The Infamous Stringdusters were gathered at Nashville’s Sound Emporium Studios, counting down the intro to backwoods bluegrass scorcher “Run to Heaven,” when they received an urgent phone call. It was Crooked Still singer Aoife O’Donovan, whom the band had requested to sing on the finished track, an eventual standout on their sixth LP, Ladies & Gentlemen. The Dusters were hoping the song’s key was appropriate for her range—but since she’d been overseas and hadn’t given the final word, they planed to roll the dice and record blindly. “We said, ‘We’d better take that call,’” guitarist Andy Falco offers with a laugh a few months after the album’s release. “She gave us the key. And it was a different key, so thank God.”
It’s a miracle that Ladies & Gentlemen, an eclectic collection in collaboration with a crew of female vocalists, even exists one year after that well-timed phone call. The process, which Falco calls a “logistical puzzle,” was filled with nonstop coordination, a few false starts and several moments of wondering, “Are we really going to pull this off?” After five days of recording the basic tracks in Nashville last summer, the true work began—assembling their dream team of frontwomen.
The dizzying lineup unites bluesy folk-rockers (Joan Osborne), R&B belters (Joss Stone), singer-songwriter legends (Mary Chapin Carpenter), country hitmakers (Lee Ann Womack) and prog-grass all-stars (Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins). And all of these musicians— some longtime friends, some strangers—were eager to accept the challenge of becoming honorary Dusters. During the band’s first decade, the all-male quintet—Falco, bassist Travis Book, fiddle player Jeremy Garrett, dobroist Andy Hall and banjoist Chris Pandolfi—has developed into a startlingly versatile unit live in the studio: Like their fellow string-band virtuosos, the Dusters have rattled the foundations of bluegrass by weaving Americana, rock and jamband influences into a style that’s difficult to categorize. With Ladies & Gentlemen, they tailored songs to specific vocalists—a unique strategy that expanded their sound even further.
The female collaboration concept had been kicking around Camp Duster since Falco joined the band in 2007, replacing original guitarist Chris Eldridge, who fled to join Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers.
“The first thing I can remember is the first session I did as a Stringduster—we did a demo session for an incredible singer-songwriter named Sarah Siskind [Book’s wife]. We did it live, and they were her songs. We had such great fun doing that session. I don’t think any of that music has been released, but it was an early thought that this would be a cool thing to do. Flash-forward several years: Joss Stone, who is a friend of mine, came to one of our shows in New York and jumped onstage to sing a tune with us. We thought it would be cool to do a track with her. Then we thought it would be cool to do an album. Then we thought it would be great to have several guests.”
By 2015, the Dusters had earned enough clout in the music industry to make that dream a reality. They’d become staples of the jam and bluegrass circuits, with enough mainstream appeal to earn a Grammy nod in 2011. They’d even founded their own three-day music gathering, The Festy Experience, based near their one-time home of Charlottesville, Va. Using their own connections—and the skillful persuasion of their management team—the band plunged forward with the idea, recruiting the perfect voices to match each of their tunes.
“It’s a massive undertaking to put together all these guests with everybody’s schedules,” Falco says. “There were some folks we reached out to who were maybe making their own record or were on tour and weren’t able to make it work. But when you go into a record like this, you have many more songs than you expect to release and you reach out to X amount of singers, hoping that a certain percentage of the people you asked would be able available to make a complete album. Then you place a lot of songs to the singers that were able to do it.
“There were a few singers on there that we’d never met but asked to do it,” Falco continues. “It’s probably one of those ‘Our people called their people and they did lunch’ kind of things. But they were people we really admired, so we reached out that way. Joan Osborne, for example, none of us had ever met. But we all loved her work, so she came up as someone we thought would be really cool to ask. Most of them, though, we called ourselves, friend-to-friend.”
Falco credits producer Chris Goldsmith, who coordinated the complicated logistics of recording the songs, as the album’s MVP. Without the luxury of having all the singers in one studio, Goldsmith closely monitored the women’s touring schedules, often arranging to meet and record near his home in California. Several vocals were recorded independently and emailed over. Goldsmith even flew to New York and hunkered down there for one session.
That grueling process paid off. With its clean contours and wide textural scope, Ladies and Gentlemen marks another chapter in the band’s evolution away from traditional bluegrass sounds— one that began with their third LP, 2010’s Things That Fly. That album—highlighted by a string-band remake of U2’s anthemic “In God’s Country” and their spunky, Grammy-nominated instrumental “Magic #9”—incorporated new instrumentation (organ, viola) and more polished production elements.
And The Infamous Stringdusters have continued to experiment and take risks. For 2012’s Silver Sky, they worked with producer Billy Hume, best known for his work with rappers like Nas and Ludacris. They’ve also showcased their range with cover tunes during their highly improvisational shows, tackling everything from the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” to Lorde’s ubiquitous electro-pop hit “Royals.” (They recorded studio versions of some fan favorites for last year’s wide-ranging Undercover EP.)
Another major shift came in 2011, with the departure of founding mandolinist Jesse Cobb. While the band originally intended to find a replacement, they realized they “really clicked” as a quintet, utilizing more space to declutter their songs.
“There is a slight rhythmic shift, a little bit of an adjustment in the way you approach the rhythm,” Falco admits. “We were able to fill that void with what we already had. It felt right to us, and it opened up a lot of space. In a band like ours, there are a lot of soloists. It’s no slight against Jesse, but having one fewer soloists isn’t a bad thing in our band.”
Compare the Dusters’ 2007 debut, Fork in the Road, to Ladies & Gentlemen, and the shift is startling. These are the most disciplined and accessible songs in the band’s catalog, with the female voices unearthing soul and charisma— from the jazzy “Have a Little Faith” (featuring Stone’s bombastic croon) to the hooky “Won’t Be Long” (guided by Sarah Jarosz’s deft vocal leaps).
“The ladies all really put their own touches on the songs, and that wasn’t micromanaged by us,” Falco says. “We sent them the tracks with us singing them, just to give them an idea of the melody, and it sounded weird because it wasn’t keyed for us. They all took that and brought it to the next level by putting their own spin and touches on it. It made it feel more like a collaboration. Every time we would get a track back, we didn’t know exactly what to expect.
“Over the years, there have been so many dudes in our band, so it’s nice to bring a little more of that [female] perspective to the songs,” he adds. “It was a challenge, too, writing songs for this album— trying to be sensitive and take on a different point of view.”