IF YOU GO
What: The Infamous Stringdusters featuring Old Time Travelers
When: 9 p.m. Friday, March 8
Where: Track 29, 1400 Market St.
Admission: $15 in advance, $17 at door
Venue website: www.track29.co
Artist website: www.thestringdusters.com
2007: "Fork in the Road"
2008: "The Infamous Stringdusters"
2010: "Things That Fly"
2012: "Silver Sky" / "We'll Do It Live"
If you really want to see The Infamous Stringdusters shine, catch them after they've had a few days to fly-fish, hike or ski.
After all, banjo player Chris Pandolfi said, a happy Stringduster is a Stringduster at the top of his game.
"Instead of burying ourselves in the work and hoping that one day we'll take time off ... we're doing these things as we go," he explained. "Like a lot of things, when you're doing what you love to do, you're doing your best work, and when you're doing your best work, that's when success comes."
For the Stringdusters, a Nashville-based progressive bluegrass quintet, success has been a familiar bedfellow almost since its inception in 2007.
That year, the group won three International Bluegrass Music Association awards, including Emerging Artist of the Year and Album of the Year. That debut album, "Fork in the Road," tied "Lefty's Old Guitar" from bluegrass legend J.D. Crowe & The New South. A Grammy Award nomination for Best Country Instrumental followed in 2011, the year the band was nominated as IBMA's Entertainer of the Year.
Pandolfi said the group's philosophy — that fans can tell when a band is happy and that relaxation makes for better performances — is a relatively recent revelation. They call this new approach the "high country" mindset, a moniker shared by the band's independent record label.
Adopting the high-country attitude was only possible once the Stringdusters outgrew the period of barely controlled mayhem most groups face in their early days. Once they reached a point of sustainability, Pandolfi said, band members became focused on maintaining it.
"Once you realize what you've got ... you look at all these other players that are hoping for a viable playing situation, and you think, 'My God, I'll never take this for granted again; I have a band I believe in,' " he said. "So many good bands are out there that don't have that."
Friday, March 8, the Stringdusters will take the stage at Track 29 for a show featuring local openers Old Time Travelers.
Fans needn't worry the group will be in a slump, though. They just wrapped up their annual Western "ski tour," and the slopes at Jackson Hole, Wyo., received 23 inches of fresh powder. As a result, Pandolfi said, they're all riding pretty high.
Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Infamous Stringdusters banjo player Chris Pandolfi about why they take time to smell the roses, his love of Bela Fleck’s music and the importance of friendship.
Q: How has 2013 treated you so far? What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
A: Well, so far, the year has treated us great. That has a lot to do with that we just came back from our annual ski tour, which is something we've been doing for five years. It's kind of a coincidence that we have a bunch of serious skiers in the band. We go out West and were there for a little over two weeks and got eight days of skiing in. We went up to Jackson Hole, and they had 22 inches of fresh snow in three days.
We were just real fired up, and that bleeds into the show atmosphere. We had really good shows and really good turnouts, too. We had two nights sold out in Boulder and two nights sold out in Wyoming and a sold-out show in Aspen. It was great.
These types of trips are a years-long process to get them to where they are today. They're always evolving, like anything we do.
One of the coolest thing about being in a band is that nothing happens very quickly. It's usually a slow burn of visiting each city once or maybe twice a year and watching the numbers grow. To go out there and see things we've done for years be bigger and better than ever before was a great way to kick of the year.
Looking forward, it's the usual lengthy list of festivals, including Telluride Bluegrass and DelFest and All Good Festival, which is always good. Those are great places to hang out and be a part of the acoustic music community. We've got that going on this summer, and we're working on a new album. There are a lot of things cooking right now. It's a very exciting time for us.
Q: Walk me through your own origins as a banjo player. When did you pick up the instrument and what about it spoke to you?
A: I was in high school, and my older brother and I went through that typical brothers transition where you go from worst enemies to best friends. He was a musician, so suddenly everything that he did was so cool to me. He was into the Flecktones through the bass player, Victor Wooten. We started going to shows for The Flecktones.
I was a music fan at large, but I didn't have any focus or even knowledge of the bluegrass scene. When we started going to the Flecktones, it really blew me away. They're such an incredible intersection of virtuosity and 10,000-hour players who are really wide open, creatively. The music is, at times, very controlled but also at times very unpredictable, which makes for a really exciting live concert experiece. It was something that really spoke to me.
The banjo playing, in particular, Bela's playing was just sublime. He was a huge influence on me, even before I got my first banjo. It just knew this was something I new I wanted to do. I went out and bought my first banjo, but I didn't even know what bluegrass was. That was the start of a pretty unorthodox road of working backwards with an instrument from what most people do, which is to start with bluegrass.
There's a good reason for that because the instrument has some technical limitations that you need to get a handle on before you can make music with it, versus say a piano or guitar. You can work on any instrument for a lifetime and still be improving, but some instruments take a higher baseline of technique before you can make music. I started at the progressive end of the spectrum, and now 14 years later, I've spent a lot of time working on all corners of the banjo, and my playing is very tailored to the Stringdusters now, but that's how it got started. Still to this day, some of my favorite music is Bela's stuff.
Q: You've mentioned how all the Stringdusters come from different musical backgrounds. Do you all share a love of a more progressive sound or is that a compromise?
A: Yeah, definitely. We do have a very eclectic set of influences between the five of us, but the sort of tie that binds is a real desire to take all of these sounds and turn them into something new, something that is really uniquely our own. In that sense, yes, everyone is very progressive.
We don't strive to make music a certain way. We don't necessarily strive for a certain sound. We just try and do the most-organic, most-musical thing with what comes to the group. We spend a lot of time working and arranging and writing together before the music makes it onto the stage or onto an album. That's really one of my favorite times, in terms of our creativity as a band. The new music process is great because everyone is very committed to doing something new and different with these sounds and being, for lack of a better term, “progressive” with that sound. That's sort of what drives us.
Q: You mention finding a voice for the band. That's something some groups spend years chasing. Do you feel like The Stringdusters have found theirs?
A: I think we've found our voice - for now. I think that voice has changed a lot and will continue to change. That process of evolution is what defines not only music but all art. That's ironic because the bluegrass music world is mired in a nearly constant discussion about traditional versus progressive and fans wanting for acts to play music a certain way.
That just doesn't make sense. Fans should be able to appreciate and accept the musician's vision for what it is. As soon as you start wishing it was something else, then you're barking up the wrong tree. It's all about appreciating someone's vision. That's something we've butted up against. Now, we feel more free and clear about it. We're more comfortable in our own skin.
We have a unique sound, and that's a product of our work as a group but also as individuals. The guys in this band have spent so much time working on this music that we all have our own unique voices as individuals. Immediately, when you throw those things together, you have something original, right off the bat.
That's unique in the bluegrass music, where the art of imitation is king. There's a great reason for that because that traditional music is so awesome and there are guys who recreate it so well.
There's a thrill to that aesthetic, but that's not what we do. We want to be a much mor relevant act here and know that's known for what we do. That originality is partly do to the original work and has become now more about our work as a group. We have a voice now, and hopefully, that's something that will continue to evolve over the course of the band.
Q: You guys met at the IBMAs about eight years ago. Did you realize right away that you had found your future band mates?
A: We didn't all meet at one time. (Guitarist) Andy Hall and I met first in Boston and then Andy met (fiddler) Jeremy (Garrett) in Nashville. But ironically, I knew Andy Falco before I knew any of the other guys, and he was the last one to join.
It was a real hodgepodge, in terms of where we met and started to get a feel for each other. That's very indicative of the theme.
But the IBMAs certainly played a role in the early part of our career. That's where we met (bassist) Travis (Brook). He was visiting the IBMAs, and we were looking for a bass player and there was this guy who had this amazing voice and played with great timing. We met in a lot of different places, but IBMA was certainly a big part of it, early on.
Q: When you first encountered your band mates, was the musical and personal chemistry immediately evident or did it take time to develop?
A: Everything grows. There certainly was a great initial chemistry, in terms of “Here are these young, cool guys who are good to hang with and are absolutely awesome musicians.” Then, there was the goal of starting a band and playing our music and having our own business.
Andy Hall and I first met in Boston when there was absolutely zero vision of the Stringdusters for on anyone's radar screen. We played together over a long weekend and did some recording in a project called Stable Horse with Chris Eldridge and Zack Hickman, who plays with Josh Ritter.
I remember, very clearly, playing with these guys and feeling something that I hadn't before in my six or seven years of playing music up to that point. I remember thinking, “Wow, these are the kind of guys I want to team up with, both musically and personally.”
There was certainly some sense of that, but we got together because of our musical similarities, and then, it just so happened that we had a great personal chemistry as well. I think, ironically, I think that is what is more important, in the long term.
The personal connections make it not only fun and enjoyable to spend 23 hours on the bus or in the hotel for every hour you spend on stage, but that connection informs the music and makes the shows good. I think that people in the audience can tell if the musicians on stage like each other.
A crowd of people doesn't recognize 1 percent of the technical aspects of the music that you do, but they are able to recognize a whole range of elements to the performance and the music that you may not be in tune with because it's so close to your face every day. They sense the intangible elements. They can sense whether the musicians like each other and whether people believe in the artistic statement they're making on stage.
That's all born of a solid personal connection between the members. That's not something we were sure of from the beginning. Now we have a sense of it, but in retrospect, it's this huge asset to the band that makes the experience enjoyable and the art good.
Q: When I first heard of you about five years ago, you were described as Nashville young guns, the up-and-comers in the genre. Do you feel like people still think of you in those terms or have you graduated to established veteran status yet?
A: [Laughs.] That's a funny question. You know, I'm 33 and about to turn 34, and I'm right in the middle. I think that people still think of us as a young band.
Our music is becoming more commercially viable now that bands like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers are some of the biggest bands in the world and have banjos and what not, but that wasn't going on when we got our start seven years ago - not at all. The commercial element of the music has changed.
Bands in the bluegrass world don't just pop up right away and find success. If you look at the bands that are out there that are making waves, we certainly are on the young end of the spectrum, and we certainly have a very, what I would call, “young” approach to life and music. We're all striving to do something great right now.
I think that is very characteristics of a youthful energy that has only gotten stronger with us. Hopefully, that will never leave us. I hope that we're always pushing and doing something new. That, to me, is something that really defines our band and something we'll really hold onto. I hope people still think that we're young. [Laughs.]
Q: In your bio, you say that “the hard part is over,” that you've found the ideal configuration of musicians, the best you'll ever play with. How early in the game did you realize that was the case?
A: You know, that's been a more recent development. The first few years of being in a band - any band - starts with a few years of absolute mayhem. You're trying to survive; you're not thinking about your pre-sale numbers for the show the next night or who your partners will be on your next record release. You're thinking about if you have enough money in your bank account to get dinner that night and who will put the next gas stop on their credit card.
You try to get through that first patch to get to where you become sustainable. That takes a several years. Then, you think about where you want to play and what will be the forum that will bring out the best in us, musically. Once you get that rolling and realize that the band is a solid entity - once you realize what you've got a solid entity — you realize what you've got. Then, you look at all these other players that are hoping for a viable playing situation, and you think, “My god, I'll never take this for granted again. I have a band I believe in.” So many good bands are out there that don't have that. That's been a recent development in the last few years as our vision has come into focus that we realize how lucky we are to have a band.
In that sense, yes, the hard part is over, and now the hard work can begin and you can feel good about it because it's amounting to something, versus that endless toiling as an independent musician. So many artists are in that position, and some of them like that, but I definitely feel like this is what all of us want to do. Now, the hard part is kind of over since we know this band will be a solid entity that will be around forever.
Q: What is High Country? That's not just a record label, judging by your bio. It serves duel duty as a philosophy, right?
A: Yeah, it is. It's really well-defined by this most recent tour we just came in from. It's kind of a state of mind. Another common thread in the band is a love of life and the wilderness and all these inspiring things — great people and great camaraderie — that lead to good life experiences and, in turn, good music.
That's something we don't want to feel like it's part of the end game but something that is part of the ride. Instead of burying ourselves in the work and hoping that one day we'll take time off and go on vacation, we're doing these things as we go.
We're finding time to not only be individuals and to be with our families, but also, when we're on the road, to really enjoy life and build in time to do the things that we care about and that we love.
A lot of those things are in the high country. We just did a ski tour, and we're doing a river tour in Colorado this summer. I get a good 20 days of fly fishing in every year, and we'll always stop to take a hike and see what's out there. If you don't do those things, then why are you doing this?
It's cool. It's a great revelation of the last few years, not only from a lifestyle perspective. Like a lot of things, when you're doing what you love to do, you're doing your best work, and when you're doing your best work, that's when success comes, not just when you're working your hardest.
You have to really find that zone where you're doing your best work, and for us, a lot of that involves this “high country” philosophy or state of mind. When you do that, it's funny, because the more relaxed we get, and funnily enough, the more success we have. We're doing good work, and the audience and their ability to recognize their intangible things you're not paying attention to. They know when you're happy. And if you can build that into the whole arc of the band and the touring, even before you hit the big time, then you're doing that for yourself. That shows, and it breeds success.
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...