By Matt Wickstrom
They may be called the Lil Smokies, but this five-piece newgrass outfit from Missoula, Montana, is anything but. Led by dobro wizard Andy Dunnigan, the group has taken off in the past year after winning the band competition at the prestigious Telluride bluegrass festival in 2015, which set in motion a spiral of changes for the band.
“We knew going into the band competition that even if we were to win that our guitar player Pete (Barrett) would no longer be with us”, said Dunnigan. “I almost think we didn’t believe him at that point — that if we won it would change things. It didn’t, and I think winning that has propelled us into another echelon as far as travel goes, and sometimes you lose people in the shuffle of full-fledged travelling.”
With Barrett, and soon thereafter fiddler Jesse Brown leaving the band to focus on family and other obligations, the group’s remaining members added Matthew Rieger and Jake Simpson into the fold on guitar and fiddle respectively, quit their day jobs and began the living life day-to-day as touring musicians. The Lil Smokies current cast of characters is Dunnigan on dobro, Rieger on guitar, Simpson on the fiddle, Matt Cornette on banjo, and Scott Parker holding down the low end on bass.
With the dust settled, the Lil Smokies have been hard at work in recent months writing and recording for their second full-length album, which has received nearly 20k in backing on Kickstarter, surpassing their lofty 18k benchmark. According to Dunnigan, the record is currently 75 percent complete, with a final polishing and mastering of the album happening later this month. The majority of the songs slated for the new record were constructed in a quaint cabin belonging to Dunnigan’s parents, nestled along Thompson Lake in Montana.
“We love having no distractions of getting up to the lake house, spending three or four days up there really hashing things out”, said Dunnigan. “There’s no electricity, so all you can do is play music. There’s something calm and reaffirming about the mountains and the streams that helps to precipitate that relaxation and creativity.”
The Lil Smokies made their Kentucky debut at ROMP in Owensboro last month. The group is currently knee-deep in a west coast tour, having just performed this past weekend at the 15th annual Northwest String Summit in Oregon. The tour will see them traverse the pacific northwest with a bevy of dates throughout California, Washington, Oregon, and Montana. The Smokies’ next east coast date is at The Festy Experience in Virginia from October 7-9, where they’ll be performing alongside the Infamous Stringdusters, Elephant Revival, Steep Canyon Rangers, Fruition, and more.
“The creative process is a really ambiguous thing”, said Dunnigan. “It comes in waves. Sometimes when I try to force it and think I really need to write a new song and it never happens. It comes along and you’ve got to catch it… maybe I didn’t write one song in during this entire four-week stretch, but the experiences I had left me glowing. This has been the most fun of my entire life, so I know that these experiences will seep into the next creative moment I have.”
For upcoming tour dates and album information, keep your eyes peeled on the band’s official website, Facebook and other social media, and here at Big Blue Tunes.
Interview material for this feature was gathered June 24 on-site at ROMP Festival in Owensboro, KY.