With each festival comes a host of up-and-coming artists ready to catch fire, and this year’s hottest at Hangtown Halloween Ball might be Montana’s The Lil’ Smokies.
The bluegrass sextet, which will play on both Saturday and Sunday at the festival, is coming off a charging three-year run in which it managed to win the Northwest String Summit Band Competition (2013), get nominated for Momentum Band of the Year by the Internal Bluegrass Music Association (2014) and win the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition (2015). It’s a run that most bands would be happy to have, and The Lil’ Smokies’ dobro player Andy Dunnigan was all too aware of the grace that has befallen the group.
Dunnigan credited winning the band competition at Northwest String Summit and Telluride as having helped to give the players confidence that the sound they were hearing in their heads sounded great to other people too. Not only that, the publicity from those gigs helped to spread their music and to nail down a good management team, which every rising band needs. For Dunnigan, though, winning in Telluride had a more everlasting effect beyond exposure.
“I remember going to Telluride in ’05 and ’06 and I was just starting to play guitar at that point — I don’t think I even brought an instrument to the festival. But I remember seeing the band competition and seeing the guys who won and it looked like just the funnest thing. Just attending that festival is a big influence as to why I started playing bluegrass in general. Coming around full circle last year and winning that, words can’t even describe how cool that was,” Dunnigan said.
The Lil’ Smokies’ rise has not come without growing pains. Guitarist Pete Barrett amicably left the band within the last couple weeks and the group has ushered in Jackson Hole native Jon DeGroot as its newest member. Dunnigan is happy to have such a skilled guitarist, but admitted it has been a challenge to go back and teach songs while the band is in the whirlwind pace of trying to plan a fall tour, create a new set list and write new material.
“Writing on the road has been more challenging than I expected, ’cause you think, ‘Oh we’re going to be together for the next two to three weeks, we’ll have plenty of time to write and practice.’ But it’s definitely not the case. You gotta set time when you’re back home and you got your shit back aligned, because you got these car rides and these festivals and it takes a toll on you. So it’s not like we are getting to the hotels and practicing a new song or two, it’s like play and recuperate,” Dunnigan said.
Despite the cuts and bruises from the road, Dunnigan has been happy to get out of Montana’s gray winter and explore the sights. The band is in the midst of a tour that has it playing just about every day from Oct. 21st to Nov. 7 and treks from Utah to California and then from Oregon to Montana. It also is slated to play both incarnations of the lively 2016 WinterWonderGrass Festival in Colorado and Squaw Valley.
The increase in festival experiences has been a highlight for Dunnigan, which has the band rubbing shoulders with some of its heroes. He said while the members are excited to play these festivals, they also have to step back and remember they are a part of the lineup and have a responsibility to bring their best. But it is still humbling to find their names stacked up against heavy influences such as Greensky Bluegrass and the Infamous Stringdusters, Dunnigan said, and he still finds it hard to keep his cool with his idols in the green rooms.
“(At Northwest String Summit) we got the whole backstage treatment, which was cool to see. I remember the Stringdusters were back there and they were going to bring out Sam Bush to play and so they were all back there practicing a couple songs. We were back there trying to be cool, but it was so cool, man, it was like a little concert. We weren’t used to that treatment and seeing that caliber of musicianship. Our utmost heroes back there, practicing and laughing and having a couple margaritas. That one takes the reins in my brain as a really memorable experience,” Dunnigan said.
Ultimately, Dunnigan hopes the band is able to forge its own identity. The group’s 2013 live album “New Year’s Eve: Live From The Top Hat” is a good snapshot of what kind of virtuosity is teeming through The Lil’ Smokies. With six string instruments barreling down the rifle, the band hits hard and fast, and it does so with such style and grace on scorching originals and choice covers. The members plan to record a new album soon, which will keep them pushing their limits.
“A compliment that I always hear, my favorite one, is ‘I didn’t like bluegrass until I heard you guys,’ and I think that speaks volumes about what we are trying to do up there. … We love playing our original material and people respond very well to that. We want to put on a great live show and really kind of manifest different kinds of components from our band.
“I’m lucky to be a part of a band with really fine musicians of really incredible caliber. We can jam, we can improvise and I’m writing these songs with lyrics; so there are all these components that make up what The Lil’ Smokies are,” Dunnigan said.
Take a chance on the The Lil’ Smokies this weekend and you’ll be sure to have a whole host of compliments for the band.
Hangtown Halloween schedule: LINK