SMACK IN THE MIDDLE Chris Pandolfi sits at the center of the Infamous Stringdusters, and the epicenter of a bluegrass revolution.
Because its musicians play with fiddles and banjos and stand-up basses, there is an idea out there that bluegrass is as old as dirt. Essentially invented by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s, though, it isn't much older than your garden-variety rock and roll. But where rock and roll plugged in, turned it up, split into a million sub-genres, and convinced a few generations of kids to tune out, bluegrass did the opposite: stayed almost totally acoustic, stayed similar in sound and delivery, and created almost zero new fans.
Certain players (most notably Bela Fleck and the New Grass Revival) have tried to move the genre forward — and each year another group of college kids gets sucked into bluegrass through a Jerry Garcia side project. But go to a bluegrass festival and see if you see anything "progressive" in the year 2012. Here's how Chris Pandolfi, banjo player for the Infamous Stringdusters, described bluegrass festival promoters in his "Bluegrass Manifesto" of April 2011:
"They guard the music's traditional ideals as if they are in danger of being forgotten, which often means alienating more progressive bands like ours. Why? Why would a festival promoter ban electric basses or in-ear monitors (true story)? . . . I want to spread the good word about bluegrass, but to be honest these qualities are a major turnoff."
To say it drew attention would be an understatement. "It's a curse and a blessing," he says over the phone a year later, by way of trying answer his own questions, "but at the heart of it all is that to play bluegrass, you need to be an accomplished musician. No one breaks into the world of mandolin, fiddle, and banjo playing without countless hours of practicing and digesting the music. It makes the barrier to entry high, and the quality of the music really high as well, but it has the fans thinking that they're kind of better than everyone else."
Then there's the fact that bluegrass is so accessible. You just need an instrument and, oh, about 30 seconds of tuning.
"It's this funny dichotomy," Pandolfi says, "and the gray area in bluegrass between professional and fan is really blurry. They're hobbyists, and they love to play, and I don't want anything to change for them. It's not like rock and roll. At a bluegrass festival, a third of the people in the audience can play the instruments up on stage."
Just because they can play, though, doesn't mean they can write. Learning the bluegrass songs that everyone else knows is comforting. It makes you feel like part of something bigger.
If you write new songs, though, if you arrange those songs with horns and things you need to plug in (check the Stringdusters' new album, Silver Sky), all of a sudden the applecart looks mighty precarious. That forced the Stringdusters, after early days taking a safer path in the traditional bluegrass world of the festival circuit and labels with a built-in fanbase, into the music-industry wilderness, along with stringbands like Railroad Earth, the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, and the String Cheese Incident.