It would be simplest to describe The Lil' Smokies as bluegrass, which is pretty accurate, but there is something else there not as easily definable. Most bluegrass has an effortless and unattainable vibe to it, where the audience can dance and have a wonderful time, but the technique is so complicated that there is always somewhat of a remove. The Lil' Smokies, a six-piece band from Missoula, Montana, make bluegrass less technical and more organic, like a sweaty, multi-layered rock band that just so happens to have a dobro, fiddle, and a mandolin.
"The band started in the winter of 2009 at a typical college house party," says vocalist and dobro player Andy Dunnigan. "We ended up staying up all night playing and discovered a serious connection via the affinity we had for acoustic music and bluegrass especially. From there we busked and made our way to the bars--never taking ourselves too seriously until it was."
That connection is evident in their sound, which takes traditional bluegrass melodies, folds it up with the progressive freedom of newgrass, and then mellows it back down again with four-part vocal harmonies that would be just as at home on a pub stage as they would be in the Appalachians. Songs like "Lakeview Drive" and "The Toothfairy" take the time-honored lightning-fast bluegrass sound and combine it with insightful and lovely songwriting, where tracks like "Mending the Fence" and "Courtney" have a mournful and sweeping elegance that brings to mind Mumford and Sons without the condescension.
"Everyone in the band has a wide array of influences. From scream metal to subtle folk music, and gypsy jazz to Hendrix, this band has a little bit of everything running through our veins and iPods at all times," Dunnigan explains. "This is a huge factor in our sound and how we strive to push the boundaries and stigma of what bluegrass is to the mass majority."
The Lil' Smokies have really opened themselves up to a much larger audience this year upon winning the 2015 Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition. They join bands like The Dixie Chicks, Run Boy Run, and The Hillbenders as champions of this widely-renowned competition.
"The main impetus for our decision to enter the competition was really all about the possibility that we might be able to climb aboard and be apart of something that, for us all individually, symbolized the holy grail of traditional and modern bluegrass music," Dunnigan says. "Telluride embodies a lot of the reason why we started playing in the first place."
He recalls attending the festival in 2005 and 2006. The then 18-year-old was just starting to play the guitar and dobro.
"I so vividly remember walking around Telluride seeing Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas eating lunch outside, not being hassled, just being regular guys. I watched the band competition and knew that I would love to do that one day," Dunnigan says. "I left that place with a fire under my ass to practice, and I did. I'm not the only one though; everyone in this band has an analogous story about their own Telluride experiences. The impetus was literally trying to make a dream come true."
But even if bluegrass just isn't your thing, The Lil' Smokies still might be. Dunnigan says its not uncommon to find people converted at their shows.
"After every show at least one or two people always come up to us and say something along the lines of, 'I never really liked bluegrass music until tonight,'" explains Dunnigan. "I think this stems from our live shows, which are very high energy, and very much analogous to your experience at a rock concert. We try to transcend the prejudice and stigma that bluegrass has been rendered."
The Lil' Smokies
7 pm, Wednesday, Oct. 28
McMenamins Old St. Francis School, 700 NW Bond St.