Deconstructing any notions the average person has concerning the demographic makeup or physical look of a bluegrass band (assuming the average person possesses any such notions), the six musicians who make up Nashville-based collective the Infamous Stringdusters either have or really want the record buying public to think they have the necessary tools to join artists like Nickel Creek and Old Crow Medicine Show on a gradually expanding list of contemporary groups able to make bluegrass palatable to those who don’t think they could possibly enjoy the art form. Examine the evidence: Fork in the Road features polished production and artwork depicting the fresh-faced band members clothed in vintage T’s and chic retro Western button downs. Hell, the album even features a John Mayer cover. If that doesn’t say mass appeal, what does?
Fortunately for the band, these qualities, which will be seen by some as evidence of crossover potential and may be interpreted by others as being contrary to the humble traditions established by the group’s forerunners, are matched, at times even eclipsed, by a tremendous amount of musical credibility. First and foremost, the band’s inclusion on the Sugar Hill label speaks volumes about their potential to hold their own with the giants of their genre. With a catalog that features releases (both past and present) by such notables as Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Guy Clark, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and a host of others, the label has long been a benchmark of quality in American roots music. Among the Stringdusters’ young members, there is experience touring and recording with an impressive group of commercially successful and critically acclaimed artists like Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Charlie Daniels, Chris Thile, Tony Rice, and Lee Ann Womack. Add the knowledge that members of the band have studied at such top flight music schools as Berklee and Oberlin and suddenly the Infamous Stringdusters no longer give the appearance of being young bluegrass punks, if such a designation exists.
Fork in the Road begins impressively with a consecutive string of five dynamite tracks which demonstrate the band’s ability to use different shades of bluegrass to rousing effect. “No More to Leave You Behind” opens the album in fine fashion, taking a wonderfully earthy instrumental solo and quickly expanding it into an invigorating all-out jam. On this track, Andy Hall (dobro) and Jeremy Garrett (fiddle) display the group’s penchant for tightly woven vocal harmonies, which prove to be a hallmark of the album as four of the six Stringdusters provide some type of vocal support at points throughout. The title track follows with a similarly crisp, clean sound; the immaculate, spit-shine production (facilitated by the band and co-producer Tim Stafford) is another trait heard consistently through the album.
A pair of mid-tempo shuffles, “Starry Night” and the aforementioned Mayer cover, “3x5”, turn the dynamic and rhythmic energy down ever so slightly, focusing instead on well-placed instrumental passages and melodic presence. “40 West” is the first of three instrumentals sprinkled through the twelve-song tracklisting and points to a strong essential of roots music: the telling of a story, in this case a sojourn, in such a suitable musical language that words become unnecessary.
Rather than serving as a bridge to further excellence or even as a musical palate cleanser, “40 West” can be seen, in the context that is to come, as the conclusion of the album’s best sequence. The next tracks to follow, “Tragic Life” and “Poor Boy’s Delight”, are average takes on topics that are diametrically opposite yet standard bluegrass themes: a crime of passion murder and a sweetly innocent small-town infatuation, respectively. The album’s next instrumental, “No Resolution”, serves as a brief respite before several more pleasant but underwhelming offerings. Penultimate track “Dream You Back” is a vigorous musical exercise and a return to the inspired energy of the album’s first half.
The curious choice to close with the seven-minute-plus instrumental “Moon Man” is a prime example of one of Fork in the Road’s most significant flaws. The album’s pacing leaves much to be desired, as the record is frontloaded with its most exciting and creative moments, leaving resulting tracks to suffer by comparison. Intermingling tracks from each half might have led to a more varied and consistent effort, rather than one that seems so divided. Allowing such an average ending to a work that begins so promisingly steals a bit of the luster away from the stellar credentials and immense promise the Infamous Stringdusters possess. There is absolutely no need for a group that can provide the merit for the buzz surrounding them at various points on the album to sound so common at others.
There is enough image, daring, and melodic dazzle on Fork in the Road to justify the band’s marketing as pacesetters and ambassadors for a flock of modern pickers and grinners. Accordingly, the group’s instrumental prowess and sufficient willingness to embrace time-honored musical principles will allow traditionalists to join in support. Being able to be all things to all people (or at least to all current and potential bluegrass fans) can take the Infamous Stringdusters far, provided they’re able to focus their efforts toward consistently capturing the creative spark of which they are so capable.