As the adage goes, where there is smoke there is fire. It certainly rings true for Montana’s bluegrass favorites, The Lil Smokies, a band that has blazed across the country and delighting audiences with fiery pickin’ and passionate songs for almost 10 years.
The kindling was first set when the Smokies were busking for beers and tips in Missoula, eventually igniting into a small fire after it won the iconic Telluride Bluegrass Band competition in 2015. Since then, the heat from this band has only been intensifying with each passing show, tour and festival season.
The Lil Smokies couldn’t be hotter right now and are stoking the coals to warm up fans for flannel weather season. The band just released a cover of “Rocket Man” by Elton John, the first in its run of SnowGhost singles, which were recorded in a single day session at SnowGhost Music with engineer Brett Allen (The Avett Brothers, Kris Kristofferson). The collection highlights some of the fan favorite cover songs the band has been playing live for years.
In addition to new music, the Smokies are following up the summer touring schedule, which included one of their biggest show to date at the KettleHouse Amphitheater in Missoula, with a fall tour opening for buddies and bluegrass tour-de-force Greensky Bluegrass. In anticipation of the band’s sold-out show at the Crystal Bay Casino on Wednesday, Nov. 7, resonator guitarist and principal songwriter Andy Dunnigan shared with Tahoe Onstage what touring with Greensky Bluegrass is like and who he would like to play with in fantasyland.
Tahoe Onstage: When I was in the process of setting this interview up, you guys had been in recording sessions at SnowGhost Music. Would you be able to share a little bit about that experience and what you were doing in the studio?
Andy Dunnigan: Time is a weird beast these days. I think we were in there a couple of months ago before tour. We were in there for just one day and were recording some cover tunes. Six cover songs that we did mainly live with a little bit of overdubs, because we had the time constraints of having to do it in one day. We’ll be releasing those songs every month or so, starting this month. That was a really fun experience and SnowGhost was where we recorded “Changing Shades” in Whitefish, Montana, where I’m at right now. I didn’t think we were going to get quite as much done as we did but we are really comfortable in that studio and ending up pumping out six tunes in one day, which is great.
Why did you choose the songs that you did for the run of releases? What spoke to you about these songs?
We have been playing most of these songs for a while, kind of requested by popular demand. Some of these were influential to us when we first started playing and the songs kind of have an appeal to all sorts of demographics. We wanted to have a record of them at some point so we went out and recorded it.
I looked more into SnowGhost itself and that place has recorded ambient and avant-garde type stuff as well. Do you have a musical space that is an outlet for you that is separate from The Lil Smokies and bluegrass-type stuff? Do you have a late-night gig as a house DJ that no one knows about?
That’s a good question; I wish I had more (laughs). I was just thinking about this, I need something when I’m at home. The Lil Smokies take up so much of my time and thought process, which I love. But I envy some of these other bands that have side-projects and different things that are 180 degrees away from what they usually do, like ambient guitar tracks or do a DJ set, things you would never think.
There are some times I am really curious about it, especially since I love guitar and I love making weird noises on that with loop pedals and really esoteric sounds. Someday, hopefully, I can do that or maybe bringing that onboard with a Smokies album. We were just kind of talking about that and if there is room for it and the repercussions of that, if there are any, of me experimenting with some different sounds.
Where do you see that vision being? If you could tinker with it, where would you add different sounds? What does Lil Smokies pushing the envelope possibly sound like?
I think it’s a slow evolutionary process for sure. I don’t think you can just go from Lil Smokies’ “Changing Shades” to the next album having dramatic drums, weird noises and snyths. It’s gotta be a slow build. We kind of experimented on one track we did, where we started the intro and added a little bit of weird noise. It kind of scared me how much I liked it. So you could really start to tinker around with different instruments and different kind of ambient noises, just throw it in there. I’d kind of like to on this next album and we’re kind of having that conversation now. We’ll see. I don’t anticipate drums anytime soon, but we’re all open-minded and I think we’re seeing some really open-minded ideas being thrust into the spectrum.
One more question along that line. In fantasyland, if you could collaborate with someone outside your musical zone, who would that be?
There’s a producer I really love and some people in the band really love, Blake Mills. His solo stuff is fantastic but he’s worked with everyone. He used to be in a band with Dawes, which would be a good segue into your question. I’d really love to collaborate with Dawes, at least as far as songwriting goes. I’m really into great songwriters and I love everything that band has done. They’re an electric band but they do some acoustic ballads and stuff. But I’d love to collaborate with both those people once — in dreamland, of course.
They just have so much sound to them and you don’t realize it until you see them live.
No you don’t and they have such a huge catalogue of songs. They do that “Evening With” and they play damn-near three hours of music. Those guys are I guess in their 30s and it is just amazing how many albums they’ve put out and singalong-type songs they’ve had as a young band. They are something to aspire to for sure.
They are one of my favorites and so is the band that you’ll be joining with in Tahoe, Greensky Bluegrass. You’ve been on tour with them before and seem to be pretty good buddies with them. I’m curious to know how does touring with Greenskey Bluegrass affect you musically onstage and how does that affect you when you are off stage?
Great question. Well we just finished up with four or five shows with them on the East Coast. We’ve been able to call those guys buddies just by seeing those guys at festivals and sharing the stage with them. It’s pretty awesome. They’re stand-up dudes on and off the stage and they are a testament of pursuing dreams and living life out on the road and making it manageable and palpable.
We were noticing onstage, since they are kind of more of a jam band, we kind of let ourselves get a little out there, even if we only had 45 minutes. We were inspired by that and we’re just starting to do a little more improvisation and letting the jams go. That would be one major cause and effect.
Off the stage, we are seeing what those guys do and how they manage themselves and the band. Of course we watch the performance. We pay attention to the crew since they have an unbelievable crew. It’s all taking notes and learning how it gets done in the upper echelon.
I realized this today. You play resonator, so does Andy Hall from Infamous Stringdusters and Anders Beck from Greensky. All the prominent Dobro players in bluegrass right now are all “And” names. Have you ever linked up before and just had ya’ll jamming?
Yeah we did one time at Andy Hall’s birthday party. Lil Smokies were just pulling into town at the time and we got invited up to his house. He wanted to have a bluegrass pick for his birthday, which I thought was awesome. We all stayed pretty late and had some tequila and had some fun. By the end of the night it was just me, Anders and Andy playing triple Dobro, which was pretty cool. That was a pretty special moment. Andy is just a special guy, no one compares to him on the Dobro and he is a force to be reckoned as far as I’m concerned.
I was also thinking about how far you’ve come as a band, starting in Telluride. I saw this picture of you with Amy Helm and Trampled By Turtles at the KettleHouse Amphitheater in Montana over the summer. That was a really big crowd and as a fan it really is cool to see you playing to those sizes. Have you had the opportunity recently to kind of look back think about how far you’ve come?
Honestly, the one opening for Trampled at the KettleHouse Amphitheater. Montana is still our home base and it was kind of our homecoming gig of the summer. We probably had maybe 4,000 people show up early. And you know, we used to busk in the streets of Missoula and play for tips and beers and that was 10 years ago almost. So when we were standing out and looking at the crowd, it was probably the biggest crowd we’ve ever played for in a condensed amphitheater like that. That was mind-boggling, though. That was one moment where I was actually thinking about how far we’ve come in the actual moment. I love it when that happens.
Just recently we were on the East Coast. It was after sound check and we were at the Brooklyn Bowl and I decided to get fresh air and a drink. I turned down this alley and the sky of New York City was right there. I kind of forget where I was. It was the last show of the tour and we’ve come such a long way. You take things for granted and things become difficult but I think it’s good as a band and as a person to see your life from a little distance. I’m very humbled and thankful.
You guys had a contest not too long ago for fans to send in artwork to be used as a sticker that you would sell at the merchandise table. It got me thinking about how much art and music crosses paths. I don’t know if you are in charge of the art, but what do you like to see in your artwork as a band?
Good question. For a while we were in charge of art but we let it drift a little bit. Sometimes that gets in the hands of management; we just don’t have the oversight. But I think recently we made it a priority because it is our product. I loved the sticker competition. We were brainstorming about how to get people involved and we had such an amazing turnout. I had fun scrolling through some amazing art. There were so many great entries. For our art, we don’t want it to be cliché with mountains and banjos. I want it to convey somewhat of an emotion. It’s a tough question because art is hard to have a vernacular for. Somewhere in there is an answer (laughs).
For me, I collect band art via posters and festival wristbands and stuff like that. Do you collect music memorabilia or posters or any band art?
Oh yeah, I have a big scrapbook. I’ve kind of blundered the last year but I try and cut out newspaper articles. I was really good when we were more local and I was around more. When we were mentioned in little articles and magazine clippings and stuff that was about us, I’d cut it out to kind of look back on. But I’ll still throw in wristbands and pictures and cool shots of us playing with our heroes. I used to collect all the posters and the festival wristbands when I was younger, I don’t think that ever gets old. As a player and someone who attends all the festivals, it’s still fun.
— Garrett Bethmann