Andy Dunnigan, front man for the Montana-based Bluegrass band, The Lil Smokies, thinks the genre he loves is on the verge of something significant. While mountain string bands may not be the first to top most contemporary charts, Dunnigan thinks that’s evolving, changing. That the comradery and harmony offered in the music is pushing it center stage and, if it continues to grow, people will continue to listen.
“It’s a complex music,” says Dunnigan, “and it’s starting to blossom into its adulthood. Our band pays homage to the roots of the tradition but we’ve also grown up in a time where we listen to a lot of stuff and it all gets funneled back into our instruments.”
In the 21st Century, bands like the Avett Brothers and the Lumineers have helped bring Americana and folk into the forefront of music consciousness. And though Bluegrass is its own distinct style, it often features the same prominent gang vocals, finger picking and forlorn songs turning into triumphant storytelling. The Lil Smokies are in the center of Bluegrass’ evolution with their rapid banjo plucks, buoyant choruses and music created out of a composite of influences.
The Missoula-based band, which will release its third album, Tornillo, January 24th, recorded it in a small Texas town of the same name in a secluded studio located on a 200-acre Pecan orchard. Though the group is based in Big Sky Country, the chance to record “off the grid” in Tornillo, which is located about 30 minutes outside El Paso, offered an opportunity to “unplug” in new, inspiring digs, says Dunnigan.
“When we’re on tour, we’re surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the big cities,” he says, “and everyone is always on their phones. So, we love it when we get the chance to go out into the woods – or in this case the desert – and detach. We got there and never left. That was the whole intent, to live and breathe the music.”
Perhaps Dunnigan should have guessed, since “Tornillo” translates to “bolt,” but spending time in the Texas studio after an exhausting two years on the road brought the band closer. They’re tighter than ever, he says, which is evident on the new album that, for the first time, features songs written by members other than Dunnigan. The result is a more “democratic” experience, says the front man, one that feels more like a collective.
To write the album, members brought in songs, which were often mostly complete, to workshop. For the pulsing, energetic track, “World’s On Fire,” Dunnigan says he’d written the body of it in Nashville but it needed an ending. So, he took it to the members and together they landed on a round-like ending (like “Row, row, row your boat,” he says) with different members singing different vocal lines.
“That’s the kind of collaboration I’m talking about,” Dunnigan says. “On previous albums, it would have been hard for me to not write all the music.”
Dunnigan, who played sports as a boy but came to play music in high school after some “good peer pressure” from his friends, learned the ropes of being a musician at the foot of his professional musician father who had a small “man cave” home studio and “treasure trove” of instruments around the house. Later, as a student at the University of Montana, Dunnigan would meet the members with which he’d start his band.
“The Lil Smokies are the only band I’ve ever been in,” he says of the group, which was jokingly named after the cocktail weenies. But the name, like the appetizer, persisted. “We were at our first gig at a biker bar saloon and we didn’t have a name. We looked behind us at this big tray of toothpicks for the sausages we devoured and the joke stuck.”
Of course, as the Bard would say, the band by any other name would sound as sweet. Its members are deft, adept at quick or meandering tempos, emotional in their fiddle or vocal displays. It’s a style Dunnigan loves for its musicality as much as its mobility. With Bluegrass, he says, you don’t need big drum kits or heavy amps. Instead, you just need your instrument and, in an instant, ten fellow musicians might surround you in sonic unison.
This type of freedom and friendship permeates the raucous Tornillo. The album’s second track, “Carry Me,” propels and heartens. “True Blues” is a romp woven together with introspection, capped by a joyous chorus. And the record’s final, titular track reminisces and offers hope born from affection and appreciation. It’s a rich record and one that will bring new things for both Bluegrass and Dunnigan’s band.
“It was alluring to get out of our natural elements and think differently,” Dunnigan says. “That brought a new vibe to the album and after feeling burnt out from the road, it glued us back together.”