The latest record from Montana’s The Lil Smokies was made with a summer camp mindset.
The bluegrass band, whose latest release, “Tornillo,” dropped last week, have recorded their two previous studio releases in their home-state and Portland, Oregon, as well as a live record recorded at The Bluebird Theatre in Denver.
For their latest, they traveled 1,400 miles away from home, pretty much a straight shot south from Missoula to Tornillo, Texas, a border town that housed the studio where they could live and work. Like kids at a summer camp, The Sonic Ranch in Tornillo was a sleepaway studio for The Lil Smokies. No going home. No outside distractions. Just a studio, the music and band togetherness.
The Lil Smokies will return to Durango on Feb. 6 and 7 for two shows at Animas City Theatre.
“We lived on this ranch, this 200-acre pecan orchard in the desert outside El Paso. It was psychedelic and trippy; we just ate, slept and lived the music. We were immersed in it; it was a magical experience for us,” said dobro player and vocalist Andy Dunnigan. “We wanted to get off the grid, live there and have the autonomy to record whenever we wanted. If we had a late dinner and we wanted to record, we could just go over to the studio and we were all together. It felt really unified.”
Durango and Southwest Colorado have been good to The Lil Smokies. Early on, the band received prestigious awards, winning the band contest at The Northwest String Summit in 2013, and The Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest in 2015. Those accolades combined with a heavy touring schedule and road-dog mentality have garnered fans nationwide. Like most bands that spend half the year on the road, the definition of “work” comes into question. One may think the band would clock in going onto the stage and clock out coming off – that, however, is happy hour. The real work is the time spent leading up to the show.
“It’s a two-hour experience, maybe a little longer, and that’s ‘the work,’ but it’s not. That’s the irony that that’s the most enjoyable part,” Dunnigan said. “The work is really traveling to get there and all the logistics in between.”
It’s safe to say that bluegrass has solidified itself into the jam-band world, starting in the 1970s with New Grass Revival and rolling into the present, where the jam world is loaded with bands rooted in bluegrass. Live, these bands remain instrumentally traditional while exploring jazz, funk and indie rock, where names like Jean-Luc Ponty or Radiohead can carry as much influential weight as Flatt and Scruggs. The mystery, however, remains in the attempt to classify these bands, which is for the most part futile and unnecessary. Bands in that world, including The Lil Smokies, will remind you that it’s all music.
“I think the elephant in the room is yeah, we are a bluegrass band. But we’re not a traditional bluegrass band by any circumstances. We’re also not technically a jam band, so, I think the genre of bluegrass and people playing these traditional instruments is growing and blossoming into different intersections and avenues. Dusters, Greensky, Punch Brothers, Billy Strings – its easy to classify them all as bluegrass or jam, but everyone has a different little flavor, you know? We like to write songs, we love lyrics, and we love arrangements, but we can also put on the jamming and improvisation when we want to,” Dunnigan said. “There’s a lot going on, and it gets a little complex to do the label and genre game. I don’t know what the hell we are half the time, so I urge people to come to the show and you can tell us what you think we are. I want to know, too.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.