Nine years ago musician Andy Dunnigan said that he and his newly formed band, so new they didn't have a name yet, were scheduled to play in a rowdy biker bar deep in the woods of the Montana wilderness. In the green room, a space for pre-show hors-d'oeuvres and drinks for the musicians, there were Li'l Smokies brand sausages. The announcer came into the room and asked them for the name of the band, Dunnigan recalled that he looked over to a pile of toothpicks and said: "We're the Lil Smokies," and the name stuck."
The Lil Smokies will be taking the stage Friday (Feb. 23) from 8-11 p.m. at the Taos Mesa Brewing Mothership, 20 ABC Mesa Road, off U.S. 64 west. This is billed as the Music on the Mothership Launch Party.
The self-described Americana band, with heavy influences from rock, has headlined numerous festivals: the High Sierra, FreshGrass, Telluride Bluegrass, Grey Fox, Del Fest, Floyd Fest and String Summit festivals, to name a few. And they won the Telluride Band Competition in 2015 and received Band of The Year from the International Blues Music Association in 2016.
They've kept up a grueling pace of almost 200 shows a year in the tight quarters of their Sprinter van hauling a trailer with the band's equipment, nearly a different venue every night across the United States. Lead songwriter, singer and dobro player Dunnigan said, "We are all best friends and we get along… Although this is a sacrifice, we love what we do."
Dunnigan's father is also a singer-songwriter. He listened to James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel as a child and calls them his influences.
He says his current band "has transcended the boundaries of bluegrass" to Americana and sometimes rock and roll. He and banjo player Matt Cornette are the only two original members of the band. They met at a "wilderness and civilization" party in Montana and started as a jamming garage band, then began busking on the streets of Missoula.
Through the years, the band evolved musically, gaining and losing members along the way. The current lineup includes Scott Parker on bass, Jake Simpson on fiddle, Matt Rieger on guitar, Cornette on banjo, and Dunnigan on dobro and vocals. After a few years of playing in local and regional clubs, it was winning the Telluride Band competition, Dunnigan said, that was "the catalyst event" that convinced the band members to quit their day jobs and pursue music full time.
Their music is not easily categorized. It flows effortlessly through multiple genres.
Dunnigan said about his songwriting on the road: "It is like a comedian whose jokes are about airline security. Being on the road becomes your normalcy, so that's what you write about."
The press release about its new album reads, "When people see The Lil Smokies setting up their acoustic instruments, they're often unprepared for the electric energy they generate. The band captures that same dynamic presence on its new album, 'Changing Shades,' delivering their exceptional songwriting and bluegrass roots with the punch of a rock band."
"We wanted to duplicate the energy of our live shows. It's a perfect mixture of improvisation and composition. The record shows how fearless we've become in the last year," Dunnigan adds. They cut "Changing Shades" in a lighthearted, week-long session at SnowGhost Music in Whitefish, Montana with engineer Brett Allen (The Avett Brothers, Kris Kristofferson, Béla Fleck) and co-producer Rob Gordon (Elephant Revival).
"It was a breeze," Dunnigan said. "Rob got us to focus on what makes each song special. We refined and recorded them live, together in one room, just like on stage."
The band will be touring nationally to promote "Changing Shades." In the fall they are looking forward to the Campfire Caravan tour from Sept. 26 through Nov. 18, 2018, a cross-country musical marathon with The Brothers Comatose and Mipso. The three bands rotate in the lineup with no single ensemble acting as the headliner. Dunnigan reflects, "Last year, we did 175 shows and lived on the road. We eat, sleep and breathe music. We're road warriors: mobile, sonic proselytizers with banjos."
Music on the Mothership Festival is a three-day boutique music event planned June 1-3 at Taos Mesa Brewing and Hotel Luna Mystica. Headliners include MOE. Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition, Antiblas, Rising Apalachia and more. Visit musiconthemothership.com for more information.
Tickets are $10 for the Lil Smokies show. Doors open at 7 p.m. This is an all-ages show, bar with an ID. For more information, call the venue at (575) 758-1900 or visit taosmesabrewing.com.