The Lil’ Smokies have been smoking their way across the country this year, with their growing recognition (IBMA Momentum Best Band Award, Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition winners, Northwest String Summit Band Competition winners) bringing them East for the first time in the group’s career, many miles from their Montana homeland. I was lucky enough to catch the five of them on site at The Festy Experience in October for an enlightening interview. Check it out below, and get to know The Lil’ Smokies!
So this is your first time touring on the East Coast, right?
Andy Dunnigan (dobro): Correct.
How do you guys feel like you’ve been received over here?
Matt Rieger (guitar): Really well, we’ve been very pleased with the response. Very supportive audiences, especially given that it’s our first time out here. We couldn’t be happier.
Andy: It’s a totally different terrain, and I think a little bit of the momentum is picked up over here. Just the fact that we’re here right now in a tent in Virginia is pretty crazy. You know, we’ve only been touring for two and a half years, so it’s pretty cool to be over here already.
You guys play a lot of bluegrass-inspired music. Do you feel inspired at all by being in Appalachia?
Andy: In Boone, North Carolina, we got to play one of Doc Watson’s guitars and stuff, so definitely. That energy is palpable, for sure. This is the homeland, as far as that goes. There’s a lot of respect – and we have a lot of respect – for the genre. Even though we’re playing on the outer bounds of it, so-to-speak, we still have the utmost respect for bluegrass and all of its forefathers.
How did the name Lil’ Smokies come about?
Jake Simpson (fiddle): At our first gig we played, we didn’t have a name. It was in Montana, up in a cabin that was kind of a roadside bar. We had just gotten hired to play a private thing, and this guy got up to introduce us. He looked over at us, and he had a Little Smokie in his hand on a toothpick. He said, “What’s your name?” And we said “Oh, we don’t have a name.” And then he said, “To the Little Smokies!” and did a cheers with a Little Smokie on a toothpick. You can’t make that one up.
Matt R.: For the record, I’m the big smokie.
So you guys had a mandolin player, but recently that changed. There’s no more mandolin in The Lil’ Smokies. How has that affected your creative process as far as playing?
Andy: It’s opened up a lot of space within the band. We were a six piece and then we were a five piece. Then Jake joined on fiddle, and simultaneously our mandolin player was having some reservations about touring and spending time on the road. The timing was impeccable. Once we got Jake and then that happened, we talked a lot with the Stringdusters about how they kind of went through the same sequence of events. Really, it’s been a change for the greater good.
Jake: It changes everything I do, musically. As a fiddle player, when you play with a mandolin player, you’re always trying to listen to when the mandolin player is chopping, because that’s, in my opinion, 80 percent of what a mandolin player does, chop and keep the rhythm. Without a mandolin player, a lot of that responsibility falls on myself, Andy, and Rev (Rieger) to chop. We just have to really pay attention and figure out the arrangements of who’s going to be chopping where and who’s going to be filling, and whether or not we even need a chop. For me, being the newest member of the band, that’s what I noticed the most once Cameron left, the dynamic of the band and the way that the music sort of evolved without that chop. I think we evolved more melodically, and I kind of listen and hear that I don’t have to chop all the time. It’s changed our music a little bit.
So you guys won the IBMA Momentum Award for Best Band this fall, and then in 2015 you won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition. What kind of opportunities has this recent recognition opened up for you guys?
Andy: The awards are huge for publicity and notoriety. They’re big accolades in the bluegrass sphere. Telluride was the first thing, and previous to that we won The Northwest String Summit Band Competition. They have all been kind of stepping stones. It’s cool, you get to put it on the poster, and people who wouldn’t normally check out your music will be like, “Oh shit, I’m going to check out this show.” They’re big catalysts, and I think maybe they help with our own sanity and the fact that maybe we’re not as delusional as we once thought we were.
Matt Cornette (banjo): I think it’s been good for us personally just to kind of justify the amount of time we’ve spent doing this. Not that we need justification from some sort of award, but sometimes those little things are the icing on top.
What would you guys be doing if you weren’t musicians?
Matt R.: Oh boy, roaming the streets. I’m not sure (laughs). Honestly, probably working at guitar shops. I’ve always kind of done that, and I do miss it from time to time, but at the same time I pretty much never miss it. Now, no music at all? I can’t answer that one, maybe a professional eater.
Matt C.: Let’s see. Tonight’s Saturday, right? I’d probably be wearing a chef’s coat, sweating and getting my ass kicked on a kitchen line. And then probably going out to see music. Traveling and cooking, that’s what I would be doing.
Jake: Well, growing up I was going to be in the Air Force, or a Navy Seal or a race car driver. So, something really redneck, probably. I was actually taking flight lessons to go into the Air Force and be a fighter pilot, so that’s probably where I would’ve ended up had music not been in my life.
Scott Parker (upright bass): A used book store, a used clothing store, or a used car lot. Probably a used car lot.
Andy: I’d probably be where you’re sitting right now. I was in journalism and creative writing in college, so I always wanted to work for a magazine.
Author’s insert: At this point, I’d finished my questions and we could hear The Infamous Stringdusters playing on the main stage at Festy. The Lil’ Smokies had a set later on that night to gear up for. I asked the guys if they had anything they wanted to add, thinking they were ready to wrap it up, but I quickly found they had more to say..
Jake: I’d like to add one thing just for the record, whether it goes in your write up or not. About that Momentum award, so, it’s actually separate from the IBMA awards. It’s the Bluegrass Music Association’s way of recognizing music that is on the fringe of traditional bluegrass music. It’s a really cool thing that they’re doing, and I’m very honored to be a part of it. We’ve got some friends that have won some awards this year, and they’re sort of in the same vein of music that we play, like Billy Strings, a good buddy of ours. We’re not trying to play traditional bluegrass, and IBMA for the longest time – I don’t want to say they didn’t like that – but, they just weren’t really trying to recognize anything that wasn’t traditional bluegrass. I think it’s really cool that we get to be a part of the evolution.
What do you mean by “on the fringe”?
Matt C.: Some people might call it progressive bluegrass or newgrass. Other bands could be considered jamgrass or psychograss, there are all different kinds of names. Even folk can be considered for those awards. Anything. For example, we get a little jammy sometimes. We’re not just straight ahead like Flatt and Scruggs style bluegrass. Andy writes really incredible songs, lyrically amazing songs. And not to take anything away from traditional bluegrass songs, but some of them are a little antiquated, almost. We write songs about things that people can relate to nowadays. It’s almost like folk, singer-songwriter music, with bluegrass rhythm and instruments.
Matt R.: We’re really grateful to be here with The Stringdusters. It’s people like the Dusters and Greensky, and going back to Yonder and Leftover Salmon, who have paved the way for us. They had to fight through that to get us into that world where we could be recognized by the IBMA, so we thank them.
Who are you guys most excited to see live nowadays?
Andy: I mean, the Stringdusters are playing right now. I’m listening while I’m listening to you. These guys are a huge inspiration, so it’s an honor to be here. They curated this whole festival. As a band, they’ve got the same lineup as we do, so they’ve been really cool mentors. Fruition, they’re also doing something very unique. Everyone at these kinds of festivals is great, and it’s all being accepted in this sphere of acoustic, jamgrass, whatever you want to call it. It’s a big family, it’s really not competitive. We’re gonna have Mimi up tonight, I’m going to sit in with Fruition later. Everyone’s kind of rooting for each other, which I think is really different than a lot of genres in popular music today. We’re in this close-knit community. You see each other at these festivals and it’s all hugs and smiles. It’s kind of this traveling circus that keeps you sane.
Jake: We get to see each of these bands throughout the year, and every time we see each and every one of them, they get better. Everybody improves, and that’s what’s so exciting about watching everyone. It’s great to be here.
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, The Lil’ Smokies. We’ll leave you with a video of their performance of “San Fran” at Music City Roots Live From The Factory in June.