The Infamous Stringdusters – A Tribute to Flatt & Scruggs: Album Review

Habitual Grammy nominees The Infamous Stringdusters pay tribute to the Grandfathers of Bluegrass, Flatt & Scruggs.  Guaranteed to get you a-clappin’, a-stompin, and a-bayin’ for more

Release Date:  21st April 2023

Label: Americana Vibes

Formats: CD, Vinyl, Download, Streaming

We like a blast of bluegrass here at At The Barrier.  It blows out the cobwebs and helps the most uptight amongst us to shed inhibitions and shake a few limbs about.  And, when it comes to bluegrass, there are few finer exponents than our old friends, The Infamous Stringdusters.  Their 2022, Grammy-nominated album, Toward the Fray, stopped us dead in our tracks whilst we trawled the company thesaurus for superlatives; we called the band members – Travis Book (bass), Andy Falco (guitar), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), Andy Hall (dobro) and Chris Pandolfi (banjo) – names like wizards, magicians and jetpack pluckers with superspeed fingertips and we rhapsodized over the band’s ability to combine measured vocal delivery with breakneck, mind-sizzling instrumentation.  And, you know what?  We were right!

The Infamous Stringdusters were born in 2006, when Andy Hall and Chris got together with original guitarist Chris Ethridge at Berklee College of Music in Boston MA.  The three relocated to Nashville, where they were joined by mandolinist Jesse Cobb, fiddler Jeremy, and eventually, bassist Travis.  Any Falco replaced Ethridge in 2007 and Jesse Cobb left the band in 2011, creating the lineup that has stuck together ever since.

To find the idea behind this latest album, we need to step back in time – just a little – to 2021 and to another Grammy-nominated collection, the band’s A Tribute to Bill Monroe album, which celebrated the music of the man credited with the invention of the bluegrass and with coming up with the enduring name for the genre.  Between 1945 and 1948, Monroe’s band, The Bluegrass Boys contained, within their ranks, a young guitarist named Lester Flatt and a banjo picker with the memorable name of Earl Scruggs.  And there’s surely no-one in this world with a greater claim to the title of Grandfathers of Bluegrass than Flatt & Scruggs…  As Stringdusters’ bassist Travis says: “They’re legendary and, without Earl’s banjo, bluegrass just doesn’t exist the way we know it today.”  So, what better subject for a follow-up tribute album from our modern-day bluegrass maestros than that legendary duo – Flatt & Scruggs?

There will be few people indeed amongst the population of the Western world – or even the Eastern world, come to that – who haven’t, consciously or unconsciously, heard at least a snippet of the music of Flatt & Scruggs.  They’re the guys behind Foggy Mountain Breakdown, the breakneck battery of banjos that accompanies just about every car chase in every rural-based movie that ever came out of Hollywood.  And anyone over 40 will surely be familiar with the theme tunes to such 60s concept-comedy TV shows as The Beverly Hillbillies or Petticoat Junction – both tunes were the work of Flatt & Scruggs.  For this short collection, however, The Infamous Stringdusters have dug a little deeper than those (possibly dubious) treasures that lie on the surface.  But their digging hasn’t gone too far below ground and, to anyone with a passing interest in bluegrass in general, and the work of Flatt & Scruggs in particular, each of the songs presented here will be familiar.  To select the material for the album, each Infamous Stringduster went away to think about his favourite tune from the vast Flatt & Scruggs library to bring to the table – and that’s a process that has yielded a grand harvest.

A version of the 1954 Flatt & Scruggs single, I’d Rather Be Alone, gets the show on the road.  The song was proposed by Stringdusters’ bassist Travis, who recalls: “I reached out to my friend, Jon Weisburger, and asked him if he’d suggest a song that hadn’t been overdone and would suit my voice.  I was thrilled when he suggested I’d Rather Be Alone, because I was familiar with it, but hadn’t really played it much or learned the lyrics, and it was a perfect fit.”  It’s certainly a song that gets the album off to a rollicking start, with lots of nice smooth banjo picking from Chris and a respectful, assured and enthusiastic vocal delivery from Travis.  And, as we’ve come to expect from The Infamous Stringdusters, each member takes the opportunity to step forward for a sizzling solo.  Jeremy’s fiddle, Andy F’s guitar and, particularly, Andy H’s dobro are all outstanding, and it’s so nice to realise that THIS is just the beginning!

There’s more lightning picking on the gorgeous Will Tou Be Lonesome Too, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the heat generated from Jeremy’s frenzied fiddle-scraping was enough to set the studio smoke alarms off!  The pace is dialed back to somewhere around 85mph for the Stringdusters’ take on Blue Ridge Cabin Home, a song that originally featured on the 1957 Flatt & Scruggs album, Foggy Mountain Jamboree.  The vocal harmonies are wonderful and the whole impact is thoroughly enjoyable.

There’s telepathy at play when The Infamous Stringdusters let loose, and that telepathy is never more evident as when the guys take on the 1957 Flatt & Scruggs instrumental, Earl’s Breakdown, a close relation to that car chase rhapsody, Foggy Mountain Breakdown.  The breakdown format is that familiar bluegrass device in which each instrument within the ensemble takes its turn as the lead soloist – and it’s the format at which The Infamous Stringdusters truly excel.  And here, each member does full justice to a classic bluegrass tune.

After the breathless excitement of Earl’s Breakdown, the guys seem almost sedate on the delightful call-and-answer folk ballad, Cabin on the Hill, and they stick with that more sedate pace for closing number Down the Road, a song that first saw life as a 1949 Flatt & Scruggs single.  But, sedate or not, that doesn’t stop each band member stepping forward once again to slip in yet more deft soloing, whenever there’s a break in the lyrical storytelling.

This latest offering from The Infamous Stringdusters is a marvelous tribute to a genuine pair of bluegrass legends, by some of the finest exponents of bluegrass around today.  The spirit and vitality of the music of Flatt & Scruggs is captured and preserved, hopefully to allow a whole new generation the chance to delve into a timeless seam of music.  I’d defy even the most jaded listener to resist getting up on his or her feet and a-clappin’, a-stompin’ and a-bayin’ for more of this music, and I’d also challenge anyone who hears this wonderful tribute to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs to resist seeking out the original material that inspired this collection.

And, if you happen to be around such states as Nevada, California, Maryland, Iowa, Maryland, West Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin or Kentucky this spring, then you might just be lucky enough to catch The Infamous Stringdusters in live action – and WHAT an experience THAT would be…  Details of the band’s tour itinerary can be found here.

Watch The Infamous Stringdusters perform Earl’s Breakdown – a track from the album – here:

The Infamous Stringdusters: Website / Facebook / TwitterYouTube

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