There’s a moment about midway through “You Can’t Stop the Changes”, the first track on Things That Fly, the Infamous Stringdusters’ new album, that momentarily transitions from a midtempo bluegrass number into an ethereal bridge of swirling canyon harmonies that then steps back up into a dobro-driven traditional arrangement. It’s an example of the kind of stylistic diversity that makes the Stringdusters one of bluegrass’s most important bands. By embracing both classic and progressive forms, they blend the old and new together in a way that the great trailblazing bluegrass outfits always have.
There is no shortage, of course, of bluegrass bands today who nod backward at traditionalism while pushing the boundaries of the genre. What separates the Stringdusters is their dedication to meticulous craft in both their instrumental and vocal performances and the elegant refinement of their studio work. In this way, the Stringdusters stand apart from the jamgrass bands that thrive by catering to the hordes of noodle-loving jiggers and shufflers but often sacrifice a level of expertise (and, arguably, taste) in the process.
A Stringdusters show isn’t exactly a tame affair. They can play circles around most of their peers, and the audience microphones at their shows indicate that the jam community has embraced them. Yet a Stringdusters show is a more polished, and often more skillful, display than the anything-goes crapshoot of a typcial jamgrass show. Furthermore, while the ‘Dusters are plenty progressive, incorporating the sort of musical expansiveness that Chris Thile has explored with Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers, they also remain devoted to classic drum-tight picking and singing.
Much of the group’s scopic sound comes from the fact that, at six members, they’ve made room for both full-time dobro and fiddle, on top of banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass. (Guitarist Chris Eldridge departed for the Punch Brothers, but no problem; his replacement, Andy Falco, sounds terrific). They also have three first-rate lead singers, giving them wide flexibility and input, and they go even further on this, their third release, by laying in organ here and there, and inviting Dierks Bentley and Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan to add guest vocals.
One of the new album’s best moments is a cover of U2’s “In God’s Country”. There’s a tendency to dismiss their cover of the Joshua Tree cut as another hokey bluegrass version of a rock classic, so common these days. Instead, “In God’s Country” is a beauty, thanks to a particularly clever arrangement, with the dobro handling the riff over the verses, the banjo rolling over the minor-key chorus, terrific singing (fiddler Jeremy Garrett takes the lead) and harmonies throughout, and a breakdown in the middle that has the dobro paying tribute to the Edge’s trademark chiming guitar.
The record is full of such highlights: “All the Same” is a delicate neo-grass ballad that proves that these guys understand that restraint is just as important to letting it rip. They know how to do that, too. “Magic #9” is a Nickel Creek-style instrumental that turns each player loose. It’s intricate with all of the fast-picking you’d expect, with solos burning every which way across the scales, but one that comes with a sublime melody that keeps the song reigned in on the tasteful side of indulgence. “Those Who’ve Gone On” is another hotshit ripper with a wicked dobro solo by Andy Hall. It’s such a barn-burner that you might not notice that it’s about existential panic.
In the end, Things That Fly is a stunningly generous offering. The stirring chugger “Taking a Chance on the Truth”, the dazzling instrumental “The Deputy”, the hillbilly toe-tapper “17 Cents”; it’s a dynamic, deeply musical new set of songs, and all hail the vibrant production of Gary Paczosa. Things That Fly finds the band tightening as musicians, writers, and record-makers. It should be the album that seals the deal on the Infamous Stringdusters as the best of the new crop of bluegrass guiding lights and does for bluegrass what New Grass Revival, J.D. Crowe & the New South, the Seldom Scene, and others did before: set a new standard and raise the bar for everyone else.