Living with infamy: The Stringdusters’ ascent

Photo courtesy of Tom Daly 2012

“Jamgrass” is hardly new. The careers of genre pioneers Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band span decades. The average dreadlocked festival attendee can easily name two or three jamming bluegrass perennials and the proliferation of boundary-pushing pickers shows no signs of slowing.

In recent years, an exciting new class of down-home improvisers has emerged. Arguably the cream of this fresh crop, the Infamous Stringdusters represent the next stage of neo-grass evolution. Faithful to the roots of bluegrass but equally attracted to the sonic journeys taken by bands like the Grateful Dead, the Stringdusters bind two extremes, bringing the farmhouse and the spacecraft together. This outfit doesn’t toy with zydeco or jazz, nor does it attempt to dilute the Appalachian sound. Instead, it gives the graveyard moan of Roscoe Holcomb a modern edge and a rocket boost, catapulting the harmonies of the old south into the cosmos.

Unlike comparable “jamgrass” bands, the Infamous Stringdusters fuse old-timey howling and focused improvisation, a combination some bluegrass “purists” resent. The group also makes room for a myriad of influences, including pop icons of the 80s.

“The dividing line between traditional and new is one of the hottest topics in the bluegrass world,” said Jeremy Garrett, the Stringdusters’ fiddler. “The argument is so old — some people are really tired of it. Hardcore ‘traditionalists’ are serious about it. They’re really drawn to spot-on, perfect picking, and all of us played on the bluegrass proving ground learning from those guys. We have more influences than bluegrass, though, and as a band, we’re not beholden to bluegrass only.”

According to Garrett, the band’s variability seems to increase its appeal. “We’ll have a guy come up to us at the record table and say, ‘my wife hates bluegrass, but loves you guys.’ I think it’s because we can be raw and traditional, but our sound is palatable. We do like to get raunchy with the music, but it seems the longer we’re a band, business concerns fade and we don’t have to hold ourselves to one genre. You can start taking risks.”

“Risk-taking” defines the Stringdusters these days. Earlier this year, the quintet played a fiery set at Electric Forest, a three-day event dominated by the ubiquitous DJ’s and producers young festival-goers lust after. “We’ve done dance and electronica festivals this year, and sometimes I think we’re the only bands there.” Garrett chuckled and explained that “for the audience, it can be refreshing after being inundated with bass. If you analyze what we’re doing, its not that different from techno. We have swelling peaks and drops. We’re building tones and textures and the rhythmic energy is similar to what you find in electronic music.”

The Stringdusters’ knack for improvisation separates them from the plucking herd. Many of their jamgrass contemporaries certainly explore, but this bunch plunges headlong into the acoustic abyss with the musical maturity of a much older band, stopping only when the thought is complete. “All of us want to learn about improvisation and to do it as a unit is a unique challenge,” Garrett said. “It comes with time, no matter how zealous you are.”

A talented, fun-loving ensemble, the Infamous Stringdusters provide a glimpse of the bluegrass frontier. If you’re eager for a look, head to the Emerson Theater Oct. 30, where they will share the stage with the energetic string band Fruition. Tickets are available at Cactus Records for $21 and will cost $26 at the door.