Unlike rock 'n' roll, bluegrass music's boundaries are often defined in very narrow terms and that has caused some bands to carefully consider their place within the genre. But, in order to survive, everything must evolve... even bluegrass. Enter the Infamous Stringdusters, the very model of a major modern bluegrass band.
“At a certain point in our career, there was hesitation in calling us a bluegrass band,” guitarist Andy Falco admits. “These days, we’re much more comfortable with that label.” Banjo man Chris Pandolfi echoes the point: “We love bluegrass, but we have been influenced by other genres as much, if not more. When it comes to making music, we always try to be a blank slate and give new songs whatever they need to come to life. We just try to make something good, something that is true to who we are.”
On Laws of Gravity, that's exactly what the Infamous Stringdusters — Andy Hall (dobro), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), and Travis Book (double bass), in addition to Falco and Pandolfi — have done. Their seventh studio set further proves that the band's collective whole is far greater than the sum of its individual parts, as the song selection and pitch-perfect performances weighs the Stringdusters' appeal to traditional fans against their musical quest to attract new listeners. It's a balance that comes naturally to the band.
Here, trad-leaning tunes like “Freedom,” “A Hard Life Makes a Good Song,” “Maxwell,” and “1901: A Canyon Odyssey” pick hard and soar high, letting trade-off solos and layered vocal harmonies work their magic. As it continues on, Gravity reaches its roots deep and wide, but never sacrifices the wings of the band, as exemplified in tracks like “Back Home” and “This Ol' Building” which pull from the blues and R&B strands of the Stringdusters' musical DNA.
“The specific feelings in those songs lend themselves to a soulful sound,” Hall explains. “The longing of 'Back Home,' the passion of 'This Ol' Building.' Slowing things down a bit, but still having a real edge and passion is the essence of that. And probably a bit of maturity on our part brings out a more authentic soulful sound.”
Indeed, the Stringdusters have worked hard to become the band they are or, perhaps, the band they wanted and knew themselves to be — a self-discovery process to which Laws of Gravity bears witness. “Once you start to move out of that, a lot of good things happen,” Pandolfi says. “You know who you are, and how to do your thing with confidence and experience. This colors the songwriting process as much as anything. We work so hard on the music, but it's not hard work. It's really the payoff, and it comes more naturally with time.”
Letting the past inform and the present propel, the Stringdusters' style and substance are uniquely Infamous. Since 2007, the band's ever-evolving artistry and boldly creative collaborations — including Ryan Adams, Joss Stone, Bruce Hornsby, Joan Osborne, and Lee Ann Womack — have pushed them past the edges of traditional acoustic music and carved out a musical niche all their own in the hearts of fans and critics, alike. Over the past couple of years, they released 2015's Undercover, a covers EP, followed by 2016's Ladies & Gentlemen, an album featuring multiple female guest vocalists. Those projects may have seemed like artistic tangents, but they actually proved to be a pretty direct route from there to Gravity.
“Being singers and songwriters, we were really ready to put some of our own songs out with us singing them,” Falco says. “In the same way solo projects can take you away to be able to come back and feel refreshed, the last two records have done that and we were ready to hit the studio with our songs sung by us.”
“We had much more of a vision for how we wanted this album to come together than we did with past projects,” Pandolfi adds. “We got the music, including all our individual parts, to a place where we knew we could go into the studio and just let it happen live. We are a band. We play live together and, more than any one song or achievement, this is what we do. Now we have an album that captures that.”
Part of Gravity's vision involved not road-testing and adapting the songs before taking them into the studio. That's a new step in the Stringdusters' process which starts with filtering through and whittling down a wealth of material to the best of the batch. “We take those 20 or so songs and take them to the next level as a band,” Pandolfi explains. “So much gets accomplished in this writing/arranging stage. It's where songs become Stringduster songs. In the end, we share the songwriting credit because of all the collective work that goes into this (and every other) aspect of being in a band.”
“We may try the song in a number of different feels before landing on something that works for the sound of the band. If a song is good, it usually comes together fairly quickly,” Halls says, adding, “But we’re writing more diverse stuff these days, so some experimentation is always welcome.”
While the new record boasts a single instrumental track, “Sirens,” where the five fellas really cut loose on their respective strings, the vocals across the other dozen tracks tie this music to the bluegrass tradition in an even more profound way. “Singing is a big part of bluegrass music,” Falco says. “It’s an important part of the sound and I think that part of music gets overlooked a lot. The singing should convey the emotion of the song. That's what we aim to do. One could argue that it's more important than the playing.”
Out beyond Laws of Gravity, the Infamous Stringdusters have an even broader vision. “We just want to keep making original music, keep evolving as people and musicians, and continue to help our amazing community of fans grow and enjoy this experience together,” Pandolfi says. “When we hear from people that our music or the community around our music has helped them find joy in life, it makes everything seem very worthwhile.”
Falco adds, “We love playing together and that’s the reason we’ve been doing it for as long as we have. We want to able to do this until we’re old and grey. That’s really it — making music together and continuing to evolve our brand of bluegrass music.”