The Kalamazoo, Michigan, band Greensky Bluegrass has been together twelve years. From its humble beginnings as a group of friends learning to play music together, Greensky has become one of the top nationally touring bluegrass acts.
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The band originally modeled its sound on the acoustic arrangements and close harmonies of progressive bluegrass bands like Seldom Scene, but over the years, it has added a fusion of styles including rock and reggae.
“I like how we have a foot in all these camps,” says songwriter and mandolin player Paul Hoffman from the road one day, recently.
Alongside groups like The Infamous Stringdusters and Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky has helped develop a style of bluegrass that appeals to jam audiences. The band has played major festivals this summer like Maryland’s DelFest, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and Michigan’s Electric Forest, among a dozen others.
In July, the band makes its debut at Red Rocks Amphitheater, sharing a bill with New Jersey jamgrass outfit Railroad Earth and the New Orleans funk band Galactic.
Greensky has been picking up accolades in both the wider bluegrass community as well as the pop music sphere since winning the Troubadour Contest at Telluride in 2006. Sam Bush was a special guest at a recent show at San Francisco’s Fillmore, while Rolling Stone declared Greensky the “quintessential” band at Golden Gate Park’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
But Greensky’s 2009 album, Handguns, shows the band is much more than a soundtrack for concert revelry.
Handguns tells the stories of farmers struggling amid fears of the nation’s financial crisis. It’s an update to the Dust Bowl ballads that Woody Guthrie wrote during the Great Depression.
Hoffman wrote “Lose My Way” about an older friend who’d lost his job, but soon the song seemed to reflect on his own fears.
“I found myself afraid of what I’d be worth without this,” Hoffman says about his musical career. “It comes from the struggles of our career,” he says.
Some of the best lines on the album are also funny and poignant observations on life. “Should have been a farmer and blamed it on the weather,” Hoffman sings on the title track, while on “Don’t Lie,” he admits, “I haven’t left the house in three days, it’s getting hard to explain how I’ve been and what I’m up to.”
But Greensky is also the story of its other members. Founding guitarist Dave Bruzza leads on “Cold Feet,” bringing a Jerry Garcia high-lonesome vocal and Robert Hunter-esque story arc to the song’s folky goodness. “I hear your voice in everything I write, a hundred songs all thrown away,” Bruzza sings, stepping aside for impressive dobro and banjo breaks from Anders Beck and Mike Bont. Classically trained bassist Mike Devol holds the group’s tight sound together.
As Americana has taken over the airwaves, Hoffman says he sometimes wonders how Greensky’s version of roots music fits in.
“We’ve seen this music around us gain commercial success. We’re scratching our heads,” he says, mentioning Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and The Avett Brothers, all of whom were nominated for Grammys this year.
“Ten years ago, bands like that just didn’t exist in the popular media limelight,” he says.
These questions are surely in the back of Hoffman’s mind as he and the band work on the follow-up album to Handguns.
One thing is clear, though: with a fast-growing fan-base, and top-notch songwriting and musicianship, the sky seems to be the limit for Greensky Bluegrass.