Hard touring quintet have evolved and propelled the music further since their early beginnings as a band.
Andy Dunnigan is taking a bit of a much needed break.
After almost straight touring since February, the member of Montana bluegrass act The Lil’ Smokies is chilling at his parents’ place in Whitefish before the quintet heads back out on the road for three gruelling months during prime festival season.
All of them seem to be the typical bluegrass or folk-themed events, such as The Moonshiner’s Ball in Kentucky, the BBQ, Blues And Bluegrass: A Taste Of Michigan event, the Pagosa Folk n Bluegrass Festival in Colorado and, um … the Furry Friends Festival in Cincinnati?
“I just saw that,” he says. “I saw that on our Facebook page, it’s like a bring your dog, dog-friendly bluegrass festival.
He laughs again. “Some of the places this job has taken me. And hilariously it won’t be the first time we’ve played a dog event. We played a dog show in Montana years ago called Wine and Bitch — it was like a wine dog show. And we were on a big stage and no one was clapping, no one was even listening to us, it was just a lot of dogs barking and doing their business out in front of us.”
Well, presumably there will be none of that on Saturday night when The Lil’ Smokies make their Calgary debut at the Webber Academy Performing Arts Centre for a taping of the Stampede City Sessions.
They’ll also undoubtedly be in fine musical form as, again, it’s been a solid few months of being on the road to start the year with the only extended break being a week or so to record their first new album in three years, which is now mixed, mastered and “ready to go” for a September release.
All of it has, Dunnigan admits, made the five-piece — rounded out by Scott Parker on upright bass, Matt Cornette on banjo, Jake Simpson on fiddle and Matt Rieger on guitar — a pretty tight machine on every level.
“It’s fun to watch and hear the improvement that happens almost every night when you’re playing that much,” the dobro player says.
“Certain songs you play every night they start to evolve and everyone’s so in synch with each other. It’s really neat, actually, experience. And you can feel yourself getting better, you’re dexterity, when you’re been pretty much playing every night since February, it’s amazing the transformation that happens.”
Dunnigan’s own musical journey is one that has also gone through its own changes and turns, with him remembering the usual early faves and influences including Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. It was the kind of classic pop and rock foundation you’d expect for him to have, especially when you find out he has a musician father, John Dunnigan.
“I remember one day, my dad plays banjo, and he gave me the Deliverance soundtrack,” he says.
“So I came up to my room and put that on. I remember hearing Duelling Banjos and there was a moment when I was listening to that song and I was transcended.
“Which is funny, because it’s Duelling Banjos, almost a joke song. But it was the sound of that music that did something to me. I’m sure if I can really articulate it, but pretty soon after that I started playing banjo … and just got inundated with that music and became a purist for a very long time.”
Which eventually led him to The Lil’ Smokies in 2009. He was attending college in Missoula and at “some beer-drinking gala event,” when a bluegrass picking started up between some at the party, including members of what would become the band (although they have gone through some lineup changes of late, Dunnigan notes).
From there it was busking around town, which led to gigs, later to some higher profile shows — they performed with such notables as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers — the group then eventually going on to win some festivals and competitions, including The Northwest String Summit Band Competition in 2013, and earning best band nod at the 2015 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, as well as winning the Momentum Award for Best Band in 2016 from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
“To be honest those were the catalyst events that created this, what we do now,” Dunnigan says.
“I think that maybe we were disillusioned in our own lofty goals as musicians and actually people perhaps liked it. Just getting the attention from outside of Montana was really important for the band’s survival.”
And, of course, continuing to evolve musically has also contributed to The Lil’ Smokies longevity and upward trajectory.
As Dunnigan says, no longer is he the bluegrass purist of those Duelling Banjos or college days. In fact, so much have the quintet evolved that it led to a recent conversation with their management that led to a larger discussion about the music, itself.
“ ‘There is an elephant in the room because we don’t want to be a bluegrass band,’ and they were like, ‘Well, you guys are,’ ” he relates.
“But it’s almost a philosophical question, a sonic question of what constitutes bluegrass. But what we’re doing lyrically and melodically … is kind of propelling bluegrass into other genres and echelons. It’s important to do, with all music and all genres.”
The Lil’ Smokies play Saturday night at the Webber Academy Performing Arts Centre with The Lovelocks as part of the Stampede City Sessions.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at email@example.com. He likes beer. Buy him one.