After a lively evening at Denver’s Bluebird Theater hosted by The Lil Smokies and featuring special guests, The Infamous Stringdusters’ Chris Pandolfi and Greensky Bluegrass’ Paul Hoffman and Anders Beck [Greensky Bluegrass], Live For Live Music correspondent, Tory Pittarelli, had the great fortune of sitting down with the Smokies dobro player Andy Dunnigan.
In many ways, the conversation was a continuation of a recent bout of “interview tag” at WinterWonderGrass. The same characters are involved—of course, Greensky’s lighting designer, Andrew Lincoln, weasels his way in, plus guitar player Matthew Rieger (also known as The Reverend) makes his way into the chat as well. There’s lots admiration and respect in the air, and, as always, a dash of mischief.
The Lil Smokies are in the middle of a Colorado run. If you’re reading this interview on the day of its release, you’ve still got a chance to catch them. They’re playing the Fox Theatre in Boulder tonight, on Friday, March 23rd.
Tory Pittarelli: If you guys were going to get wild one night, step outside your genre, and do a tribute show, who would you pick and how do you think it would go? Macy Gray maybe? [The Lil Smokies’ ended Thursday night’s show with a cover of Macy Gray’s “I Try”.]
Andy Dunnigan: Ha, no, definitely not Macy Gray. We’ve been incorporating some metal… well, a little bit. The Rev, the long-haired, bearded gent in our group came to the band with a pretty heavy background in metal. There are certain jams that I look back on and he does some heavy metal stuff, which is fun. But I’m not a heavy metal guy. I would love to do Dawes. Dawes right now is my favorite band, and I think that there’s a lot of parallels with what we do lyrically. We do a couple of their tunes. I would be so honored if we did a Dawes tribute night.
Tory: I was thinking Eminem for you guys, but you’re going with Dawes.
Andy: Well, that was my second choice. And [Andrew] Lincoln was whispering that in my ear.
Andrew Lincoln: You know what part of your band I fell in love with? Back when I was responsible for the rise of your career? [laughs]
Andy: Back in the 80’s? The disco era?
Lincoln: I’m totally kidding about that—however, I was a judge in the Northwest String Summit Band competition, and I was obsessed with the Lil Smokies. I told you guys that later that night, and then you won. I was just obsessed and I voted for you guys. One of the things that stood out was your songwriting. Then, what stood out is when we had you guys do a pickoff, and you guys just shredded it.
Tory: Thankfully for your band, this is not the case, so I’m comfortable asking this question. If you didn’t have the following you have, would you keep playing music like it didn’t matter that you have to make a living? What keeps you going through that? It obviously begins that way for nearly every band, and it isn’t easy.
Andy: That’s a really good question. As Lincoln was talking about, I think it was really the band competitions that we won. We’re two for two by the way. We quit after two; they were so stressful. But I think those were the big impetus for us to keep going, especially nationally. We were such a Montana band. And then there was String Summit, and that was the first one that got us dialed in on a more national scale. But I don’t think that we’d be doing this right now if we didn’t have the following. I mean I think we’d be doing it but it’d be like a local, weekend warrior thing. In Montana. I think I’d be a journalist.
Tory: Big pay-grade jump…
Andy: Well, this doesn’t pay either, ha! I’d like to think that we’d still be doing it and have the passion for it, but it is such a sacrifice! This last year, we all realized the sacrifice that this takes. And it’s all year long.
The Reverend: The only thing that could prevent me from at least trying to play music for a living would be a disability or the complete inability to play. Until that happens, I don’t care how many people I’m playing to. I’m going to keep trying.
Andy: I would still be playing music. It’s one of the only things I’m really good at doing, but if we kept coming back to these rooms and they were half-filled all the time, I think I’d lose the drive or the force behind it. I’d always play music, but I don’t think I’d do it professionally. The thing that keeps us going is the fan base and the people, especially in Colorado. We get to come and fill these rooms up. That’s what I take home, and that’s what keeps us writing and keeps us in the hamster cage of a van.
We just got back from the East Coast, and we played a lot of small, empty rooms—that’s also a driving force too, in the same sense. You know, you want to capture that, because you know you will. Maybe you’ve got certain markets in West Coast, but you haven’t quite gotten the East Coast because you haven’t been around as much, but you know you will.
Tory: In our last interview together, I spoke with Billy Strings about the supportive environment within the bluegrass family, how it isn’t a competition, and how awful it’d be if it was. Then, tonight, you guys did a Billy Strings cover of “Dust In A Baggie” with Paul [Hoffman] and Anders [Beck]. It’s all so full circle, in a way.
Andy: That strikes a huge chord with me. That’s kind of why we’re here in the first place. When Fruition came around, back when we were just starting to be a band, we would host those guys at our house. We’d play in the garage. We were just starting to play music. And I remember Jay [Cobb Anderson] and Mimi [Naja] especially being like, “What the fuck are you guys doing not playing out on the road? You should be a band.” It was that kind of camaraderie and cheerleading, and that happens so much within this sphere.
I think that is probably the coolest thing about this universe that we live in. We went to Nashville, and Billy sat in with us. Fruition was covering one our tunes for a while. Fruition covers Greensky, and there’s that love bond between those guys. I think everyone is just rooting for each other. The fact that we got Anders and Paul tonight, and then Pandolfi from the Dusters, it’s just so serendipitous that they weren’t on tour. Everyone’s just so happy for each other. We’re playing bluegrass, and the fact that people are coming around, it’s starting to become en vogue, and these guys are heroes for us. To have them on stage tonight especially was amazing.
But again, there doesn’t feel like there’s any breakneck competition, like so many markets are. We aren’t playing pop music or rock ‘n’ roll. Once you’re initially in this scene, you see the superficial ceiling, and then these guys become your friends. It’s a very special family, and I feel so privileged and so grateful to even be involved. It’s amazing.
Tory: Speaking of influences, when I walked in the venue with Pandolfi, the first thing we noticed was that you guys were arranged on the stage in a very Dusters-like way. When I see you guys traveling around the stage in the way that you do, I think Dusters immediately.
Andy: Yep, absolutely. That’s a complete [Infamous] Stringdusters thing. I remember seeing them when we first started to play music before we specifically started the Smokies. They would crowd around each other, and they build an environment around the person that has the spotlight. I thought that was amazing. Bluegrass is typically stationary, and it’s this kind of linear on-stage thing, which is cool and captivating. When the Dusters came out and they started moving around—they seem like the entrepreneurs of mobility. And they’re so fun and exciting. Sometimes they’ll be almost screaming, you can see the euphoria on their faces. When we saw that, it seemed organic, like they were cultivating the sense that they’re picking in a living room and focusing on each person.
Tory: So, Anders loves to talk about how the dobro is the easiest bluegrass instrument, and that’s why he picked it up. What do you think? Do you agree with him or do you want to tell him to fuck off?
Andy: Dobro is not the easiest instrument, I’m gonna tell him to fuck off. He always says that by just playing the dobro, you’re already in the top five best dobro players of all time—which, I mean, arguably could be true. He’s such an influence on me, but he’s also right because there really are only a few around. We were at Andy Hall’s birthday party two nights ago, so it was me, and Anders kind of instigated the invite for us. It was cool to be around the dobro players, because sometimes when I see another dobro player, it does kind of seem like seeing a space alien, you know? It’s not like a mandolin sit-in or a fiddle sit-in, they’re kind of ubiquitous within the scene.
When I first started playing music, I played a lot of guitar. And I write on guitar. Then I realized I wasn’t good enough to play it on stage so I have to play dobro. For me, Ben Harper was the gateway drug to good music. Then I got into bluegrass and seeing Anders and Andy Hall and, obviously, Jerry Douglas, but Anders and Andy were more-so in the progressive sphere, which was so cool. They were doing something that I wanted to do. And our band was pushing for that. And to see Andy and his ability to sing and play, that’s still a big hurdle for me. I write on guitar. I play dobro. And I’m kind of the front man that plays dobro. I’m trying to sing and play at the same time.
Tory: Well you have the voice of an angel. And you know, as they say, “Let Anders Sing!” He’s got the voice of an angel too, whether or not he wants to admit it.
Andy: I wanted him to sing “Girl From The North Country” tonight. We should have made him do it. I just have so much respect for those guys. I love them. They’re the deities I bow to.
Tory: So, some artists require a mini fan on stage to get their hair to blow back in the wind as they play. I couldn’t see one in front of The Rev. Tell me it’s just the gods blowing their sweet breath into his face?
Andy: Well, I think there definitely some gods blowing their sweet breath in front of the Rev. He’s like if the Jolly Green Giant played a little guitar. He’s such a special guy, and he’s so happy and so consistent. He’s the archetype of a happy-go-lucky guy, and he loves playing guitar. Every time I look over there, he’s beaming, he’s dancing. That charisma and that energy are so attractive in a band setting. Obviously, you have to have the chops, but a larger portion is that you have to be compatible and able to travel with someone. That was the first thing that struck us about him.
We’ve had a lot of personnel changes in the last year. For a long time, we always thought it was skill level, chops, songs, but now that we basically live on the road, it’s like, “Hey, do you wanna watch Family Guy later on tonight? Because I do…and I hope you do too.” Those tiny little things, that’s what keeps a band going. Rev and Jake [Simpson] are sweethearts. Their hearts are in such a good spot, which means more than any kind of triplet or lick that you can play on stage.
Tory: I guess we should talk about Scotty [Parker] too, since he’s called you twice during this little chat.
Andy: I mean Scott is one of my best buddies alive. I don’t even know what to say about Scott. He definitely is the glue of the band. Before we had our tour manager, front-of-house guy, Scott was the referee of The Lil Smokies. He would drive. He would do a lot of the behind the scenes things. He’s like a silent assassin. A human metronome. I think people play their instruments, and they play music how they live their lives. And I think Scott is a fucking true-blue person in that regard. He is supposed to be a bass player. He’s right on time, he lives right on time. Let’s say that again. Scott lives right on time, and he directs us right on time. We are never late. We are punctual because of Scott, and we are on time because of Scott.
Tory: How about Matt [Cornette]?
Andy: Matt started the band with me. He’s one of the two founding memories. I moved to Missoula, and he was playing in another band. When I first moved there in 2006, I was a very naive, pliable, moldable human being. We went to a Jerry Douglas show, and his band opened up. He was such a good banjo player, even back then. Still is. I remember thinking, “I would love to play music with this guy.” I could rave about Matt forever. He got me into this scene in Missoula. He also is a silent assassin. That guy has progressed so much in the years we’ve been playing together. He’s the married one in the band too, so I know it has taken a toll as far as the time and the sacrifice. I love Matt.
Tory: So when are you moving to Colorado? Already asked you this, when’s it happening? I’m really pushing for it.
Andy: I think about it all the time. I really feel connected to Colorado, and I’d love to move here one day. What’s weird is, even before I started touring and before I started playing in a band, I always had an intuition that I would live here. Like, as a child. I’d never even been to Colorado. I thought I’d be here one day. That seems like the trajectory.
Tory: You guys are going to light the Fox Theatre up on Friday night, aren’t you?
Andy: We’re gonna light it up! Macy Gray tonight. “Wonderwall” at the Fox.