WinterWonderGrass: The Dusters Keep it Spotless

Tahoe Onstage

Andy Falco strums for the Infamous Stringdusters, appearing at WinterWonderGrass in Squaw Valley.

“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” -Genesis 3:19

Andy Falco will never forget the intricacies of his parents’ eclectic record collection in Greenwich Village where he was born.

“I remember will listened to a lot of Beatles,” he recalls. “And a little bit of country music.”

The collection traveled with them when the family moved to the Long Island suburb of Garden City.

“There was a Doc Watson record that we didn’t really listen to until we were older,” says the man who now makes his living as the bluegrass guitarist of the Grammy award-winning Infamous Stringdusters.

“I was getting into The Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers Band,” he says. “I remember first hearing mandolins and fiddles via Jerry Garcia and his acoustic projects with David Grisman like Old and in the Way. That’s kind of what led me to getting into bluegrass and finding my way to roots music.”

Like many ’80s American teenagers, Falco got his start playing electric music in garage bands before breaching the bluegrass world through a side door.

“I was listening one day to some early-in-the-dial jazz or blues FM station out of New York,” he remembers. “Reverend Gary Davis was playing a song on the radio and I remember thinking of myself as a kid that this old blues guy was doing a Grateful Dead song. Then I had the revelation that it wasn’t him doing a Dead song. The Dead was doing his song. That was a big moment for me. I started to work backwards to see where it all came from.”

Falco began regularly attending old-time jams in New York City and bluegrass festivals throughout New England. He met future Stringdusters Andy Hall (dobro), Chris Pandolfi (banjo), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle) hanging out late night with instruments in hand at Greyfox Bluegrass Festival, and International Bluegrass Music Association and Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America conferences.

“What makes bluegrass wonderful is how honest of a music it is,” Falco says. “That’s what turned me on to playing it from the beginning. Coming from electric music, one of the things first struck me is how easy it is to make music. You can be at a campsite and all you need are these simple instruments and you can make all these different types of rhythms with the strings. At the same time, there’s nothing to hide behind. How cool is that?”

Tahoe Onstage

The Infamous Stringdusters picked up the Hangtown Music Festival in 2016.
Tahoe Onstage photo by Larry Sabo

When original guitarist Chris Eldridge left Infamous for The Punch Brothers in 2007, the band asked Falco to join. Flash forward 10 years. After a decade of hard touring, The Stringdusters won the Grammy for Bluegrass Album of the Year this past January for the swirling, potent, and energetic “Laws of Gravity”.

In an instant, they went from infamous to just plain old famous.

“It is interesting,” Falco muses. “You don’t play music to win awards. You do it because you are passionate about it and you’re trying to create art that is unique and genuine unto yourself. My first reaction was that it was an incredible honor to be nominated among our heroes and contemporaries. You’ve been at it for so many years and now you’re being recognized for something that you put a lot of work into.”

“I honestly didn’t think we would win, but we did,” he continues. “It was a super exciting and amazing feeling. But where it really hit me was in the outpouring of email, phone and Facebook messages from colleagues and old friends. That’s when I realized it was something more special that I first thought. We’d had awards from IBMA before, but the thing about a Grammy is it’s such a universal accolade. You don’t have to be a musician to understand the scope of a Grammy and that helps put things in context for a lot of people.”

While some things have changed since the crowning achievement, most of what makes the Stringdusters one of the best bands in bluegrass today remains very much the same.

“We looked up to and learned from bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, and The String Cheese Incident,” Falco says. “They showed us what is possible and now we’re trying to do our thing with that. It’s a beautiful and special thing to be a part of. It’s all about trying to make your statement and evolve as an artist. That’s the driving force for all of us.”

For the moment, the Stringdusters are setting the bar for whole scene.

“When it comes jamgrass, there is always a tightknit camaraderie among the musicians,” Falco says. “We’re all out there together. We cross paths on the trail and there is a lot of history between the different musicians and bands who’ve collaborated over the years. There is a very real connection on a level that is really deep. I think we all sort of push each other to move the music forward.”

After the triumph of “Laws of Gravity,” the Dusters will be heading back into the studio later this year for a much anticipated follow-up.

“I think we always have our sights set on the next project,” Falco says. “Right now we are going through our new songs. All five of us write so there is a lot of different material to draw from. Everyone is presenting their songs to the band and we’re starting to work them out. The record is starting to take shape. We are at the time in the process where we start to say, ‘So these are the songs? This is interesting. We’ve never done that before’. That’s where a lot of that evolution happens.”

In the past, the Stringdusters performed new songs as they came about, but these days they wait until a record is released to play the songs live. The way they approach recording has evolved, too, as their methods on stage and in the studio have begun to merge.

“They are sort of becoming one and the same,” Falco says. “As we create these new songs, we are trying to bring in a lot of the stuff that we do in the live show like connecting songs through transitions and jam sections where we know that we’re going from here to there, but don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.”

Perhaps, for the reigning kings of bluegrass, the next level of music and career is all about living in the now.

“When we work to bring that sort of spontaneity into the recording, we’re capturing a moments rather than building on something,” Falco says. “We’re trying to hone in our writing skills with every record. What are we trying to say? What is our message? These are important details when you’re putting your name on things. We live in a crazy world. When we make a statement, what do we want to say to people? That’s the goal of an artist.”

-Sean McAlindin

The Infamous Stringdusters will perform April 6 at WinterWonderGrass in Squaw Valley with Steep Canyon Rangers, Fruition, Grant Farm, Shook Twins, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, John Stickley Trio, Rapidgrass , the Good Bad, and Vince Herman & Friends and on April 7 at Grass After Dark in Olympic Valley Lodge with Old Salt Union.

About Sean McAlindin

Sean McAlindin is a writer, musician and educator based in Truckee. When he's not drafting new story ideas, he can be found jamming with his Celtic bluegrass band, Lost Whiskey Engine, hiking for a local backcountry powder stash or hanging out with his daughter, Penelope.

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