Just last week, premier jamgrass band The Infamous Stringdusters live-streamed a Zoom party on their official Facebook page, in which all five members showed smiling faces on screen while trading off solo performances of their favorite songs. It was the first time since the onset of the pandemic, and the closing down of live entertainment, that the band had made a public appearance in full, and despite a couple of wonky tech issues, fans were thankful. Thousands tuned in to just see the band together and hear a few harmonies and some witty banter.
But most if not all fans might agree that virtual couch-touring is a far cry substitute for the real thing—in the case of live music in general but certainly in the case of The Infamous Stringdusters shows. Energy-explosive and emotionally vibrant, rich in both improvisational jamming and in songwriting, there’s not much else in the bluegrass world as continually captivating as a Stringdusters set. While the bluegrass and music world at large may be missing them, the faith remains that they’ll be back one day soon enough.
In the meantime, The Poke Around caught up with the band’s dobro player, Andy Hall, for his perspective on life pre and post quarantine days. Chris Snyder, avid music fan and concert goer and a close friend of The Stringdusters, sat down and chatted with Hall for ten questions that range from his favorite musical collaborations, to being an online music teacher, and more.
Chris Snyder: In the mid-2000’s, you made a trip up to Boston and met with Chris Pandolfi and Chris Eldridge. Was that a musical connection at first note?
Andy Hall: Most definitely. That would have been January of 2002 actually that we met in Boston. We decided to record some things just on a whim, just for the heck of it. We were into the same type of music and scene, and within a day of meeting we were rehearsing for a recording session to see what we could do. As soon we started recording and rehearsing, we knew that we were all kind of in the same boat. Trying to get really good at our instruments but having our own unique flavor and sound. We got the recording back and we all went home, went our separate ways. That recording solidified the idea that we wanted to do a band at some point.
The Infamous Stringdusters have been touring the country for about fourteen years now, more popular today than ever, I’d say. Over the years, what has changed in your lifestyle and what has remained the same?
Circumstances always change the nature of your travels, like where I live, how much time I have to practice at home. All of these things change and will continue to change. What stays the same is the innate desire to play the dobro and to play music. That is always there and hopefully The Stringdusters will always be there as well. The things that remain constant are the sort of musical passion I have for The Stringdusters and for playing dobro. All the while, all the other stuff changes. I mean, including right now, in the fact that we are grounded from touring for an unknown amount of time. My desire to play with the band is always there. You will have those core constants in your life. Touring gets a little easier over time but it’s still challenging. We’re not sleeping in the van anymore but we may have to go back to that. You never know! Those circumstances may always change. You might get more popular or less popular. The way you have to travel—it may get better or it may get worse. In the end, all that matters is my love of the band, the music, and the dobro.
Right now you guys would be gearing up for summer tour. Are there any festivals that you will really miss because the uncertainty of everything that’s going on?
We’ve been doing this for quite a while now and there’s a bunch of festivals that we keep coming back to. From GreyFox, to Blue Ox, String Summit, to DelFest. The list of festivals that we are regulars at is pretty long. Then there are other festivals that we haven’t done that many times that we’re missing, such as Charm City Bluegrass and Rooster Walk. One of the big ones was Telluride. We were going to close The Main Stage on Saturday night, which is a real benchmark for us. Having grown up dreaming even going to Telluride then being able to play there and moving up through the ranks. It was going to be our first time headlining Saturday night and to miss that is a bummer. The main thing I miss is just hanging with the guys. There are so many amazing shows and festivals but what I’ve learned most is playing with the guys, hanging with them, and seeing all my other friends backstage at festivals. Connecting with people.
Your live shows are full of energy and you vary the setlists every night. To a fan that would come out to one of your shows for the first time how would you describe ‘An Evening With The Infamous Stringdusters?’
One of the cool things about going to shows as a fan is that everybody has a bit of a different experience. I love that. Some people go as a big group, to see each other and to hang out, and the music is sort of the setting for people to meet up and chill. Other people go because they are totally mesmerized by the music itself, and they don’t want to talk to people when the music is happening and others come because they want to meet a girl or a guy. An Evening With The Infamous Stringdusters could be anything that you make of it. But from our perspective, we want to put on a show that can serve all of that. We play a type of music that is pretty intense and high energy, so we try to do what we can to make sure people are engaged in the music part of it. We want people to hang and socialize too, that’s awesome, but we hope to make the music engaging enough that people want to view the stage and hear the sounds, to be one with the band in a deliberate way. We hope a “Night With The Stringdusters” is just a night that you won’t forget. The experience of the music and the people there, it’s a place where you’ll have memories that will last. To create a communal space with our music to provide something meaningful to people.
The band and the crew do seem to have a great relationship with the fans. How would you describe your fanbase and what makes them so special?
They’re very caring and kind, which I like. That’s not necessarily the case with all fans groups I’ve known. People are supportive, kind, and really stoked on the music. The friendships that are made with Stringdusters fans are relationships that last outside of the band. I love that about our fans. They have the ability to lift each other up, always going towards the light and the positive. That’s what we try to cultivate too. It makes sense because that’s what we try to put out from the stage. Our music is a message of positivity, of light and love, and the fans seem to get that, and I absolutely love it!
You have been teaching dobro through ArtistWorks for a while. How does it feel to teach students, whether it be beginner students or students that are a little advanced, on an instrument that’s near and dear to your heart?
I like teaching and playing dobro because it’s a weird instrument. I’ve always tried to be unique, and the dobro seems to have a tight knit community because it’s such an oddball instrument. A lot of times, you run into people that even if they’re into music, they don’t know what a dobro is. It creates a nice bond with the students or people who are just into the dobro. Especially with my students, it’s like a little club that not everybody knows about. The little secret dobro club. You’re learning this very unique, cool sounding instrument, and it’s all because the dobro is sweet, soaring and beautiful sounding. That’s why people get into it, but part of it is because we’re unique and playing an instrument that not everybody knows about, and it’s fun to feel like you’re an ambassador for this instrument. All my students are little ambassadors for the instrument and find me. They’re out there showing their family and friends “Hey! Look at this cool instrument I play!”
The list of musicians you have collaborated with must be a mile long. Are there any instances of guest sit-ins across your career that come to mind as extra special?
There’s been some fun ones. Certainly playing with Dolly Parton was a big one, and getting to play with Earl Scruggs. Some of the biggest moments of my life were not even onstage but before going onstage. When I auditioned to play with Dolly Parton, a few of us sat around in her studio just jamming, acoustically in chairs in a circle, just playing. When I auditioned to play with Earl Scruggs, it was just me, Earl, and this fiddle player just sitting in Earl’s living room playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Sometimes, the greatest moments are those intimate moments where you get to be with one of your heroes and idols in an offstage kind of intimate setting. Where it’s just a few of you, and you get to see the raw power of talent of these artists. I played with Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks at The Library Of Congress for this songs to Billy Joel event. Playing with Ryan Adams at Telluride was really cool. The interesting thing to me about playing with these well known artists is that when you sit across from them, you realize why they have become a superstar. They just exude an energy and a presence. You may not be a Dolly Parton fan, but when you sit in a space with them, there is no way to not feel that energy from them. I don’t know what it is, but I realize that’s what made them so popular.
And its not just the music side, but the humanistic side, too, that you can really see in some of those people.
Yeah! It really is. It comes through when they talk or even when they just enter a room. It’s like this aura that I don’t even know how to describe. But they have it. Like an energy, and it comes through in everything that they do. Earl Scruggs had that, Dolly Parton had it, and it’s interesting. Some people call it “star power.” It describes the type of energy that these people have.
You actually got to interview a good friend of yours, Jerry Douglas. How was it to interview Jerry?
It was awesome! Jerry is a hero of mine. I’ve known him for some years, quite a few years now. He loves talking about dobro stuff. He’s like me! I may have been a little bit nervous but not really because I know how much he likes talking about dobro. That’s why I thought it would be fun to talk to Jerry because he’s a “dobro nerd” just like me. You just sit down and you just start talking about dobro stuff and you’re good. Jerry is one of those people that exudes that energy and aura. You can hear it any time he plays anything on the dobro. It was fun to be a small space and close one on one with him and get to hear his stories. The thing about Jerry is he’s been so deep in music for so long and has played with everyone under the sun. His wealth of knowledge, not just about the dobro, but just the world of musicians in general is fascinating, he got stories. He’s just a wealth of knowledge as it was a pleasure to get to interview him.
The Stringdusters, I’d personally call you five guys a ‘band of brothers.’ How would you describe your relationships between each other?
We’re all very unique and different as people. We’re all very strong willed, and the way we move through the world. We are all connected because of our goal and our musical connection. To bring The Stringdusters sound and music to people. It’s all these different personalities, in very different people but are intimately connected by this goal of creating a “Stringdusters sound”. It’s pretty cool.
After this pandemic, and what is going on in the world right now, what are you most looking forward to?
Gathering together with people for music. That’s the deal. Coronavirus is a tough one for music because we can do things online but the thing that I love most is getting together with a bunch of people and creating that energy. You can only get that when you’re doing music in a space with other people. Really, I just miss jamming with people. That will happen before we can do shows, thankfully. The first thing I want to do is get back with other musicians and just play. Hopefully that’s not too far off. Then after that, I want to play some shows, see my friends backstage at a festival, and travel. Those are all things we can’t do now but we’ll get back to it. As soon as we can, we’ll be doing it.
Below, check out that “She’s Got A Way” Andy Hall mentioned performing with The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines at The Library of Congress in honor of Billy Joel. For more information about The Infamous Stringdusters, head to their website here.