over the long-term. It’s about more than just trying to usher as many people in as possible.” Between sets and soundchecks band members will participate in some of those events, and, if Pandolfi gets his wish, he’ll have a chance to do some fly fishing in the bargain.

Even Garrett’s father is beginning to understand. “I invited him to The Festy last year, and he hung out all week, helped me with the gospel set on Sunday, and just had a blast. That’s kind of the epitome of us, that’s the culmination of all our efforts, at The Festy. He was able to see our crowd react to us, and how many people were there, so I think he got over some concerns that he might have had about the actual music. But I think he’d still prefer to hear Flatt & Scruggs.”

Stand.

Stand, and wear comfortable shoes (or no shoes at all). Because nobody sits at an Infamous Stringdusters show.

The Deadly Gentlemen Biography

Roll Me, Tumble Me, the Deadly Gentlemen’s third album and Rounder Records debut, boasts ten winsome examples of their playfully irreverent, vibrantly rootsy songcraft. Although the Boston-based quintet employs acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and double bass—a lineup that’s usually associated with traditional bluegrass—their music defies conventional genre restrictions, filtering a bottomless assortment of influences through their own decidedly distinctive songwriting sensibility and uncanny instrumental rapport. The result is timelessly resonant music that’s rooted in tradition, yet effortlessly contemporary and boundlessly entertaining.

Throughout Roll Me, Tumble Me, such beguilingly melodic, emotionally evocative tunes as “I Fall Back,” “Bored of the Raging,” “A Faded Star” and “Beautiful’s Her Body” match banjoist/vocalist/songwriter Greg Liszt’s lilting melodies and pointedly poetic lyrics with his bandmates’ eloquent musicianship and unconventional vocal blend to bring his compositions to life, reflecting the unique individual and collective backgrounds that have contributed to the Deadly Gentlemen’s evolution from quirky side-project to singular musical force.

Roll Me, Tumble Me also points to the Deadly Gentlemen’s rich musical history by reinventing three songs that appeared in very different versions on prior releases: the witty title number and the rousing “Working,” both from the band’s self-released debut The Bastard Masterpiece; and the bittersweet “It’ll End Too Soon,” which Liszt originally recorded as a member of the acclaimed alt-bluegrass outfit Crooked Still.

The Deadly Gentlemen’s members had all led eventful individual musical lives before they joined forces. In addition to touring and recording extensively with Crooked Still, Greg Liszt attended college at Yale and earned a Ph.D. from M.I.T. in Molecular Biology. His innovative four-finger picking technique helped him to win a place as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s live band for Springteen’s Seeger Sessions tour.

Mike Barnett began his career as a child fiddle prodigy, touring with bluegrass legend Jesse McReynolds at the tender age of 15. He’s also studied at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music and excelled as a jazz violinist, while his world-class talents have won him gigs as a member of the David Grisman Quintet and the Tony Trischka Band.

Bassist Sam Grisman has played professionally since his teens, having learned to play bluegrass and other styles at the feet of his father, seminal mandolinist David Grisman. Sam’s uniquely assertive approach to double bass, which combines traditional and modern elements, has been known to inspire audience members to play air standup bass.

Mandolinist Dominick Leslie is another former child prodigy, having achieved a series of career milestones before he’d reached the age of 16. More recently, he’s won considerable attention for his live appearances with banjoist Noam Pikelny, the Infamous Stringdusters, and the Grant Gordy Quartet.

In contrast to his bandmates’ backgrounds in acoustic music, guitarist Stash (short for Stanislaw) Wyslouch grew up on heavy metal before submerging himself in bluegrass and country. His history in hard rock still manifests itself in his propensity for wringing unexpected sounds out of his guitar and screaming at the top of his vocal range. His resume also includes membership in Eric Robertson and the Boston Boys as well as Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers.

When Liszt first hooked up with Barnett and Grisman in 2008 to record the first Deadly Gentlemen project The Bastard Masterpiece, the music they came up with was an experimental mix of spoken-word vocals and banjo-driven grooves that Liszt now describes as “Eminem meets the Soggy Bottom Boys.” By the time the current lineup solidified in time to record the 2011 followup Carry Me to Home, the group’s style had begun to evolve towards the sound that’s featured on Roll Me, Tumble Me, reflecting the five musicians’ wide range of interests and diverse assortment of personalities.

“It’s very much been a developing project, and it’s evolved into something that feels more natural and less like an experiment,” says Liszt, explaining, “It started as an arty side-project to our other bands, and the songs on The Bastard Masterpiece were basically old bluegrass songs that we turned into extended poems with groove-based banjo music. There was a big evolution when we recorded Carry Me to Home, which had kind of a gang-vocal style, with all sorts of coordinated shouting, rapping and singing. Now we’ve evolved from there into something that’s a little closer to conventional song structure.”

The Deadly Gentlemen’s growth into a formidable creative unit and engaging, uplifting live act—along with the expanded fan base and growing critical acclaim that have accompanied the band’s musical development—eventually led to the busy musicians making a conscious choice to commit the bulk of their energies to the group.

“There was a point in 2011 when we all sat down and decided that we wanted to make the Deadly Gentlemen our main focus, and that we needed to go on tour and get our chops up and figure out the best way to deliver this music. We all agreed that if we all just got into the van, it would go somewhere, and it has.”

Liszt and his bandmates handled Roll Me, Tumble Me‘s production chores in collaboration with noted Nashville engineer Erick Jaskowiak, cutting the instrumental tracks in a makeshift studio set up for the occasion in a house in Eclectic, Alabama, before bringing the tracks home to Boston to record their vocals.

“This album definitely feels like a big turning point for us,” Liszt observes. “I think it shows that we’d done a little bit of maturing, but at the same time I think that we’ve still managed to maintain some of the craziness of our earlier records. We really went through every song and every performance with a fine tooth comb, to make sure that all of the pieces fit together, which is something that we’d never done before.

“One of our main priorities on this album was to capture our serious side and our humorous side, because both of those things are equally important to us,” Liszt asserts. “On its most fundamental level, music has to be fun, and we always have a lot of fun when we play together. But at the same time, we want the music and lyrics to have some substance in the way that they speak to people on an emotional level.”

Indeed, Roll Me, Tumble Me neatly demonstrates that the Deadly Gentlemen’s remarkable creative chemistry is too eclectic and unruly to be contained within a single genre, and that the joy and intensity that they put into their work is contagious.

“The Deadly Gentlemen is very much a group of personalities, and everybody in the band is highly individualistic,” Liszt notes, adding, “Sometimes being in this band feels like being in the kind of sitcom you would come up with if you were trying to fictionalize a band with five extremely exaggerated characters. It definitely adds a lot of interest to our daily life, and there are moments where I wonder if I should be acting more like a dad. But there’s definitely a very deep fellowship—some might say bromance—between the five of us.

“We all have similar tastes, and all five of us have chosen a similar sort of life path,” he concludes. “We’ve all chosen a certain commitment to this kind of music and the lifestyle that goes along with it, and we’re all very much on board with the mission of the Deadly Gentlemen. We’re committed to being in the kind of band that tours fulltime and makes a series of albums over a long period of time, and going wherever that path takes us.