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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1478

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The Infamous Stringdusters: Fork in the Road
by George Graham

(Sugar Hill 4021 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/28/2007)

For those getting increasingly bored or annoyed with pretentious, artificial pop music, or the commercial media's endless repetition of the same handful of classic rock tracks, bluegrass sounds more and more inviting. Acoustic picking has been a refuge for rock musicians for more than 30 years now, going back to recordings like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia bluegrass side projects like Old and in the Way.

Since then, about three or four generations of up-and-coming bluegrass pickers have "up and come," and in the process changed the music a lot from its traditional Appalachian roots to something that mixes genres with abandon. Since the 1970s we have had such innovators as David Grisman, New Grass Revival, Bela Fleck, Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek.

This week, we have the debut recording of another very impressive young band who are all first-class players, and also bring good songwriting to the equation. The call themselves the Infamous Stringdusters, and their CD is called Fork in the Road.

For a bluegrass band, the Infamous Stringdusters are an uncommonly large group, with six members, encompassing all the commonly used bluegrass instruments: guitar, mandolin, Dobro, banjo, fiddle and bass. Many bluegrass bands establish their sound based not only on the instrumentation in their group, but also which of the key instruments is absent. The Stringdusters have them all, and the members come with impressive resumes. Two are second generation bluegrass players. Guitarist Chris Eldridge performed with his father in the Seldom Scene. Fiddle player Jeremy Garrett is the son of Nashville bluegrass player Glenn Garrett who wrote a song that appears on this CD. The younger Garrett also played with Lee Ann Womak and Bobby Osborne.

Banjo man Chris Panolfi was the first to graduate from the prestigious Berklee College of music with a major on banjo. He also toured backing the popular Russian country-bluegrass band Bering Strait. Dobro player Andy Hall has toured and/or recorded with no less than Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton and Charlie Daniels. Mandolinist Jesse Cobb has performed with such artists as Jim Lauderdale, Valerie Smith, Melanie Cannon and Lee Ann Womack. On bass is their newest member, recruited during the recording of the CD, Travis Book, from Colorado, where he was part of the active "jam-grass" scene there. Appearing on about half the tracks on the CD is bassist Alan Bartram.

The Infamous Stringdusters are defintely a "progressive" bluegrass band, with an absence of traditional material on the CD, and strong songwriting and/or instrumental composing by group members on seven of the album's twelve tracks. The rest of the material comes from contemporary sources such as Nashville-based composers, and the cover a tune by John Mayer, with worthwhile results. The musicianship is first-rate, with all the players getting opportunities at one point or another on the CD for impressive solos. The vocals area also top-notch, with the traditonal high-lonesome tenor sound tempered somewhat to be a bit more mellow, with excellent vocal harmonies. Lyrically, the album does tend toward the standard topics, with a lot of love songs, songs about missing one's love, and songs about the open road. A couple of tunes manage to include a train in the lyrics, which could be viewed either as a bluegrass tradition or a cliche. But their music and outstanding picking makes up for the well-trodden lyrical subjects.

Leading off is one of those song about love and traveling, No More to Leave You Behind, by Dobro player Andy Hall. The band takes no time to establish their stellar musical "chops," as the jazz musicians say. <<>>

Fiddle player Jeremy Garrett previously played with Chris Jones' band, and the Infamous Stringdusters play a Chris Jones tune with Garrett doing the lead vocal. It's the song they use as the title track for the CD, Fork in the Road. <<>>

The most unexpected song they include on the CD is 3 x 5 by John Mayer. Bassist Travis Book does lead vocal, and the band makes it sound as if the song was always a bluegrass tune. <<>>

The first of three instrumentals on the CD is 40 West, written by mandolin player Jesse Cobb, who gets a chance to put in some classy picking, along with the other guys in the band. <<>>

A song called Tragic Life does, in my opinion, get a bit cliched. The story in the song by Hall and Garrett, concerns a outlaw on the run. It's a kind bluegrass version of the story of Bob Marley's I Shot the Sheriff. <<>>

With a more traditional sound is Poor Boy Delight, an pretty love song in waltz time written by Benny Galloway and sung by bassist Travis Book. <<>>

In classic upbeat bluegrass style is My Destination, written and sung by Dobro man Andy Hall. It's got all the classic lyrical ingredients, lovers parted, traveling, a train and living in the country. The band really cooks. <<>>

The CD ends with Moon Man, a lengthy instrumental by banjo player Chris Panolfi, that takes the band into the realm of the New Acoustic music style, with lots of influences thrown into the mix, plus a chance for just about everybody to put in an extended solo. It shows the band at its best. <<>>

Fork in the Road the new debut recording by the Infamous Stringdusters is an impressive CD by a young but experienced band of musicians who all settled in Nashville and met there, eventually deciding to form this sextet. The musicianship is first rate, as are the vocals. In recent years, bluegrass bands have also served as a vehicle for some fine, lyrically sophisticated songs, as performed by such people as Alison Krauss. The Infamous Stringdusters are stronger on the picking than on the lyric writing, but their words are still worthwhile. And the large group, with all the traditional instruments of bluegrass at the same time, makes this CD an even better picking fan's delight.

Sonically, we'll give the CD a grade of B-plus. The instrumentation and vocals are well captured and sound clean, but -- here we go again -- the mastering process applied too much volume compression and squeezed a lot of the dynamics and airiness out of the recording in an effort to make it loud.

Bluegrass continues to thrive with a constant influx of new talent. The Infamous Stringdusters are a stellar example of that, and their debut CD Fork in the Road is an outstanding one, likely to appeal fans ranging from those who like their music more traditional to those into eclectic bluegrass.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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