Last updated on May 6th, 2023 at 08:05 am
In music, few traits are as important as creativity. Instrumental proficiency, vocal talent, and myriad other tools can certainly help an artist, but what separates the wheat from the chaff is the ability to draw on those tools and make something new, original, and moving.
This is true in almost every genre, but for progressive bluegrass, stylistic and improvisational creativity takes on heightened importance. Even in that boundary-pushing scene, Jeremy Garrett stands out.
Garrett, an ultra-talented fiddle player, singer, and multi-instrumentalist best known for his work as a member of The Infamous Stringdusters, is uber-creative in his work inside and outside of the band. The Stringdusters are known for their unique high-energy synthesis of bluegrass and Americana with elements of rock and roll, jam-band psychedelia, and improvisation mixed in. They are an exceptional group, especially from a creative standpoint.
In that context, Garrett brings his fiddle chops as well as songwriting and frequent vocals. As good as they are, however, the Stringdusters are far from the only outlet for Garrett’s creativity.
Enter Garrett’s solo career. Over the course of a few decades, Garrett has released many albums, each stylistically different from the last. Though bluegrass is the common denominator, his releases have included Gospel (Garrett Grass Gospel), more driving “traditional” bluegrass (his newest, River Wild), and even electronic elements (Wanderer’s Compass). For some artists, an arc like that might indicate the lack of a “singular sound,” but in Garrett’s case, it’s the mark of his artistic spirit.
It’s also worth mentioning that all those releases are amazing. 2022’s River Wild finds Garrett assisted by many talented friends (including legends Barry Bales, Travis Book, and Russ Carson), reconnecting to his bluegrass roots in fantastic form. It’s a must-hear record for any fan of bluegrass music, whether they prefer traditional or progressive.
On Wednesday (4/26), Garrett returns to the Twin Cities to play songs from River Wild and more. Joining him will be Shadowgrass, a rising and exceptionally talented act. Taking place at the Hook and Ladder, the show promises to be both an excellent introduction for new fans and a chance for devoted Stringduster-heads to experience other sides of Garrett’s artistry. Whichever style of bluegrass you prefer, there’s bound to be something in it for you.
The following interview with Jeremy Garrett has been edited for length and consistency.
Music in Minnesota: One of the coolest things about the music you make is the stylistic diversity. River Wild is more traditional Bluegrass, Wanderer’s Compass has a little more electronics, and with The Stringdusters, you make all sorts of music in various styles. Each project seems to have a different feel from the last. What inspires you to shift styles so much, sometimes from song to song or project to project?
Jeremy Garrett: Pure boredom [laughs]. No, I’m just kidding! But there’s gotta be something to that, right? Like just kind of following your interests and trying to take it up a level and go for it every time. I put serious passion into everything that I do. It’s gotta be “meaning of life,” or it’s gotta be life-altering. I really bring my artistry as hard as I can because that’s what I’m going for.
It’s funny, time goes by after you put out a project, and I’m proud of all my records, and I’ve always tried to be original and unique and that kind of thing. I’ve always strived to be that way, but with each project, I’m looking for something a little bit different, you know what I mean? I’m pretty rooted in bluegrass music through and through, and I can hardly help having some bluegrass sort of vibe in the music I make, but I’m also influenced by all kinds of other music. You know, like everything that everyone was influenced by in my age group growing up in the 80s and 90s.
So all of those things I feel creep in on what I do. I let them all soak in on my music soul, and I try to have a little bit of that element come through so that it’s me on that record that you hear every time.
MIM: I know you started out with bluegrass really young. Can you talk about how you got your start playing music and how you got into bluegrass?
JG: No kid knows what they want when they’re three years old, but I showed some interest in violin. My dad was a bluegrass musician, and he didn’t play fiddle or violin, but he knew all of the bluegrass songs. So he was able to hum melodies to me. I also grew up singing in church, where it was all a capella, with no instruments involved.
So I got kind of well-rounded in that regard as far as being able to sing harmony and lead and being able to play music at home. I got started at three, playing fiddle and Suzuki at the same time, kind of a classical method where they teach you how to play by ear. I did that for a couple of years, and I guess I threw a fit and wasn’t having it one day, so they let me quit the classical stuff. But from then on, I was always interested in playing bluegrass.
There was this fiddle contest about forty-five miles down the road from me in Weiser, Idaho, where fiddlers from all over the world would come to compete. I never cared about the competitions or the contest tunes, but these hippies would set up camps behind the school where the contest was held and jam all night. It was like a great party scene; everybody was really supportive of each other and non-judgmental.
I was able to sort of experiment and try to find my style over there. So I guess I’m a little unorthodox in that way because I was self-taught with some light direction [laughs]. But like I said, you know, I let all of these other things creep in as well. I’m a huge fan of Guns’n’Roses and Axl Rose, the greatest rock singer of all time. I mean, how can you not let that influence you during the era that I grew up in?
And all of the Bluegrass greats, too. Once I started owning bluegrass for myself, I think I was around twelve years old when I really heard “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and it got in my blood. So, because of that, I’ve had a long career in bluegrass music, both traditional and progressive.
MIM: The music you play is rooted in traditional bluegrass, but so much of what you do with the Dusters is progressive bluegrass. Was that an influence early on, or did you come to that later? How did you get from one to the other? It’s an interesting dynamic, given that you can do both.
JG: I think a lot of it has to do with jamming with those hippies in the bushes. They didn’t have any “program” over there. If you went and got in the fiddle contest, they called it the “Old-time National Fiddler Contest,” but there was no old-time to it at all.
For every single fiddle tune as you played and progressed in the contest, you’d have to play Texas-style fiddle tunes to win. And you had to play them exactly like they always did for many years. It’s very technical, you know?
I’ve learned to appreciate that, but as a young man, I was totally against it. I was a rebel; I was like, “You’re not going to tell me what to play, this is music, I’ll play what I want, this is my art!” I couldn’t believe that all of these people would subject themselves to other people telling them how to play and then giving them a prize for it [laughs].
At an early age, I was rebellious, I wanted to do it my way. That seeped in through my whole life, and in some ways, it served me well and others not so well. But I don’t deal well with people telling me what to do. That really dictates what I do. So improv, getting back to your question, is a perfect avenue for that; it’s total freedom.
In an improv situation, I can play whatever I want. I’ve had opportunities to go play big country gigs or whatever as a fiddle player, and you know, it’s interesting, there are aspects of that kind of thing I appreciate and admire. But at the bottom level, for me fundamentally, what I need is the freedom to play what I want to play, to serve the song and fit the moment that I’m in.
The Dusters have been the biggest avenue for me to open the gates for that in my career. But also, I have this whole other side of me where I write all of these other songs that don’t really fit with the Duster vibe, and so I try to see what I can do with that in my solo realm.
MIM: What is the most rewarding part of recording your solo material and playing it live? What’s the biggest thing you get out of that?
JG: The challenge is something I really enjoy. It’s very challenging to work up a whole set of new material, write it and arrange it, get others to learn it, and then try to take it on the road. It’s a big project because there’s all this stuff that goes into it.
For me, my soul is never really fully satisfied. I mean, I’m content, but I’m never satisfied. I’m always moving to challenge myself, and the Dusters have become this thing where it’s so easy to play with them. It’s like breathing or drinking water. We have the synergy thing going. Not to say we don’t have nights where we struggle, but it’s an awesome gig. I can relax and do it. All of the butterflies I used to have are totally gone; I don’t feel those anymore.
But when I do my solo thing, those things come up a little bit. I mean, I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’m kind of easing up to it as a solo artist, but those things come up, and they challenge me to be better as a musician. I think it seeps into everything that I do, career-wise.
MIM: You have a gig coming up in Minneapolis next week. For people who haven’t seen you in this (solo) context before, what can they expect from the show?
JG: I’ve been touring a lot on my last record called River Wild, which is a bluegrass record. It leans more traditional than, say, super progressive, but I want to marry the two worlds because I have a lot of demand in the progressive bluegrass realm. But as I said, I’ve had a long career in traditional bluegrass as well. With my solo thing, I wanted to lean toward that direction a little bit more. Especially after Covid, I just felt like doing some bluegrass. I wanted to write it, I wanted it to still be original and make the arrangements. That’s what I’m touring off of. But, for this show, it’s going to be very special,
I’ve made contact with this band called Shadowgrass, they’re an awesome up-and-coming group. They’ve been tearing up the country, and everyone is taking notice of what these guys are doing. They’re young prodigy-style musicians doing cool stuff and doing it the right way. They’ve got good heads on their shoulders, and I’m really stoked to bring them in as a band as opposed to hiring single musicians that I hand-pick. I’m excited about that because you can’t replace a band’s synergy. There’s something a band has that no one else can do.
MIM: There’s nothing that replaces, in bluegrass especially, that continuity and those hours that you put in with your bandmates. It’s something that can’t be replicated, even with talented musicians.
JG: That’s right. I mean, you can do it, and if you got good enough pros, no one will know [laughs]. But you’ll know. As a bandleader, I’ve had that kind of situation where I put together some of the best lineups you can do. It surprises me sometimes, like, “I thought that cat would nail it,” and then he didn’t. Sometimes people don’t do their homework or whatever.
At the level I play at now, it’s pretty solid. Everyone I play with, I’ve played with a bunch now over the years. That’s another cool aspect about doing the solo thing, I can call on connections and friends I’ve had for many years throughout the industry. I’m always stoked and giddy like a little kid when I call people I really admire, and they say, “Yes, I’ll come play with you.” It’s just fun, and it’s something out of the Duster element to keep me challenged and to keep it rolling.
MIM: You mentioned the idea of an “all-star cast,” and you called on a lot of friends to make River Wild. It’s a solo record with that full-band feel. I’m curious, did you know from the beginning if these songs would work in that context? How did that come to be compared to some of your other solo records where you recorded everything yourself?
JG: I learned this from Tony Rice early on, not directly but indirectly. Somebody gave me a bootleg tape of a Tony Rice record that had been pre-recorded. It was Manzanita; he pre-recorded that album at somebody’s house on reel-to-reel tape, and I got a copy of that. It’s some of the most incredible stuff. He just goes off jamming for way too long, but they’re experimenting, they’re trying to get into the tunes and dig in. Well, that made such an impression on me when I was a younger dude. Ever since then, every time I’ve made a record, I’ll sit down and map out all of these things on my own instruments.
I’ll pre-record the whole thing just by myself so I can see what it sounds like. As a fiddle player, you don’t see it as well as a guitar player, or maybe a piano player could, so you kind of have to map it out a little bit to see what it’s gonna be like. Luckily for me, I play these other instruments and have some studio equipment and experience, so I can lay all these things out.
That being said, you don’t know what it’s gonna be like until you get the pickers in there. I hired what I consider to be the world’s best guys. Barry Bales, from Alison Krauss and Union Station, played half the bass on the record, and then Travis Book from the Stringdusters played the other half. Seth Taylor played all of the guitar on that record, and he’s an amazing young guy who plays in Mountain Heart and a bunch of other stuff around Nashville. He’s gonna have a huge career. I don’t think I’ve ever been that impressed in the studio.
Alan Bibey added mandolin; he’s a super underrated mandolin player that’s finally getting his due, winning mandolin player of the year several times. And then I had a few different banjo players on there: Ryan Cavanaugh, he’s one of my favorites, and Gena Britt, I always love the traditional style she brings to everything. It was just fun to bring these players in. I’m gonna do another follow-up record, it’s gonna be another bluegrass record. I’ll have a few different pickers on it, but it’ll be in a similar vein.