The Infamous Stringdusters,
Fork in the Road
(Sugar Hill, 2007)

This is the debut album for this band of six young men, based in Nashville, who bring to the project an abundance of experience in bluegrass and mainstream country (with Dolly Parton, Charlie Daniels, Lee Ann Womack, Bobby Osborne and Ronnie Bowman, among others). The hype surrounding the Infamous Stringdusters has been pronounced by bluegrass standards, where the usual ambition is simply to establish oneself sufficiently to ensure regular bookings at festivals.

One presumes the idea is to push the group to the forefront of the genre, and then beyond that into acceptance in the broader popular-music world. Blue Highway's Tim Stafford, who produces, says, "I think they're the vanguard of what bluegrass music is going to become." Given where this brand of acoustic music is heading both stylistically and popularly, I would judge that these words are not wildly hyperbolic.

The old rural bluegrass isn't dead -- it's ably represented by still-performing senior artists and also by some talented youngsters -- but the genre's center of gravity is shifting. At one time the smooth singing, clean picking and somewhat generic-pop songwriting (e.g., "3x5") would have been called "newgrass" -- in other words on the experimental, modernized side of the genre. You don't hear that term anymore. Newgrass is now so ensconced in the mainstream of bluegrass that it's just, well, bluegrass.

The Stringdusters sing and pick their own material, mostly. There are no bluegrass chestnuts or even -- perhaps a rare enough circumstance to warrant comment -- a Dixie & Tom T. Hall composition, without which virtually no roots-bluegrass outfit leaves the recording studio anymore. Slickly and ably performed, the music boasts as many jazz as trad-bluegrass touches. Perhaps it is meant to be more admired than loved. (On the other hand, "Poor Boy's Delight," about a young woman named Molly, is really quite touching. Then again, I have a much-loved daughter named Molly.) Some of the instrumentals seem tailor-made for jam-band indulgence in live performance, but except for the final cut ("Moon Man," clocking in at 7:20), they're kept at reasonable length for the CD iteration.

I suppose you could say that for what it is, this is pretty good. Whether that's enough for you, however, all depends on what you expect of "it."

by Jerome Clark
24 March 2007

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