The Infamous Stringdusters have been creating their increasingly lively and diverse interpretation of bluegrass for almost fifteen years. As the group’s fiddler and one of three primary vocalists, Jeremy Garrett has been central to their development as the music’s most progressive (and subsequently perhaps divisive) group.
While recent songs are group credits, Garrett wrote (or co-wrote) several of the group’s most appealing, early songs (“Let It Go,” “Dream You Back,” “When Silence Is the Only Sound,”) and was lead on the group’s IBMA-winning, 2007 Song of the Year, “Fork In The Road.”
I’ve been listening since the debut album was released—I believe I reviewed it at the time with a fair amount of praise. Subsequent ISD releases strayed ever so imperceptivity from a core bluegrass mission; their evolution impressive, and their music compelling and accessible—at times challenging more vocally conservative listeners…like me.
Rise Sun was a standout of 2019 (I only bought it as the year turned, so it wasn’t included in my annual review), and ISD’s performance at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly last October was a highlight of my year.
Consider me, then, a fan.
More than a decade ago, Garrett appeared on the Sugar Hill label with I Am A Stranger, a fairly conventional, earnest bluegrass solo release in the Tim O’Brien vein, featuring strong songs and performances, a mix of originals and covers, including “Echoes of Goodbye,” “Today,” and “The Fields Of My Mind.” It is a good listen. His pair of ‘road music’ albums, The RV Sessions, are also enjoyable.
The first included several songwriting collaborations with frequent co-writer Jon Weisberger, and is highly recommended: memorable original songs like “The Cold Hard Truth,” “Oh Little Darlin,” and “Lean On Love” were included, and the album featured Garrett playing all the parts, multi-tracked performances entirely cohesive. A second set of RV instrumentals released a few years back leads fittingly to the aural landscape Garrett now explores with Circles.
Circles is of that increasingly common (and somewhat disappointing) phenomenon, the short-album/long EP. Timing out at 32 minutes with 8-songs, there is nothing unsatisfactory about this set aside from the quantity of music included. The quality? Certainly superior to most collections of expansive and experimental modern ‘just a bit outside’ bluegrass one encounters.
As did the previous pair of albums, Circles features Garrett playing his three main instruments—fiddle, guitar, and mandolin—utilizing a loop machine to keep the groove going. There are moments where one is conscious of the looping, and it is a bit jarring in spots but once one accepts it—even embraces it—the rhythm’s trance-inducing elements take precedence and one begins to absorb the music, connecting with it on what feels like an elemental, cellular level. (Yes, I realize how loopy that sounds…wait…never mind.)
Bluegrass? Well, not my father-in-law’s bluegrass certainly, but one can hear the foundation. I think the songs would work within the vibrant atmosphere ISD have established via their extended jams—deep grooves and body-swaying, vision-churning songs that function on multiple levels.
Call it acoustiblue (I still do—it’ll catch on, I’m confident), Grassicana, big tent, artisanal, jam-infused roots‘grass with sprinklings of rock and pop sensibilities—label it as you like.
Heck, call it music.
Josh Shilling and vocalist Prisca assist, but the album is pretty near all Garrett. His singing has always been enjoyable—not overly pretty—and instrumentally the guy has it all going on. Three songs are co-written with Weisgarber, each appealing in not only their messages and execution, but in their variety. “Can’t Lay Your Lovin’ Down” (co-written with another familiar partner, Shilling) is simply a well-constructed, heartfelt song—catchy, slightly moody—while “Travel Light” contains interesting textures that distinguish it from others heard this month.
“What Would We Find?” co-written with the esteemed Darrell Scott, continues Garrett’s exploration of tradition-based, modern music, turning to the singer-songwriter oeuvre. Featuring as impressive an instrumental tag imaginable—think Hootie meeting Phish—“I Am Who I Am” (co-written by Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers) is a trippy kick-off to the disc, with things reaching their peak on the instrumental solo frenzy, “Baker’s Jam.” While the various looping effects on the vocal numbers vary in effectiveness, this rambunctious take on “Angeline the Baker” is just plain fun—and there isn’t anything wrong with that. By the time Garrett’s fiddle kicks in at the mid-point, one is ready to slip off shoes and jig around the office.
Yes, I got looks.
The title track, co-written with Donna Ulisse claims, “Going in circles, never finding a straight line, makes you feel like a lost cause.” Not so for this album. Here the circles create spirals of connection, the relationships that bind us and hold our music—of whichever shade of bluegrass—together. “With nothing to lose, you can take a chance,” a later excerpt more artfully and accurately presents Circles thesis statement.
Some albums just grab you. Circles did me. It arrived in the mail yesterday evening. I listened to it twice last night, immediately intrigued and unusually inspired. Four more listens today to confirm the authenticity of my initial enthusiasm, and to ensure its validity, an hour at the keyboard…and we’re done.
Investigate for yourself. Jeremy Garrett’s Circles may just be something you too need to experience.