Coming off of a 2016 album in Ladies &Gentlemen that was a bit of a musical detour, the Infamous Stringdusters knew it was time to re-establish what the band is about musically.
But fiddle player Jeremy Garrett is a bit surprised by just how far back to their roots his group went on their new album, Laws of Gravity.
“We wanted to make a statement with this record that’s who we are and we’re back to our Dusters’ business, I guess you could say, but with a whole lot more experience under our belts,” Garrett said in a recent phone interview. “But you know what’s exciting about this record to me in some ways, too, is it even harkens back to maybe our first record, Fork in the Road, in the sense that there’s a lot more bluegrass on there.
“It (bluegrass) has always been that foundation, and we kind of have over the years sort of expanded into more of a poppier side of things we could do,” he said. “So this is kind of that way to come full circle.”
The Infamous Stringdusters will perform this Friday, May 12, on the first night of the 11th annual Aiken Bluegrass Festival at the Aiken County Fairgrounds, 1566 Columbia Highway North. Music starts at 5 p.m. and will also include Doug &The Henrys, The Herman Clan, Guitacolypse Now and ABF Super Jam.
On Saturday, May 13, music starts at 1 p.m. with Gipsy Moon Band, Brad Parsons Band; Lindsay Lou &The Ladies with Jenny Keel, Mimi Naja, Allie Kral and Mackenzie Page; ABF Super Jam, Larry Keel Experience, Billy Strings and Fruition. Get advance tickets at aikenbluegrassfestival.org.
For the Infamous Stringdusters, the bluegrass emphasis on Laws of Gravity gets established with frisky opening track, Freedom, while other songs (Black Elk, A Hard Life Makes A Good Song and 1901: A Canyon Odyssey) also demonstrate the group’s command of the bluegrass form. But Laws of Gravity also has songs that expand beyond bluegrass, including the graceful title song and poppier Soul Searching and Vertigo.
In reality, Ladies &Gentlemen wasn’t a total departure from the Infamous Stringdusters’ bluegrass roots. But it was a left turn in a couple of significant ways, beginning with the fact it featured 11 female vocalists (including Joan Osborne, Joss Stone and Sara Watkins) singing the songs.
Perhaps more than the previous five studio albums released since the Infamous Stringdusters formed in 2006, Ladies &Gentlemen also stretched the group stylistically.
The instrumentation, obviously, was still bluegrass, and several songs fit the genre. But many of the songs favored deliberate tempos and cross-pollinated bluegrass and blues, gospel, soul and other rootsy styles.
Laws of Gravity shows that the Infamous Stringdusters were ready to reach back into bluegrass. But the group had a few other goals in mind for the new album.
One key objective was to try and capture more of the group’s live sound and vibe on a studio recording. To help achieve that goal, Billy Hume was brought in to co-produce Laws of Gravity. Hume was no stranger to the Infamous Stringdusters, having worked on the group’s 2012 album, Silver Sky.
“You really try to make a conscious effort not to overproduce,” he said. “Let the songs, if they’re simple, be simple. If they’re complicated, come up with the best arrangement to emphasize the strengths of the song rather than have a complicated part just because we want to use our brains. So that’s kind of the way we approached it. And then having Billy record it, he really is a wizard. I mean, he’s more than just an engineer. It’s incredible what he does sonically with a record. He’s able to capture those natural, edgy tones that get that more raw sound. And with less production and more of that, I think that’s really what’s captured on this record, more than ever before.”
Perhaps an even bigger goal for Laws of Gravity was something the members of the Infamous Stringdusters – Garrett, dobro player Andy Hall, bassist Travis Book, guitarist Andy Falco and banjo player Chris Pandolfi – could only accomplish on their own – at least in Garrett’s view. They learned to put more trust into their musical instincts and not let commercial concerns compromise their artistic goals.
“I think in the past we’ve made sacrifices because we want to sound a little more progressive, or we want to use a producer because you think he can get us to another level, or they have a big name, or whatever,” Garrett said. “So with this, (we were) trusting ourselves and fully just getting on board in that way … This time it was more about the art and caring less about that other stuff.”
The music-first attitude carries over the Infamous Stringdusters live show. The group is starting to mix the new songs into its shows, but continues to change up its song set from night to night. This helps keep the group inspired on tour and also ensures that fans that come to multiple shows on a tour will get a different song selection each time.
“I’ve been in situations in early career years where I had to play the same show night after night,” Garrett said.
“And it’s nice when you can nail your parts and you know everything you need to do for the night. But I really, we all do in the Stringdusters, enjoy the avant-garde, the improv. That’s what our whole thing is about.”