What, exactly, is a stringduster? "To me, it conjures an image of somebody wearing out a banjo," says the Infamous Stringdusters' dobro player Andy Hall. "I imagine a musician ripping the strings off an instrument, with dust and hair flying everywhere."
That image isn't too far off from the Charlottesville, Va.-based quintet's live show, where each player takes a turn tearing through rapid-fire solos on their instruments. The Stringdusters, however, have managed to distinguish themselves from other jam-based, bluegrass-orchestrated groups like Railroad Earth and the Yonder Mountain String Band After releasing their 2007 debut, Fork in the Road, the band found critical acclaim, winning the International Bluegrass Music Association's Emerging Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year awards. The Stringdusters immediately garnered street-cred among the country's most-prestigious pickin' circles, but they still managed to please the dreadlocked and jam-band dancing crowds.
"We didn't even know that bluegrass was what we were going to be, or what we wanted to be," Hall says of the band's status before hauling in the IBMA awards. "We've spent a lot of time in the Southeast learning the proper mechanics of how to play bluegrass, but we grew up listening to jam band music as well. For us, playing traditional bluegrass didn't quite satisfy everything we were looking for musically. We wanted to hold on to the fundamentals but still get the drive and energy we get from experimentation. That's something you have to learn how to do — improvising as a group."
In their five years together as a band, the Stringdusters have an album for every year, including last October's We'll Do it Live and the brand new Silver Sky. October also marked the second year of the band's own annual festival, the Festy Experience, in the mountains of Virginia near the Charlottesville headquarters that three of the five members call home. That event underscores the band's connection with their audience, illustrated by the success of a campaign through the fundraising website PledgeMusic to fund the recording of Silver Sky. Contributors had the chance to design their dream set lists for a concert and participate in pre-show meet-and-greets. These events allow the musicians to hear of how the fans first saw the band, or how many shows they've been to. "It's an amazing way to learn about the people that are really into your music," Hall says of the experience.
Many fans were concerned last October over the departure of mandolin player Jesse Cobb, who left the group citing the mental and physical toll of life on the road. The band has since opted to soldier on as a five-piece.
"Bluegrass can be a dense sound, and the gaps that were created by going to five people have probably been good gaps," Hall says. "There's a little less going on, so it's easier for the listener to follow the solos. It gives us a chance to spread out. I think we've come into our own in the last eight-or-so months as a band. At the end of a tour, the band's always at its tightest. On the road, we come up with new ways to play songs and experiment."
If that includes hair and dust flying during a soaring banjo solo, then by all means, dust those strings.