The Lil Smokies, Missoula’s progressive bluegrass outfit, has been touring nationally to back their third release, Changing Shades. They achieved regional fame after winning the 2015 Telluride Bluegrass Band competition and 2016 International Bluegrass Music Association’s Momentum Band of the Year award, but now, “bluegrass band” is a misnomer. This album illustrates why.
The group has morphed from its bluegrass beginnings into a band exploring new territory. Dobro-phenom Andy Dunnigan, who rarely uttered a peep in the early days, is now their main singer and songwriter, revealing his honed baritone voice. Other members, with equally dazzling chops, are Matt Cornette, banjo; Scott Parker, bass; Jake Simpson, fiddle and vocals; and Mattthew Rieger, guitar and vocals.
While older bluegrass groups pioneered a progressive style structure with longer improvisations and influences from other genres, they maintained the orthodox thump of 4/4 rhythm, skipping the offbeat.
The Lil Smokies prefer a relentless tempo characterized by the bass playing each beat while the banjo fingerpicks speedy rolls in tandem, creating a ceaseless, galloping background over which the vocals glide. And, instead of trading eight-bar breaks, for example, the pickers dart in and out with clipped riffs, sometimes solo, oftentimes in unison or harmony. It’s a lightning-fast style that they stretch into longer jams when playing live. And it’s electric.
Dunnigan wrote all but one song here; they’re largely autobiographical, like “The City.” He was in San Francisco with heavy heart when he heard David Bowie passed. It’s got cantering banjo and soaring fiddle, and great harmony vocals.
“Feathers” has a gospel feel and nifty three-part harmony; and Dunnigan channels his inner Dave Matthews on “Hitchcock.” There’s a jazzy sensibility and conversational lyrics, and a monster fiddle interlude à la Stèphane Grappelli. I like it!
Guitarist Matthew Rieger’s folk/rock composition, “Where You Are Today,” could be a hit. His burry baritone on the verses is complemented by a soft rhythm, instruments sneaking in softly with wiggly riffs, the song crowning on the Crosby, Stills and Nash-infused chorus. Great dynamics here! Well done, fellas!
– Mariss McTucker