Bluegrass’s Infamous Stringdusters return to Grammy-winning territory

It’s hard to catch your breath in bluegrass. The hail of banjo, dobro, mandolin, bass and fiddle merge into a stylized tornado of sound that’s as passionate and swirling as it is technical. Upbeat tempos and virtuoso playing leave no room for mistakes.

That’s why there’s also no shortage of tributes and looks-back in bluegrass — a musical traditional that overlays handsomely with Americana, folk and jam bands, but that retains its own ornery spark. The tributes and history-minded sets at music festivals gives players and fans a chance to appreciate the genre’s evolution.

“It’s amazing to see what bluegrass does every generation or so,” said Andy Hall, Denver-based dobro player for Grammy-winning act The Infamous Stringdusters. “This new infusion of energy and power right now is coming from Billy Strings, who is selling out arenas by playing what in a lot of ways is traditional music. But Flatt & Scruggs were also pushing boundaries.”

Mainstream player Strings, who will perform a trio of sold-out Colorado shows between Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Mission Ballroom from May 11 to May 13, won a Grammy in 2021 for his breathless, updated take on picking.

Flatt & Scruggs sit at the opposite end of the timeline. The legendary musical duo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in the late 1940s decamped from bluegrass-grandfather Bill Monroe’s band to start their own. More than two decades of original work followed, forever changing the contours and possibilities of old-time string and acoustic music.

The Infamous Stringdusters’ new album, “A Tribute to Flatt & Scruggs,” is a follow-up in some ways to the Nashville band’s 2021 album “A Tribute to Bill Monroe.” Like that Grammy-nominated platter, “Flatt & Scruggs” revisits pioneering songs with the Stringdusters’ trademark vigor and warmth. The Stringdusters already sport four Grammy noms going back to 2011, and one win (for 2018’s all-original “The Laws of Gravity”).

“I was very surprised the album we did last year (‘Toward the Fray’) was also nominated and that we go to go to the Grammys,” Hall said. “There are so many great bluegrass albums coming out right now and so many new fans to the genre.”

It’s easy to imagine the masterful “A Tribute to Flatt & Scruggs” joining them after its Friday, April 21 release. The band, which is near-constantly on the road or in the studio (see their 13 full-lengths and one live album, and dozens of singles, EPs and collaborations), will return to Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June to play the event’s 50th anniversary show.

Their new album will be top-of-mind. Scruggs is a highly influential banjo player — the kind of master whose work is both accessible and intimidatingly skilled — but Earl broke ground, too.

“Obviously (Scruggs) more or less invented bluegrass banjo, and this album features that, but we’ve got so many good players in the band that we all get a chance to shine,” Hall said. “A lesser known fact is that Earl & Scruggs were the first bluegrass band feature dobro, so their dobro player basically took Scruggs’ kind of rolling, high-energy way but also had all these blues influences.”

Hall got to play with Scruggs before his death at age 88 in 2012. Hall was a young dobro player starting out in Nashville, where the Stringdusters are mostly based, and a friend invited him to Scruggs’ birthday party year after year.

“It was a big picking party,” Hall said with a laugh. “I go to sit across from him and play a lot of these classic songs together. One thing I learned from him is that he always wanted musicians to be innovative. He didn’t want you to play just like the old songs. If you did something different around him, he liked that and would comment on it.”

The Stringdusters recorded “Flatt & Scruggs” as a live, full-band album (as opposed to going back in and adding more instrumentals and vocals) and the chemistry is evident in their cohesion, solos and generous trade-offs. That more accurately reflects their rollicking live sets, Hall said, which veer from 9 albums’ worth of original songwriting to covers and savvy reinterpretations.

The band is set to play the second annual Earl Scruggs Music Festival in Mill Spring, N.C., over Labor Day weekend. Hall said he could not be more excited that the album and festival are landing in the same year.

“We’ve got all kinds of recordings in the hopper for this next year too,” he said. “We don’t overthink it, which I think is one of the strengths of bluegrass. We just do it.”

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