Blue Skies Ahead

Born in Kalamazoo, Greensky Bluegrass keeps pushing into new territory

Greensky Bluegrass has a joke. The band members tell it when they’re putting together the set list before a show, and it goes like this:

Q. “What should we play tonight?”

A. “All the hits.”

It’s funny, at least to the members of Greensky — whose name itself is a sort of joke — because they don’t have any hits. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. “We’re not exactly making a splash on triple-A radio,” quips mandolinist and songwriter Paul Hoffman. But Greensky Bluegrass doesn’t hold itself to much in a traditional sense, and that’s not the only reason the joke is funny.

Take Greensky Bluegrass’s new record, If Sorrows Swim, laid to tape in East Lansing and due out this month. For that matter, take any one of Greensky’s previous four studio albums. Give it a listen. And enjoy the songs now because they’re liable to change.

“As far as the idea of ‘we recorded it, now we’re committed to it’ — not in our band,” Hoffman says. “Songs change after we’ve recorded them, grow into whole new beasts. That’s OK with us. That’s part of making a record for us — that version (of a song) was the one we wanted and the one we loved, but we’re not afraid to make it something new.”

Which may explain why Greensky’s sound has made the most waves live; you may miss hearing them on Top-40, but you can see them anywhere from Red Rocks to the Fillmore, sharing bills with everyone from Bela Fleck to the Avett Brothers to original bluegrass grand poobah Ralph Stanley. And their three live records — two of which were recorded in Southwest Michigan — represent the band with its throttle open. The first of the three, 2007’s Live at Bell’s, recorded in Kalamazoo at the namesake brewery, makes fitting tribute to Greensky’s roots: “We’ve been playing Bell’s since 2001,” Hoffman notes. “Larry [Bell] helped fund us early on and gave us support when we needed it.”

Roots — and change — are persistent themes in Greensky’s ethos: an urge to take something established and make it new. And in a genre that’s always straddled the line between the novelty of improvisation and the comfort of tradition, Greensky Bluegrass seems a good measure of where the needle falls. Take it from Rolling Stone: “Greensky are hardly strictly bluegrass,” the magazine wrote in 2011, “yet they’re representing the genre for a whole new generation.”

Greensky may not play the hits, but that’s a heavy charge. And it’s a long way to come from two guys learning to play their instruments at open-mic nights in Kalamazoo under a joke name back in the early 2000s. In fact, the whole thing kind of started as “a joke with an old bandmate that if I ever played guitar, it would be bluegrass guitar, so he gave me a guitar,” says Greensky songwriter and guitarist Dave Bruzza, who now lives in Denver. Bassist Mike Devol has decamped to California, while the other three members remain in Kalamazoo, the band’s home base.

The joke, of course, was that Bruzza had never played guitar. He played drums. Even so, the switch to a style of playing that generally excludes drums altogether “was an easy transition,” Bruzza says. “Being in a bluegrass band is kind of like being part of a drummer. The dobro and banjo are fills, symbol lines, the bass is like the kick. The sound of a guitar is, I don’t know, it’s nice and chubby.” (It’s worth noting that Bruzza has obviously given this dynamic some thought: In a separate interview, Hoffman, who joined the band soon after, said, “My job in the band is the snare drum. They were pretty clear about that.”)

Newly a guitarist, Bruzza hooked up with two guitar players: Mike Bont and Hoffman, who had just started playing banjo and mandolin, respectively. “We’ve all been playing guitar way longer than our guitar player,” Hoffman says.

That was just part of the fun, says Bruzza. “It never started as anything very serious. All of us had only been playing our instruments for a couple of months at that point. We’d go to open mics and drink free beers, try to learn songs together. A few years down the road we’re playing Bonnaroo, Telluride. It’s been pretty gratifying.”

Hoffman’s version more or less matches Bruzza’s. “I wasn’t really familiar with the mando at all and decided it would be fun to buy one,” Hoffman says. “After that I met the guys, and I didn’t really know what bluegrass was, and they taught me. It was a frivolous, impulsive decision. I had no idea it would go this far. It just sort of worked out that way.”

After playing for a while as a trio and cycling through a few bassists, the group found a permanent one in Mike Devol, who was studying cello at WMU. “We talked him into it,” Hoffman says. After that, the group hit the road and started out on a national tour.

Meanwhile, guitarist-turned-dobro-player Anders Beck came across Greensky while touring the country with his own band, Wayword Sons, of Durango, Colo. (Beck has since moved to Kalamazoo). The two bands started seeing a lot of each other, and when Wayword Sons went belly-up, Beck knew where he wanted to go knocking.

“Coming from a bluegrass background, there were lots of people I could call to be in a band full of hot pickers,” he recalls, “but to me, that’ll only get you so far. Having listened to the couple of albums Greensky made before me, I was attracted to the songwriting, and I hoped there was more where that came from. Anyone can play instruments, but there aren’t a lot of great songwriters out there, and I believed these guys had the potential to do that.

“Looking back,” he adds, “I’m sort of shocked I was right. I can’t say I’ve made a ton of great decisions in my life, but that was one of them.”

Like jazz, bluegrass is a genre of standards, and while it’s not unusual for a bluegrass band to write original music, what’s perhaps unique about Greensky is the band’s willingness to push its music beyond the conventions. The band’s 2011 Handguns (which debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s bluegrass chart) featured a song with a full horn section, for example — a distinctly non-bluegrass arrangement — and in a live setting the band has been known to push jams to the 20-minute mark. In traditional bluegrass, Beck observes, “you’re allowed to improvise on the melody the second time around” (which could be why the jam-band circuit also claims Greensky as its own).

“Learning bluegrass is like Catholic school,” says Beck. “You’re sort of filled with this guilt of what you’re not allowed to do — the Grateful Dead is like porn in Catholic school. That’s a metaphor I just thought of, and I’m not sure if it’s good or not.”

Hoffman is perhaps less reticent. “People spend a lot of time analyzing whether we’re bluegrass or not,” he says. “People ask if we feel a responsibility to the genre, like if we have to carry on a tradition. I think my answer is, no, we don’t at all. We honor the tradition because we enjoy it, not because we have to.”

Still, there are certain traditions by which Greensky abides — after nearly 15 years, the band still doesn’t have a drummer, after all. And nobody’s ready to start plugging in. It’s that tension, between the push into new territory and the constraint of traditional instrumentation, that drives Greensky’s sound. “Being limited by not having a drum set, we’re always looking for new textures,” says Hoffman.

Beck agrees. “Working in the confines of these acoustic instruments, and with the word ‘bluegrass’ attached to our name, a big part of it is creating our own voice within the music,” he says. “Paul and Dave’s songwriting really comes through probably better than ever on the new album. There’s a certain uniqueness to it, I would say, because of the Michigan roots of these guys. Traditionally bluegrass comes from Appalachia. It’s all blue and lonesome, the traditional music. There’s a different kind of blue and lonesome in Michigan, and it has to do with dark winters and failing economies. It’s not grandpa working in the mine, but it’s not that far off in some ways.”

Indeed, If Sorrows Swim comes with its roots still firmly intact, but it also takes on driving rock tempos and reverb-soaked washes of sound that seem more at home with Midwest grime than yonder mountain. The Bruzza-penned “Wings for Wheels” — which, Bruzza says, he “didn’t realize was already a Bruce Springsteen lyric, so that makes me feel kind of awkward” — is nevertheless a fitting tribute: The song’s solemn heartland keen recalls the Boss’ less extravagant arrangements, like those of Nebraska or the underappreciated Devils & Dust. Meanwhile, Hoffman’s “Windshield” employs a driving, bass-fueled, four-on-the-floor hook and a slow-burn build that’s closer to Coldplay or Feist than anything Ralph Stanley ever wrote.

“We seem to reinvent ourselves every time we make a record,” Bruzza says. “I think this is a particularly well-rounded record, and not just because records are round. There’s no other band I know of out there that sounds like us. It’s a primal, rhythmic sound.”

Even so, Greensky doesn’t seem ready to bust out the synthesizers anytime soon, and ultimately maybe the outward push is actually a push within. “Each record we make,” says Beck, “sounds less traditional and more like ourselves.”




Don't Miss This!

Greensky Bluegrass

When: 8 p.m., Nov. 28

Where: Kalamzoo State Theatre

Tickets: $23 in advance

Their latest tour has Greensky Bluegrass crossing the country from Baltimore to Portland but the band is taking a little Thanksgiving break to come back to Kalamazoo.

We should all be thankful.

Go to http://greenskybluegrass.com/tour/ or http://www.kazoostate.com/ for more info