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Infamous Stringdusters: Making music their own way

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Johnny St. OursThe Infamous Stringdusters perform Saturday at the Church at Carbondale.
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CARBONDALE – There was a time when Jesse Cobb was thrilled – ecstatic, really, and amazed – to be a sideman. Following a seven-year stretch when he had basically laid his mandolin down entirely, Cobb decided to get back into music and moved to Nashville. On his very first night in Music City, U.S.A., he attended a picking party at Lester Armistead’s “bluegrass compound” on the city’s outskirts. Despite his rusty fingers Cobb got noticed by a singer, Kim Fox. On the spot, Cobb was invited to join Fox’s band and head off to Canada for an 11-show tour.

“You can’t imagine how happy I was about that,” Cobb, who had grown up playing in the Cobb Brothers, an old-timey band that was busy enough in the upper Midwest that Jesse had to be home-schooled for several years. “I was playing not the hottest mandolin in the world, but I got hired.”

The shows with Fox led to an invitation to join the band led by Ronnie Bowman, who had made his name as the singer-songwriter of the Lonesome River Band. Cobb then hooked on with Jim Lauderdale, and recorded three albums with the prolific songwriter.

After several years, however, the job of sideman began losing its appeal. Cobb had been writing instrumental music since the age of 13, and had stacks of tunes he was aching to bring to life.

“I had a ton of them,” he said. “And it wasn’t possible to do in the bands I was in. It didn’t fit the flow. They wanted to do ‘Rawhide,’ standard mandolin tunes.”

Two of Cobb’s fellow sidemen from Ronnie Bowman’s band – dobroist Andy Hall and fiddler Jeremy Garrett – had the same yearnings. So the trio found a couple of other pickers in a similar situation – including Chris Pandolfi, who had been hired to play banjo in the Russian bluegrass band Bering Strait – and made a plan. After a few jam sessions, to see if they fit together musically and in personality, the players all jumped ship from their previous gigs, and formed the Infamous Stringdusters.

“We made a cut-off time when everyone was supposed to leave their other endeavors and do the Stringdusters thing,” the 36-year-old Cobb said from Denver, where he was preparing to drive to Boulder, and then on to Carbondale, where the six-piece Infamous Stringdusters play Saturday, at the Church at Carbondale.

Their individual resumes were solid enough. Hall had spent a year in Dolly Parton’s band, when the iconic singer went bluegrass. Garrett had been in his family’s band, the Grasshoppers, in his native Idaho. Bassist Travis Book has been in Broke Mountain, which had been making its name in Colorado.

Together, the Stringdusters just clicked. Their debut album, 2007’s “Fork in the Road,” earned album of the year honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association, and the title cut took song of the year. A self-titled follow-up from 2008 hit No. 1 the bluegrass charts, and last year’s “Things That Fly” yielded one instrumental, “Magic #9,” written by Cobb and Pandolfi, that earned a Grammy nomination.

The success has validated the gnawing sense that Cobb and his mates had, that they had something of their own to say. All six members of the Infamous Stringdusters – including guitarist Andy Falco, who, unique among the band, has a background playing electric music – contributed to the writing on “Things That Fly.”

“No offense to anyone, but we all had our own music we wanted to do,” Cobb said. “We wanted to make a statement, rather than just sidemanning along.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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