Paul Hoffman is one of the two main songwriters in the bluegrass group, Greensky Bluegrass. That’s a sign that Greensky Bluegrass isn’t exactly a pure bred, died-in-the-wool type of bluegrass group.
For instance, bluegrass isn’t what Hoffman generally dials up when he wants to listen to music for fun.
“I don’t listen to very much bluegrass. It does sort of happen to be (just) what I play,” Hoffman said in a recent phone interview. “My personal listening is usually more songwriter based. It can vary from indie rock to acoustic singer-songwriter. But if I find a writer I like, I’ll be hooked, no matter what kind of music it is.”
Greensky Bluegrass is the main act for the 11th annual Aiken Bluegrass Festival May 8-9 at the Aiken Country Fairgrounds. Also performing will be Larry & Jenny Keel, Delta Cane and Doug & The Henrys with Town Mountain band added on Friday. Tickets are $30 in advance or $35 at the gate; a two-day ticket is $50 advance or $60 at the gate. See aikenbluegrassfestival.org.
The wider-ranging musical tastes make sense when one considers that Hoffman, 32, came to bluegrass a bit later than many musicians in the genre. He had already spent several years playing guitar when, after seeing a David Grisman concert at age 18, he found himself drawn to the mandolin and began to discover he was more suited to that instrument and that he liked what bluegrass had to offer.
“When I was playing guitar and writing songs before I started playing the mandolin, it was definitely a real folk-oriented kind of thing. I wasn’t able to musically express myself as fluidly as I can on the mandolin now,” Hoffman said. “Then when I learned playing bluegrass with these guys (in Greensky Bluegrass), I enjoyed singing a lot, so the harmony singing intrigued me.”
The fact that Hoffman (like his bandmates) has never limited himself to bluegrass is one reason that Greensky Bluegrass is known for pushing the boundaries of the genre.
Yes, the group has the common instrumental configuration, with mandolin (played by Hoffman), acoustic guitar (Dave Bruzza – the group’s other main songwriter), banjo (Michael Arlen Bont), upright bass (Michael Devol) and steel guitar (Anders Beck, who also plays guitar). And bluegrass is certainly the predominant ingredient in the group’s songs.
But the band also brings a good bit of rock in its song-centric approach, both in the energy and edgy nature of its material. And some songs are every bit as rock in their cadence, structure and rhythm as they are bluegrass.
A good example from the band’s newly released album If Sorrows Swim is Wings For Wheel, which has a decidedly more measured rock tempo and chords that are easily more rock anthem than bluegrass. Other new songs, such as Windshield, The Four and Just Listening also display a rock/pop influence to go with bluegrass/acoustic sound. But the bluegrass influence remains apparent.
The group started crafting its sound after Hoffman, Bruzza and Bont formed Greensky Bluegrass in 2000 in Kalamazoo, Mich. A big break came in 2006, when the group won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition, earning them a main stage slot in 2007.
Greensky Bluegrass has continued to gain momentum – now with five studio albums – by focusing much of its touring efforts on playing rock clubs, rock festivals and jam band events, while continuing to keep its foot in the bluegrass circuit.
The adventurous nature of Greensky Bluegrass is apparent, both on record and live. On If Sorrows Swim, the group gambled by choosing to develop some songs in the studio instead of first playing and refining them on tour before recording.
“It’s kind of scary to record tunes that haven’t been road tested,” Hoffman said. “It’s nice to like sort of give the song a chance to grow up and take flight a little bit (live) before committing to what is going to be the arrangement that’s going to be the studio version that people listen to. But it’s also fun to do the other thing.”
Playing new songs won’t be the only way Greensky Bluegrass tests itself and its audience in concerts.
“We certainly take a lot of chances,” Hoffman said. “We play a lot of material that people wouldn’t expect from a bluegrass band per se.”