The Infamous Stringdusters’ Andy Falco talks with Pollstar about the band’s new album, “Ladies & Gentlemen,” the story behind the LP’s guest singers, and how the group plans its concerts so that each performance is different.
Falco joined the band in 2007 when founding member Chris Eldridge left to join The Punch Brothers. During his chat with Pollstar, the guitarist also talked about the current state of contemporary bluegrass and addressed the misconceptions some people may have about the genre.
But Falco mostly described his life as an Infamous Stringduster, often answering our questions in a manner so friendly and casual that we almost thought he was a buddy perched on the next bar stool.
Your new album, Ladies & Gentlemen, has a very impressive list of guest vocalists, including Lee Ann Womack, Joan Osborne, etc., on just about every track.
There’s one track that’s an instrumental that Jenn Hartswick played trumpet on. All the other tracks have [guest vocalists]. That was the concept of the whole album – to bring in one female featured singer on most of the songs.
Is having guest vocalists and musicians on an album all part of marketing bluegrass in today’s world?
[Marketing] is a good thing about it. But the idea was more born out of the creativity part of it. You [make] record after record and … we felt like doing something a little bit different.
When I joined the band in 2007, the first studio thing I ever did with the Stringdusters was a demo session where we went and were cutting demos with Travis Book’s wife, Sarah Siskind, who is an incredible songwriter in Nashville. We were like her backup band. We always loved that session. It was a really cool vibe to have that sort of female element in the Stringdusters. Years later and we’ve done all these records and we were kind of feeling like doing something else. Joss Stone came to one of our gigs in New York and sat in, and it was like, “That would be fun to do, record a tune like that.” That developed into doing a whole album.
Most of the people on the record are people we have a personal connection to – friends and people we’ve worked with. There’s a few people we never met before that were sort of “wish list” people. To me, the concept was born more out of the creative benefits of doing something different, writing songs that we weren’t going to sing, necessarily, and trying to find that point of view. It was an incredible experience.
How did the recording sessions with the guest vocalists go? Did they contribute ideas as well?
The way we had to do a lot of it, just because of the nature of something like this, we recorded the tracks in Nashville. A few of the artists [who were around] came to the sessions. Mary Chapin Carpenter came to the session’ Jenn Hartswick came to the sessions. But, for the most part … we sent them, basically, the track with one of us singing the part as it was written. All of them interpreted it and did it in their styles, and it really felt great that they took that initiative to … put their mark on it, their creative input, into doing it their way. It wasn’t like a demo session where you would hire a singer and say, “Here. Sing it exactly like this.”
For example, one of the songs I wrote, “Have A Little Faith,” Joss Stone sang, and she really changed it … and made it sort of her own. I thought that was amazing. Even some ad-libbed words that she put in there that worked so well. It was great to have that input.
It sounds as if every vocalist feels totally at home with the Stringdusters.
That’s exactly what we were hoping for. We wanted them to feel that freedom – “Here’s the tune, but now put whatever you think should be there.” I feel really happy with how it all came out.
When recording in Nashville, is there an awareness of the musical history of the city?
We all lived in Nashville for a while. When the band started, everybody was in Nashville and we eventually moved to different areas. I was in Nashville for seven, eight, nine years, something like that. … When you’re in Nashville, and we recorded at the Sound Emporium, which is an incredible studio. I had never actually worked there, myself. It was an amazing experience. The producer, Chris Goldsmith, was amazing to work with. We wanted to do this in Nashville. We felt the vibe of [the album] was going to match Nashville. Nashville, I think, has changed quite a bit in the last five years or so since we lived there. I think it was the right place to do it, for sure.
How are you presenting the new music while on the road? It’s not like you’re having Joss Stone or any of the other vocalists on the album, touring with you.
All of the tracks can be played with us singing them. It might be a different key but we tend to do any of these songs as just the Stringdusters. But what we’ve been doing on this tour, for the most part, we’ve had Nicki Bluhm out on the road with us. She sang one of the tracks on the record but she has learned everything on the [album]. … It’s essentially a normal Dusters show, except each set will have a portion where Nicki comes up and we feature a few songs each night from the album. In the spirit of the Stringdusters, every show is different. We might do three songs off of the album and then maybe one or two, a Nicki tune or cool cover that we feel like working up. Also, we’ve been doing a bunch of shows where most of the opening acts have been female-driven bands. We’ve been out with a great bluegrass band called Della Mae, which is an all-female bluegrass band, and Celia Woodsmith from that band, sang one of the tracks on the record. So she’ll do that or they’ll come up and sort of be a part of it. It gives you the “ladies and the gentlemen.” It’s been working out really well. The shows have felt really good and the flow has been really fun. People have been coming out and having a good time. We’re excited.
With every night being different, how do you and your fellow Stringdusters plan a show?
Basically, the way it all works out is Chris Pandolfi, the banjo player, writes the setlist earlier in the day. Usually, around the sound check time, we all have the setlist and everybody gives their input – “I really wanted to do this,” or “Maybe we should change this around,” or whatever. Usually, every setlist has some sort of unique thing that’s going to happen that night. It might be, “OK. We’re going to do this segue between songs. If we do this, we can jam here.” We have a discussion about how that might happen and it’s going to be unique for that night. Maybe we’ll do it again another time, or whatever, but it’s something that gets discussed that way.
Some of the jams we want to be mystery jams. We’ll say, “We’re going to be in this tune, and we want to go to this tune, so let’s just kind of get weird over here and see where it takes us.” That’s fun, too, because we don’t know what will happen until we get up there and try it out. But I think that’s the fun of improvisational music, to walk on the edge for a minute and see what happens.
When someone steps out into a different direction, do you and your bandmates have any silent way of communicating while on stage to let the others know where he’s going?
It’s interesting because our band is unlike a band like The Grateful Dead, for example, where Jerry Garcia was essentially the main soloist. You would get occasional solos elsewhere but Jerry kind of led all of that. Our band is a little different because we have four soloists. When it comes to that kind of jam where somebody is standing out and sort of driving the band in that direction, usually we’ll have a designated person – “OK. You sort of run with it and we’ll follow you.”
Then there are other types of jams where we feel there’s not necessarily one particular soloist but is more about us focusing, listening to each other, and being free with the music and letting it take us to where it’s going to take us.
Do you think the best Infamous Stringdusters jams were performed on stage or did they take place when only friends and crew were watching?
I think our best jams absolutely take place on stage. … The jams require the band to be connected but … a needle of a jam can be moved by the crowd, as well by the energy of the room. Our fans are just amazing to play music with, in that sense. I think that elevates things sometimes and can shape the jam. The live shows are where that magic will happen.
Performing with Nicki Bluhm
Other than the size of the audience, what’s different for the band when playing festivals compared to headlining your own shows?
One of the great things about doing a festival is you’ll be able to play your music in front of some new people. It’s always interesting when you play for new people because they’re just getting familiar with the band, they don’t know what to expect. It’s a great thing. Also, when you’re doing a festival, it’s sort of condensed. Our [headlining] shows … our pretty much the same – two sets – and the flow of that is a little bit different than putting two sets of energy and condensing it into one continuous [festival] set.
Does the band have any pre-show rituals or traditions?
We do. We get together about an hour before show time, every day. We get everybody in the band, the crew, together and we go over the setlist, we go over the show and make sure everybody is kind of synchronized. That usually lasts anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. Then we all sit in a room, get in a circle and do what we call a “power up” where we stick our hands out and give ourselves a little bit of a pump-up and then we walk out on stage.
What about the time between sets? Is it like a football team at halftime where you discuss what’s already happened and what you still want to accomplish that night?
It depends. We’re usually pretty psyched when we walk off stage. You’re getting that energy from the audience and stuff. Naturally, when you walk off stage you’re really excited and you’re kind of like, “All right! That was really fun!” This is a really fun job. (laughs) We make a lot of sacrifices to be out on the road. It’s hard to be out on the road, away from our families. We work our asses off. But it all comes down to that moment when you get on stage. That is the fruit of your labor – to get out on stage and make music with a roomful of people. It’s really fun.
Do you check out the room before each night’s show to get a feel for the place?
We have an amazing front house engineer named Drew Becker. He’s incredible. They get everything set up and as far as acoustics and stuff, he’ll start with what’s called a “virtual soundcheck,” where he’ll have the [recording] of the night before. Hhe multi-tracks everything. He has our direct lines and he’ll actually tune the room. It’s like we’re playing in there but we’re not on stage. Then, after he tunes the room and gets it all dialed in, we’ll go in for a sound check.
I’ll go into rooms sometimes, especially if I haven’t been there before, to kind of check it out. We [use] wireless rigs and every now and then we like to jump out and go to the balcony to do a jam or something. Sometimes there are cool little perches you can find to jam on that might be fun. … Every room is a little bit different, whether it be a small rock box somewhere or a big open theatre. Every room has a different sort of vibe. You get to know how it’s going to feel when you get in there … [and] when you’re sound checking.
Do you have any favorite venues?
I have several that I really like. I live in New York and one of my favorite venues is the Bowery Ballroom. It has a great, New York downtown feel. … Of course, there are places like Red Rocks that are pretty incredible. That’s one of my favorites.
How far in advance does the band plan for?
We’re on a general two-year plan right now. Not saying we have specific dates booked for two years from now but we have a general outline. As a business, when you’re thinking of when you’re releasing records and when you’re touring, all that stuff has to happen way in advance. It all has to converge. It’s happened to us where a record release tour gets booked but something happened and the record got held up or whatever, and you’re out on a record release tour with no record. Or maybe it comes out the week after we started the tour. So you learn as time goes on that you really have to plan everything. I think we’re in a good spot now where we’re pretty good at making sure everything is going to line up and you can plan for the things that might get held up. In all of our minds we have a two-year plan that started with Ladies & Gentlemen and all that and leading through to the next record.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions novice listeners might have about bluegrass?
To me, the big misconception is, growing up in New York … I think a lot of people that don’t know anything about bluegrass, when they hear the word “bluegrass,” the thing that comes to their mind is, like, [the movie] “Deliverance.” But I think that’s changed a lot, particularly in the last 10 years, where it’s not uncommon to see a banjo. Bands that have huge success, like The Avett Brothers, for example, while some people might call that bluegrass, I wouldn’t consider that bluegrass, per se. Or Mumford & Sons. But it does have some of those influences and I think it makes people more aware of that and it starts to shed some of those misconceptions about bluegrass. Maybe, it started with “O, Brother Where Art Thou?,” where the success of that movie and album started bringing more mainstream awareness of bluegrass music as a real true American art form that’s alive and growing, rather than some sort of backwoods thing, that people where I’m from weren’t exposed to where I was growing up.
But I think that’s changing every day. I think what’s happening with the scene in Denver, where music fans can’t get enough of it. It’s just great to see that bluegrass music is growing, it’s alive, and the audience is growing. It’s young. That’s a good sign. I think it means there are less of those prejudices.
What are your thoughts about critics who say today’s bluegrass isn’t real bluegrass, or that it’s not pure bluegrass?
The only real bluegrass is Bill Monroe. So you could argue that anything that’s not Bill Monroe is not pure. I think that’s nonsense. I think that comes from people who are looking for museum music. It’s like saying there’s no more art because nobody is creating Leonardo da Vinci paintings anymore.
It’s also not true. Even if you did step back and say, “Lemme see. What do they mean? Oh, OK. They’re talking about the Bill Monroe bluegrass sound?” Well, there are a lot of bands that play with that sound. A lot of people who are into, say, String Cheese Incident or something … they may not like that brand of bluegrass. And that’s OK. There’s enough out there for everybody. If you’re looking for real ultra-traditional bluegrass music, I would argue that it is out there. Kind of like what we do. We play some traditional bluegrass types of music, but I wouldn’t consider us a traditional bluegrass music by any means. We all have other influences that are our contributions to the music, our musical DNA that we’re putting in. That’s up to us to do. I think with any artist … the artist should never dictate what they are doing based on what critics think it should be. I think you have to be true to what you’re doing and people will like it or not. If you’re trying to label it “bluegrass” or “not bluegrass. … I don’t even know what it means when someone says it doesn’t sound like original Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs, and I would say it’s because those guys aren’t here anymore. They did that already.
You joined The Infamous Stringdusters in 2007 and replaced Chris Eldridge when he left to join The Punch Brothers. As a musician joining an existing band, what’s your first day on the job like?
It was a unique experience for me, I think, because it wasn’t like I went to an audition and met these guys for the first time, maybe auditioned again and was selected. I’ve known everybody in the Stringdusters long before the [band] existed … including Chris Eldridge. They made me feel really at ease with everything. Chris was very helpful. We got together and he showed me kind of, “Here is how I do this. Here is what I do on this.” … They were good friends and now I’m in a band with them.
That being said, the first show was up in Pagosa Springs [Colorado], and the Stringdusters had some history there. It was a little bit like, “Here we go. Let’s see how this goes.”
Are there any similarities between joining a band and starting a new job? Is there something similar to an employee handbook? Does someone take down your social security number or enter you into an employee health plan?
I think, maybe, you get the passwords to the social media [outlets]. But back then we didn’t have management. It was just us. We had a booking agent … and things were a little more chill at that point when it came to that stuff. For somebody new coming into a band like [the Stringdusters], the priority for me was learning and knowing all the music as inside and out as I possibly could. And it went well. The band was amazing in welcoming me. The audience at that show was really welcoming as well. After that it all felt natural.
Does it feel as if the audience is an extended family of the band?
100 percent. Especially now when it’s more common to see people who come out on tour. They’ll do four or five shows. I’ll be walking out of soundcheck and they’re in line out front because most of our shows are general admission. When you start to see those folks, they become your friends in a lot of ways. They call themselves “the Jamily.” We have a lot of love for the Jamily.
When you have people who are fans like that, who come to the shows and know the music so well … when you’re playing a festival and there’s some new people, it’s like they can inform the new people as to what the vibe at the show is.
What advice would you send back in time to the Andy Falco who had just joined The Infamous Stringdusters?
Performing with Sara Watkins.
Upcoming shows for The Infamous Stringdusters:
March 9 – Cleveland, Ohio, Beachland Ballroom & Tavern
March 10 – Ferndale, Mich., The Magic Bag
March 11 – Chicago, Ill., Park West
March 12 – Minneapolis, Minn., Varsity Theater
March 13 – Iowa City, Iowa, The Englert Theatre
March 15 – Madison, Wis., Majestic Theatre
March 16 – St. Louis, Mo., Old Rock House
March 17 – Nashville, Tenn., Exit / In
March 18 – Atlanta, Ga., Variety Playhouse
March 19 – Live Oak, Fla., Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park (Suwannee Springfest)
March 20 – Live Oak, Fla., Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park (Suwannee Springfest)
March 30 – New York, N.Y., The Bowery Ballroom
March 31 – New York, N.Y., The Bowery Ballroom
April 1 – Washington, D.C., 9:30 Club
April 2 – Washington, D.C., 9:30 Club
April 3 – Raleigh, N.C., Lincoln Theatre
April 5 – Rocky Mount, Va., Harvester Performance Center
April 6 – Charlotte, N.C., The Visulite Theatre
April 7 – Norfolk, Va., The NorVa
April 8 – Philadelphia, Pa., World Cafe Live
April 9 – Boston, Mass., Paradise Rock Club
April 10 – Hartford, Conn., Infinity Hall Hartford
May 6 – Morrison, Colo., Red Rocks Amphitheatre
May 7 – Boulder, Colo., Fox Theatre
May 21 – Moosic, Pa., Pavilion At Montage Mountain (Susquehanna Breakdown)
May 26 – Cumberland, Md., Allegany County Fairgrounds (Delfest)
May 27 – Cumberland, Md., Allegany County Fairgrounds
May 28 – Clarks Grove, Minn., Harmony Park (Revival Festival)
June 3 – Minden, W.Va., Ace Adventure Resort (Mountain Music Festival)
June 4 – Black Mountain, N.C., Pisgah Brewing Co. / Outdoor Stage
June 12 – Ontario, Calif., Cucamonga-Guasti Regional Park (Huck Finn Jubilee)
June 24 – Owensboro, Ky., Yellow Creek Park (ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival)
July 14 – North Plains, Ore., Horning’s Hideout (Northwest String Summit)
July 15 – North Plains, Ore., Horning’s Hideout (Northwest String Summit)
July 16 – Mendocino, Calif., Camp Navarro (Redwood Ramble)
Sept. 23-24 – Wilkesboro, N.C., Carolina In The Fall
For more information, please visit The Infamous Stringdusters’ website, Facebook page, Instagram home and Twitter feed.