By David Templeton | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Jeremy Garrett does not agree that his band’s new album is especially dark. A fiddler and founding member of the Grammy-winning bluegrass outfit the Infamous Stringdusters, Garrett is aware that the tone of Toward the Fray (out Feb. 18) is more straightforwardly political than much of what he calls the “cheerful hippie music” the group is known for. His own mother, Garrett admits, recently called him up to express concern about the record’s cover art, which depicts a little girl in a gas mask, clutching a teddy bear, with the smoking ruins of a city in the background.
“I know some people have said that Toward the Fray seems like a darker record than what we normally put out, and I do understand why they’d think that,” acknowledges Garrett, appearing on Zoom in his remote studio two hours from Denver, Colorado. “But honestly, I prefer to think of this as a ‘lighter’ record, in the sense that we’re shedding light on subjects that are pretty difficult to talk about, subjects that maybe haven’t been a part of the conversation for people in our musical genre, whatever that is. That was a really big part of our focus with writing and recording Toward the Fray—to maybe help make that conversation happen.”
Often placed in the “progressive bluegrass” category, the Infamous Stringdusters first emerged in 2006, the result of relationships established between the bandmates in Nashville. Banjo player Chris Pandolfi and dobro player Andy Hall met while students at Berklee College of Music in Boston. With original guitarist Chris Eldridge, the friends relocated to Tennessee where they were introduced to Garrett and original mandolinist Jesse Cobb. Bassist Travis Book answered an audition call and was welcomed into the band, which evolved a bit more when Eldridge departed in 2007 to join the Punch Brothers, making room for guitarist Andy Falco. After recording three albums with the group and helping build it into a steady touring band, Cobb left the group in 2011.
Since then, the Infamous Stringdusters—Hall, Falco, Book, Pandolfi, and Garrett—have released numerous full and extended albums, a number of live recordings, and the 2020 Christmas album Dust the Halls. The high-spirited “Magic #9,” from the album Things That Fly, was nominated for Best Country Instrumental Performance in 2010. Seven years later, in 2017, the band won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for Laws of Gravity.
Work on Toward the Fray, Garrett estimates, was begun about seven months into the pandemic shutdowns, a remarkably fruitful time for the “’Dusters,” as they worked remotely on a number of projects, including solo albums and singles, the aforementioned Christmas album, and a tribute to Bill Monroe.
“I don’t think we lost a step at all, musically, during the last couple of years,” he says. “If anything, we got better. We’ve become tighter and more cohesive. That came in handy.”
Most of the work the band has created since March of 2020 has been done apart, each musician recording remotely, with the pieces to be assembled from a safe distance. For something as bold and emotionally raw as Toward the Fray, however, the bandmates knew they wanted to record the album all together in the same room, which is why they recorded Toward the Fray in a studio in Denver.
“It’s been crazy times, living through this pandemic, and seeing how it all affects us in different ways,” Garrett acknowledges. “The ’Dusters always put our hearts into things, but this one here, it feels set apart from our other records.” Noting that the ’Dusters were in the middle of a tour when the world shut down, he describes it as a shock, requiring a bit of stunned reflection before deciding what to do, after all their concerts were cancelled and they went their separate ways. “We had basically split up, at least from touring on the road,” he says. “We didn’t know how long it would last, obviously. No one did.”
During that time, with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining voice coupled with the escalating rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, Garrett and the other Stringdusters found their individual songwriting taking a decidedly responsive turn. “In the ’Dusters, we’re in a similar age group, we’re of a similar mindset, in a lot of things—not that we agree on everything,” he says. “But what was happening in the world affected us all equally, and we were all looking to write about that. Everyone was trying to figure out how to be a poet, how to put these troubling things into lyrics and music.”
Allowing that at such times there is always the danger of one’s writing turning out to feel pretentious, Garrett says the band felt they had no choice but to take that chance. “If you let your heart take you where it really wants you to go,” he says, “and just be honest in your songwriting, then in the end the result will come out as it needs to be.”
One of the songs that Garrett wrote for Toward the Fray is a heartbreaking confessional titled, “I Didn’t Know,” a propulsive tune that grapples with the realization that he’d been blissfully ignorant of the fear and hatred so many people of color live with every day. “I wrote that song with my buddy John Weisberger,” he says. “For me personally, the specific places that my songs came from on this album were places of pain and discovery. I watched the news right along with everyone else, and I watched George Floyd be murdered right in front of our eyes on national television. It was eye-opening to me. As a middle-aged American white guy, I always thought racism was pretty much something in the past, that we were moving forward from that past. I didn’t know things were still like that. The Black Lives Matter movement really weighed heavily on the Stringdusters, the reality that this is still happening, and that it’s not getting the recognition that it needed to from people like us.”
The other song Garrett contributed to the new album is “Hard Line.” “That one came from me questioning why some people choose such a hard line on all these things, these issues and arguments everyone is so heated up about right now,” he says.
Not everything on Toward the Fray is so pensive and topical. Among the album’s lighter moments is the instrumental tune “Revolution,” which features a powerhouse fiddle solo. “It’s a got a real ’Duster vibe, that one,” nods Garrett. “There were a couple of instrumental tunes on the block, but this one spoke to us in a special way, so it’s on the record.”
In response to a remark that “Revolution” could become one of those tunes that young fiddlers listen to over and over to play along with Garrett on the solo, he takes it as a huge compliment. “I did that a lot growing up, listening to people like Kenny Baker and some of the cats before me that paved the way,” he says with a grin. “I remember moving the needle on a lot of vinyl LPs, dropping it down on the first part of the fiddle break, listening to it over and over again to hear what they were doing. I got pretty good at landing the needle right in the groove. I wanted to pick up every little bit of what these musicians were doing. It’s a fun way to learn, that’s for sure.”
Of the ’Dusters’ collaborative style, and the initial difficulties of writing an album from five different locations, Garrett explains that once one of the members wrote something to be considered for Toward the Fray, they’d meet up on Zoom to hear the new tune and discuss it. “That’s our style, Zoom or otherwise,” he says. “We’re all songwriters. We write on our own, then bring the songs together and see if everybody’s digging them. Then, in the studio, we take the songs from a very skeletal outline and make ’Duster music out of them.”
The title track was written by Andy Falco. Though the full album won’t be released until mid-February 2022, the title song has already been released as a single. The response, Garrett says, has been mostly positive. “Look, we’re not trying to be preachers, or get up on a soapbox,” he says. “I’m sure not. I’m a private person; that’s why I live way out here in the woods. We’re just part of the experience that everyone else is part of. Writing songs is how we share how we’re feeling about it, and if there’s a useful message in there somewhere for someone, well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
Which brings Garrett back to the subject of the album cover.
“It’s interesting how the cover has been hitting people,” he says. “We definitely wanted to make a statement with that cover. We wanted it to be provocative. What we didn’t want with this one was a fluffy record. We’ve done plenty of fluffy records in the past, and we like that kind of music. But right, now, with so much going on—racism and politics and social disparity and the environment in trouble, how that whole train is rolling along—man, if we don’t all do something to wake us all up and try to help this earth and help each other by loving our fellow human beings, we’re going to be in big trouble. It seems like we really are heading toward the fray, and if we’re not careful, we’re gonna get into it.”
So, does Toward the Fray represent a temporary divergence from the norm for the Infamous Stringdusters, or is the band’s embrace of complex current events part of an overall evolution toward more timely and topical music?
“Who knows what the future holds?” Garrett says. “Art and music have to evolve and change and be adaptable, which we’ve seen in a big way during the pandemic. Every musician I know has had to adapt and change just to remain a professional musician. The art part of it is the same way. You have to let it be what it’s going to be. As for whether this is part of our evolution or just something different we did along the way, I can’t tell you. Is this our future? I don’t know, man. I’ll let you know when we get there.”