The Infamous Stringdusters and the Politics of Bluegrass

The beloved jamgrass ensemble emerge from the pandemic with their hearts full of song despite the apocalyptic album cover

The new Infamous Stringdusters album, Toward the Fray, is in stores now (Image: Americana Vibes)

Toward the Fray, the new album from the Infamous Stringdusters, was written and recorded during the height of the pandemic.

The band was already notable for taking bluegrass in unexpected directions, incorporating elements drawn from folk, singer/songwriter and jam bands into their sound, so their explorations of Celtic, rock and protest songs isn’t entirely unexpected.

“Country and bluegrass haven’t always avoided politics,” said Andy Hall, the band’s Dobro player and one of the founders of the group. “There’s a long history of protest in bluegrass. There were union organizing songs from working class people in Virginia and Kentucky and, while country and bluegrass generally avoids politics, these days you can’t do that. You’d have to consciously choose to avoid it. Young people coming up are thinking about, and talking about, things like racism and ecology, so it works its way into the music. I love modern bluegrass because the musical energy that makes people dance and have a good time is there, as it has been for generations, but the lyrical content is evolving. People aren’t living in cabins and taking trains anymore, so they write about what’s true to them in this day and age.” 

Hall said the band –including bass player Travis Book; guitarist Andy Falco; fiddler Jeremy Garrett and banjo player Chris Pandolfi – started putting the album together remotely, emailing ideas back and forth, as they wrote the 13 tracks they put on the album.

“We like our music to project a message of hope and joy, but this one shines a light on some difficult situations,” Hall said. “The songs are looking at some of the dark corners of the world, things that are not rosy and uplifting, and the emotions and feelings they bring up – things everyone thinks about and goes through, but may not discuss. There are things happening in the world today, racial injustice and environmental problems, that you can’t turn a blind eye to.” 

After all the songs were written, they selected 16 potential tracks for the album and headed into the studio. “We hadn’t played together, or seen each other, except remotely, in six months. It took some time to get used to writing over email, but we got good at it in the last two years. When we got together to make the record, there was more excitement about being together than we’d ever had. That freshened up the way the arrangements came about. We didn’t worry about details too much  and tracked the songs, live, all together. We cut it at Mighty Fine Productions in Denver, vaxxed and masked. Since we were self-producing, they let us go in and do our thing. After a year of so many trials and uncertainty, making good music was a real achievement.”

The Infamous Stringdusters Toward The Fray-basin, Americana Vibes 2022

The album opens with “Hard Line,” a traditional bluegrass tune, dominated by solid guitar and banjo rhythms and the band’s high, lonesome vocal harmonies. Lyrically, it addresses the divisions that have made our national conversation so tense. “I’m Not Alone” is a ballad praising the comforts of true love. Andy Falco’s bluesy guitar line adds poignancy to an ironic lyric that references the comforts of companionship, while admitting it doesn’t quite make up for the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

“It is a love song,” Hall said, “but it has that feeling of – is everything ever going to be ok? – that pervades the whole album.”

“Toward The Fray,“ the album’s title track, has a hint of Irish music in its melody. Hall’s Dobro and Jeremy Garrett’s fiddle add a grim tension to a lyric that references the death of George Floyd and the BLM demonstrations that followed it. “It’s like a classic protect song from the 60s,” Hall said. “The Celtic feel of the guitar is new for us. The song’s not about hot picking, but the way the instruments intensify the feeling of the song. It’s about a white person, somewhat unaware of all the racial issues woven into American culture, becoming more aware of them as the events of 2020 unfold.”

Hall said the album will be released this week (February 18) on their own Americana Vibes label. Previous records, including their Grammy winning Laws of Gravity from 2018, have been on other labels, but the band felt it was time to take control of every aspect of their career.

No label will treat our music the way we will, so it’s sort of a no brainer,” he tells Rock & Roll Globe. “It also allows us to release all kinds of other music. We want it to become a place for other lesser-known acoustic bands to put out their music. There are all kinds of up-and-coming acoustic groups. It’s cool to allow other bands to build a catalogue of music that might not otherwise be heard.”

 

VIDEO: The Infamous Stringdusters “Hard Line”

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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