Even with the chilling cover art, and its apocalyptic implications, not to mention the plea for cooperative action on the opening “Hard Line,” the spirit of Toward the Fray, and its authors, The Infamous Stringdusters, somehow remain as charged and enthusiastic musically as anything. As bluegrass continues to fight its way into the mainstream, moving further afoot of being simply a country music cousin or category of Americana, but instead an equally viable popular art form so too comes the well-deserved attention to bands like the Stringdusters. And with it, a realization that the songwriting and musicianship of the quintet is just getting better and better.
Each of the five could be lauded for his obvious talent- and collectively, it’s an even more impressive sound- but start with the dobro mastery by Andy Hall. For decades, the instrument’s upper echelon was essentially Jerry Douglas and everyone else. That’s not to say they’re weren’t great players out there, but Douglas was a world all his own. Take a listen to the burner, “Means To An End,” and, yes, Douglas should be hearing footsteps. Add Jeremy Garrett’s searing fiddle, Andy Falco’s dizzying guitar, and Chris Pandolfi’s banjo, fueled by the furnace of Travis Book on bass, and the pot boils over.
There is an embrace of straighter lines- the addition of drums to the ‘Dusters for the rock-infused “I Didn’t Know”- yet this is still the bluest of grass, with the symbiotic interplay of the strings both the product of years of serious touring and a genuine respect for one another within the song. This ensemble can fly around the fingerboards like no other, but it’s not as much about chops as it is conveying the message. The Infamous Stringdusters may be turning their souls toward the fray of bleak modern times, but they come armed with calls for change, teamwork, and hope. And music that is relentlessly insistent that we can all come out of this if we try.