NORTH ADAMS -- The Infamous Stringdusters have won the hearts of bluegrass fans, but their appeal has been steadily moving beyond that audience and into the rest of the world.
The band plays tonight at 9:15, as part of the FreshGrass Festival at Mass MoCA.
The band includes Andy Hall (Dobro), Andy Falco (guitar), Chris Pandolfi (banjo), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), and Travis Book (upright bass).
Book joined in 2004, just as the first line-up was coming to fruition, after a chance meeting with them at the annual bluegrass convention in Louisville, Ky. Book walked off an elevator with his bass -- by coincidence, the still-forming group was seeking a bass player and not having any luck. Book was in invited to come to Nashville for a formal audition -- a year later, he was in the band and living in Nashville.
The roots of the band began when Berklee College of Music graduate Andy Hall headed down to Nashville. He had met Pandolfi at Berklee prior to graduating -- Pandolfi would move down in a few years after his own graduation -- and Jeremy Garrett in Nashville. With two other original members also in place along with Book, they released their first album, "Fork in the Road," in 2007, with four more albums since.
Prior to the encounter in Kentucky, Book was living in Durango, Colo., and playing with as many bands, of as many genres, as he could. One of those bands was helmed by a Georgia native with long background in bluegrass, and the introduction to the music that he provided Book with chang ed the course of his musical career.
"I really fell in love with the scene around the music, and I love the harmony," Books said. "It reminded me of singing in church with my family, singing parts. I loved that it was such a social music, I loved the festival scene. I was all in at that point and went from the electric bass to the upright bass. It was just a really good fit for me and that's pretty much what I've been doing for the last 10 years."
The challenge for the Stringdusters from the very beginning was to maintain credibility by honoring the traditions of bluegrass music, while still allowing their musical instincts to guide their direction and achieve a sound that stood out from the norm. It was a matter of deciding what to embrace and what to move forward with.
"We were blessed with really diverse musical backgrounds," said Book. "Several of the guys, having studied at Berklee, were steeped in a lot of jazz and improvisational art forms. I came from more of a jam band background, so we all came to bluegrass with a really broad perspective on sound and what music could be. The common thread was our love of traditional bluegrass"
With bluegrass as the common language between them, using the system of the original art form as a springboard to ex ploring some of their own ideas.
"The traditional art form of bluegrass is amazing and it's fun to play," Book said, "but we were all really inspired to make original music that was true to our experience. From the very beginning we straddled that line."
Part of the move forward -- both musically and career-wise -- was dependent on the what bluegrass had already laid down over decades. There was no point in arriving on the scene and claiming they knew better right off the bat -- the Stringdusters had to build credibility before they messed with too many formulas.
"It was essential for our career to engage the bluegrass community and the bluegrass traditionalists," said Book, "not only because we love that theme. And it was a great launch pad for our career, a common fan base, but we also knew that we didn't want to be an impressionist band or impersonators of this music."
The band's first record was embraced by the International Bluegrass Music Association, a sign that they had achieved what they set out for right off the bat. The band wasn't content to sit still with that approval, though.
"Immediately as we started playing shows, we were integrating more improvisations and more different types of rhythm than just the standard two beat bluegrass," Books said. "The further we go down this path of playing music to gether, the more music we hear and the more diverse our influences become, and I think the more interesting and the more unique our music becomes."
The Stringdusters continued in this manner, gradually uncovering what they could and couldn't do, and what kind of sounds they could make as a band. This evolution of sound was part of the plan all along, but one of the biggest lessons the band learned along the way was not about sound, but about performance.
"We had a major revelation at some point probably about three years ago," Book said. "It dawned on us that for our music to be at its best, it really needed to be about more than just us playing the music on stage. There was this larger experiential element to a live show. The music, the show, the experience is unique and different every night, and it requires an immense amount of presence from the band."
"The major revelation was our presentation could be much more natural and much more in line with our instincts. That is to say that the perfection of the solo or the perfection of the performance was secondary to the uniqueness of the experience."
The band moved from playing for seated audiences concentrating on the musicianship to more open venues where the aud ience can experience the per formance however it wishes to.
The band's philosophy is that it's your Saturday night, you do with it what you want -- just know that you are in a place of like-minded people who seek the same experience, and that includes the band itself, who is there to provide a one-time-on ly experience for your night out.
"That's bigger than the notes we play, the notes we sing, the songs we play," Book said. "Adopting that philosophy has made playing music together a much richer experience and it's also made our shows just infinitely more enjoyable for people. Our expectation isn't that the audience do anything in particular, and at the same time, that has really freed us up to be a little less self conscious and focus a little more on being present and listening to each and allowing the music to be what it is on that night."
Book thinks that while that resonates with general music fans, who are generally surprised by the accessibility of the music, it also sits well with their bluegrass fans, for whom such an experience is not the norm. That's still part of the Stringdusters' challenge -- even after finding success, they still are conscious of not moving so far away from what bluegrass fans might enjoy, and do their best to walk the two worlds they feel they inhabit.
"There's not this thing in rock music like there is in bluegrass," he said. "No one ever listens to a rock band and goes, ‘that's not rock music.' Thing about bluegrass -- and jazz has it going on too -- that whole attitude of judgment and comparison is really antithetical to what we're all about as musicians."
"Part of our revelation years ago when we decided that we wanted to play for more open minded people was the acknowledgment that some of our existing fans may not be prepared or they may not be interested in coming along for the ride with us, but we believe in our music and our music, and it has to be meaningful for us."
Book acknowledges that the band occasionally makes some creative choices that might be curious to hard-core bluegrass fans, but hopes that the challenges to the pure sounds of the genre will not only challenge listeners, but expand their worlds just as the music does to the Stringdusters as they perform it.
"My dad always taught me that if you listen to a record the first time and you struggle with it, you don't like it, if you give it some time it may end up being one of your favorite records," said Book. "That takes a lot of effort as a music fan, but we take music very seriously, and if something is really, really easy to digest, it probably means that you're going to get it out of your system pretty quick."
The Infamous Stringdusters can be found online at www.thestringdusters.com.