by Brett Hutchins
What do you envision when you hear the word “bluegrass”?
Is it full of misguided stereotypes — the haunting banjo lick from up the river, or the toothless hillbilly hoedown in the backwoods of Appalachia?
Or is it an ever-evolving, uniquely American form of music that puts the very best of human nature — community, sharing, ingenuity, and laughter — on full display?
Looking ahead to The Infamous Stringdusters’ Pensacola show at Vinyl Music Hall on May 7, bassist Travis Book chatted with SANDSpaper about the band’s approach to live shows, how songs can bring a message, and what the heck bluegrass truly means.
SANDS: When did you start getting into bluegrass? It’s an outside-of -the-box genre unless you’re weaned on it at a young age.
BOOK: I grew up in the mountains of Durango, Colorado, but I didn’t start getting into it until college. I had a buddy from Georgia playing in a bluegrass band and another who was a DJ of a bluegrass radio show out in Colorado. So I dove in fast once I got exposed to it.
Bluegrass is an opportunistic type of music. If it’s something that sparks you, it’s easy to get started playing. It obviously takes a lot of time to master, but with the acoustic instrumentation, it’s easy to bring your gear to different places where people might be jamming. Most bluegrass players love their craft and want to keep it alive. They encourage new players and typically welcome them with open arms. There’s not much stopping you from trying if you want to.
After growing up and singing in the church, I was also drawn to the vocal harmonies that bluegrass music brings. Something about the style of music just felt like home and felt “right”. It’s the only music I can think of where you can be singing about the most lonesome things, but it still sounds positive.
SANDS: Why does that positivity shine through?
BOOK: We can thank Bill Monroe for that. It’s all in the way he designed the music, with the tempo and the bouncy and sprightly sound of the instruments. It almost sounds like you’re playing toys sometimes.
I search out things in my everyday life that make me smile. When I go to the movies, I don’t go for the horror stuff that leaves me on edge. I go for the comedies – the stuff that makes me laugh. That’s as simple as it is. I play bluegrass because it makes me smile.
SANDS: That’s the reason I love bluegrass shows so much. You’d be hard-pressed to find a frowning face.
BOOK: Exactly. When we look out into our crowds, you can tell it’s full of friendly people. That makes a difference when you’re out there on stage each night.
SANDS: There’s still a stigma and maybe a little confusion when some people hear the word ‘bluegrass’. How does the band fight that?
BOOK: We used to consciously think about it, but we’ve grown out of caring. Bluegrass in a lot of ways is built around your ability to do what’s already been done. When we first started, there was some element of us wanting to be this or be that, but after a few years, we stopped caring and just started playing.
‘Bluegrass’ is a term for this incredibly expansive body of work. Sure it has some hokey corners, but it’s not as simple as a lot of people make it out to be.
We all come from different parts of the country, from New York to Colorado to Idaho via Nashville and are so in love with and deep into our music. If there’s anything we’re doing to change the stigma around it, it’s taking this acoustic instrumentation, turning it into a full-on rock show with lights and all, and taking it across the country to show everyone how much fun this truly is.
SANDS: Talk about how you approach the live show. What are you trying to accomplish when you walk out on stage?
BOOK: We hope to make original, present music each night, and chart new territory as much as we can. That challenges us to be sharp and open to the musical conversation that’s so vital to each of us when we’re playing. It keeps it interesting to us and the fans that are traveling and live-streaming our shows.
SANDS: As a bassist, do you ever wish you had drums on stage?
BOOK: Not in this band. The secret ingredient in bluegrass is that all players are in with the rhythm. We have to listen intently to each other, all of us, as a true unit.
SANDS: How do you construct the setlists each night and what goes into the cover choices?
BOOK: Our banjo player writes them for the most part. We all contribute in some way throughout the day, but he will sketch it out before soundcheck so we can rehearse any parts if needed. When we’re touring, we try to play something new each night. It’s fun for us to stay culturally relevant, whether it’s something happening in the news or an artist’s birthday, etc. It all goes back to that commitment to make each night unique.
SANDS: Has there been a conscious effort recently in sprinkling some of the 60’s protest songs into the sets recently?
BOOK: Absolutely. Our show in D.C. on inauguration day stands out. I was listening to tunes that day and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” came up and it hit me like a ton of bricks. So we played it.
You have to let the inspiration come from wherever it may. We focus on our music more, but it’s undeniable that the fans love when we play some songs they might not expect.
SANDS: You’re opening up for Galactic in New Orleans on a Saturday night of Jazzfest. How does a bluegrass band handle a crowd of funk fanatics on one of the biggest music nights in the New Orleans year?
BOOK: Our bands sound different, but it boils down to what we were talking about earlier — fun. Funk and bluegrass both provide that, and I’d imagine and hope the room will understand. I’m excited for our set and being able to sit back afterwards and watch those guys do their thing.
SANDS: Why does bluegrass fit so well in the jam world?
BOOK: Because bluegrass music is jam music. People were jamming together on acoustic instruments long before the rock and roll festival world got a hold of the idea.
SANDS: I have to ask. Who’s had a bigger influence on the band’s playing, Grateful Dead or Phish? And how have those guys shaped the Stringdusters’ philosophy?
BOOK: We love both those bands, but The Grateful Dead, without a doubt. Their song selection, sharing of roles, and live shows. It’s the framework in a lot of ways.
SANDS: Talk about the decision to bring more vocalists into the mix on recent records.
BOOK: Let’s face it – we’ve got a lot of testosterone in this band. We thought it’d be fun to mix it up and get some female vocalists in the mix. Nicki Bluhm has essentially turned into another member of the band at this point. She’s just incredible. We also noticed that some of our songwriting started to lean in the direction where it made more sense to have some feminine energy on the tunes. It’s been a fun experiment in doing something a little different.
SANDS: The coolest of your collaborations has been with my favorite modern songwriter, Ryan Adams. Talk about your time with him and how it came about.
BOOK: Nicki’s responsible for that. We have some mutual friends and she heard he was wanting to do some bluegrass-leaning stuff. It’s rare that I get awestruck, but the guy is an absolute genius that remains humble and hilarious. You can never plan these sorts of things, but I feel confident we’ll be working together again.