Greensky Bluegrass is definitely not your grandfather’s bluegrass band. Although Greensky sounds like it has the wisdom and musicianship to have led many a Friday night fiddlefest on a Blue Ridge mountainside, the band formed in 2000 in Michigan. The band is now touring relentlessly in support of its third studio album, Five Interstates, released in August amidst a summer of festival appearances that included Rothbury, Northwest String Summit, Hookahville, and Yarmonygrass. Eight years since its formation, the band is, in many respects, just hitting its stride.
The current formation is less than a year old, consisting of dobro player Anders Beck, banjo player Mike Bont, guitarist Dave Bruzza, bassist Mike Devol, and mandolin player Paul Hoffman. Bont, Bruzza, and Hoffman founded the band, and were shortly thereafter joined by a bassist and a dobro player that eventually left the band after the release of the first album, Less Than Supper. By the time they recorded Tuesday Letter in 2006, Devol had joined, and with him, the quartet won first place at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado. In 2007 the band released a live CD, Live at Bell’s, recorded at a brewery in Kalamazoo, the band’s home base and the hometown of some of its members.
Late last year, dobro player Anders Beck played his first official show on New Year’s Eve, having sat in for a month to get the vibe of the band. Coming off stints with Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band and the Wayword Sons, he was drawn to Greensky specifically because of the group’s songwriting. “You can be the greatest pickers in the world and not have great songs,” he says. “It means something,” he admits, but says in order to take off in live improvisation, it works better if there’s “a basis of great songs to build on.”
These past nine months of serious touring began early this year with a “Ski Tour” run of Colorado and other western states. The schedule ramped up over the summer, when members of Railroad Earth asked Greensky to open for them on their album release tour. The two bands have had a close relationship since 2005, when they were randomly scheduled to play a co-set at Blissfest, an annual Michigan festival. “We had to sort through it all onstage,” says Devol. A friendship was ignited, as well as a collaborative effort; Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth produced Greensky’s last two studio efforts. “Those guys have really gone to bat for us since we’ve met them,” says Bruzza. “They’ve had us out to Jersey, so we’ve bonded with their friends and family. We’ve already had a lot of cross-pollination from their fans.”
Five Interstates reflects the increasing amount of time the band has spent traveling. Hoffman’s yearning vocals are balanced with Bruzza’s more brusque country sound throughout the fifteen tracks. The album’s lyrical themeit’s a thrill to hit the road, but even better to come back homeis in accordance with the way the album was written and recorded: Hoffman and Bruzza wrote most of the lyrics while on tour, but the band returned to Michigan and holed up in a cabin on the Pine River in Hoxeyville to lay down the album’s tracks in only five days.
The result is thirteen originals and two well-chosen covers that pay homage to the greats: “Freeborn Man” by Jimmy Martin, and “What’s Left of the Night” by Benny “Burle” Galloway, a Colorado songwriter renown for his timeless lyrics (Yonder Mountain String Band recorded an entire album of his songs on its 2003 collaboration album, Old Hands). Galloway also contributes an original tune to Five Interstates that he co-wrote with dobro player Beck, the mid-album track “Train Junkie.”
The impressive original songwriting on Interstates showcases a mix of classic folk, bluegrass, and country. The road-themed lyrics suggest the viewpoint of a young traveler who is still learning the lessons of the open highwaysand having a damn good time doing it. But the album isn’t without its diversions as well. Hoffman was inspired to “breach new topics” this time around, and perhaps the best result of that decision is “Reverend,” the second track on the album, which steps inside the mind of a draft dodger. “It’s kind of about war and avoiding it, andI hate to sound heavybut human sacrifice and being willing to give for something else,” he says. “It came to me melodically before I really had any idea what it was about, and when I brought it to the band, everybody had a lot of ideas for where we could go with it.”
Neither “Reverend” nor “Train Junkie” had been played live before being recorded in the studio, which, Hoffman says, allowed the band more freedom to work with their sounds. “Some of the other songs we’d changed a bit because we came up with better ideas for how to put them on [an] album, but at some point were still tied to the way we’ve been playing them live for a long time,” he says. Not having preconceived notions of how the new songs usually sound opened the group up to “play with a lot more and experiment with how we wanted to put them on the album.”
Of his songwriting efforts on the album, Beck says he was strongly influenced by his continuing collaborations with Galloway. “What I learned from Burle is that the song is never doneyou just keep working with it and see if something better pops up,” he says. “You take a song that’s seventy-five percent there, and massage it into its final form.” Beck calls “Ryder’s Song” the “musical set break” of the album, a cello and dobro duet reminiscent of the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica.” Both Beck and Devol say it spontaneously emerged from some mindless porch-side noodling while they were practicing another of the album’s tracks, “Nine Days.” “Songs are always floating around in the air,” says Beck, “and if you’re lucky enough, every once in awhile you can grab one at the right time.”
Greensky distinguishes itself with the double shot of lyrics that lay down the truth and music that makes listeners kick up their heels. As the opening track on Five Interstates, “Old Barns,” suggests“Old barns, don’t tear em down/Let em stand proud until they fall to the ground”Greensky will continue to expand while staying rooted in the traditional bluegrass sound its members respect. Increased time on the road will no doubt mean a greater evolution for the young band, and certainly larger numbers of fans nationwide. “Every show is different,” says Bont. “Basically the whole show is improvised.” Good thing they have a solid base of tunes from which to take that leap.