Andy Dunnigan of the Lil' Smokes doesn't really want to be categorized as bluegrass. That's a mighty strange stance coming from a dobro whiz whose sextet features such standard-issue bluegrass instruments as fiddle, banjo, string bass and mandolin. But, Dunnigan acknowledges with a laugh, that's "the stigma of wielding bluegrass instruments."
Let me tell you this: If these guys can win over someone like me, for whom a little bluegrass goes a long way, a guy who can have his Mandolin Daily Requirement filled by five seconds of that little chirpy bastard, this band has grown well beyond the rigid environs of one of the most constrictive musical genres there is.
"Yeah," Dunnigan agrees, a mischievous twinkle in his faded-denim blue eyes. "This isn't that 'marry-your-cousin' type of bluegrass."
Dunnigan and I sat down at a local brewery on a recent sunny afternoon to sample some lip-smacking ales and discuss the Lil' Smokies' eponymous debut album, which is set for release on June 28.
I had been afforded a sneak preview of the CD earlier, and as I slid it into my car's player my Spidey sense was tingling with bluegrass apprehension. But by the time the third song rolled out of the speakers, I was banging the steering wheel in time and singing harmony with the chorus at the top of my lungs.
The other people at the gas pump were not amused.
The bands that have the most staying power tend to pull musical threads in from various directions, and the Smokies are no exception. Dunnigan admits that most of the guys learned their chops in bluegrass outfits, but these are six guys with diverse influences and broad musical background. Fiddler Jesse Brown, for instance, screams in the punk band Amidst the Chaos. Along with Dunnigan and Brown, the Smokies include Pete Barrett (guitar), Scott Parker (upright bass), Matt Cornette (banjo) and Cameron Wilson (mandolin). The band's genesis in the winter of 2009 is a testament to the wide palette of styles evident in their CD.
"We all kind of met the same night at a party. It was a bluegrass jam, and we stayed up 'til dawn playing Bruce Springsteen songs," Dunnigan says. Founding members Wilson, Barrett and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Anderson decided to form a band. It was meant as a side project, but "it turned into a monster with a mind of its own."
Anderson tragically passed away in February of this year. He had left the band in 2011, but was an integral part in the early shaping of the Lil' Smokies' sound. The guys in the band were crushed by the news of Anderson's death.
"He joined the '27 Club,'" Dunnigan says.
They decided to honor their fallen mate by including one of Anderson's songs, "Whiskey," on the CD. "It was a heavy thing, recording that."
The recording was done at Type Foundry Studios in Portland, where artists like Peter Buck, The Decemberists and Missoula's own Stellarondo have made albums. The Lil' Smokies play live so frequently that the musicians have learned to adjust their dynamics on the fly. Dunnigan says that cohesiveness made it easy for them to record the CD "95 percent live."
Although the Smokies have taken four years to record a debut—putting energy, instead, into doing live shows—this collection of songs is mostly new material. The band has only recently forayed into writing lyrics for their lively, tightly-woven acoustic arrangements. Dunnigan wrote the majority of the songs, and like many song writers, drew his inspiration from the wreckage of a doomed love affair. He'd followed his girlfriend out to California's Bay Area, but the relationship imploded—he offers no details—and he returned home to Missoula six months later, ready to put pen to paper and pour out his anguish.
The Lil' Smokies' are tighter than a Speedo on Tommy Lee. Call it newgrass or Americana with extra banjo, the band's sound is an update to an old genre. But these guys can still crank out weapons-grade bluegrass if need be. Their résumé attests to this, listing opening slots for Greensky Bluegrass, the Emmitt-Nershi Band, and perhaps most memorably, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers at Ogren Park last summer.
Will they win over other Montana music fans who rarely dip their toe into the straight and narrow stream of bluegrass? All signs point to "yes."
Lil' Smokies play a CD release show at the Top Hat Fri., June 28, at 9:30 PM. Free.