Well before the universe insisted my inevitable collision with The Lil Smokies at Otus Supply, I was moved by their music and requested an interview, but it wasn’t yet the right time nor place. I had never seen The Lil Smokies perform, and until I had the pleasure, interviewing them wouldn’t do either of us justice. Cue the third night of the Bell’s Garden Opener, Greensky Bluegrass, and a great weight which imposed a heavy sadness upon your soul.
Our family had just learned of the tragic loss of someone we love; someone who we were all blessed enough to share our space with for a minute or two. Daunted by the impossible task of taking the stage to greet the finest collection and community of heavy hearts, The Lil Smokies helped us all take the first step towards the impossible…because that’s what music does; it helps us face the impossible and find a way to look it in the eyes, with our community by our side.
I distinctly recall the tears in my eyes and vigor in my heart as The Lil Smokies sang “Mending The Fence.”
“I guess this is why they said the broken hearts the worst.”
While each and every soul who knew Jessica Lovey Snyder was hurting in their own unique, and impossible way, these words helped inspire courage in all of us a little bit on that night, even if we didn’t know it. Music is the world’s most ancient medicine and each of us is able to dose ourselves as needed.
Here’s my conversation with Andy Dunnigan of The Lil Smokies ahead of their Campfire Caravan Show at The Parliament Room at Otus Supply where they are joined by MIPSO and The Brothers Comatose.
When describing your newest album, Changing Shades, you’ve referenced how fearless you’ve become over the past year. In what ways have you grown fearless? And what factors encouraged this evolution?
I think there has been a very silent, subtle and unspoken certainty emanating from within the band—wholly, confidence that everything is and will work out. I think a lot of bands are completely terrified of the future and all the components that will crumple your house of cards. I’ve never had more faith in anything than I have in this band and this group of guys. Our persistence to work through a lot of changes and hurdles this past year has helped us grow tremendously as a unit. Sonically, we’ve always tried to circumnavigate the seas of writing and composing with complete fearlessness, and that is something I would hope to never lose.
Campfire Caravan is a pretty special collection of musicians featuring Lil Smokies, MIPSO, and Brothers Comatose. What brought you all together? And please speak on the how refreshing it is to have a rotating lineup with no single ensemble acting as a headliner?
It was someone’s idea after re-watching the ‘Festival Express’ movie, which documents and details a traveling caravan of musicians in 1970. The focal ideas being no overarching headliner and equal time split every show. We want there to be a lot of jamming and sit-ins each night and a lot of on-stage mingling and experimentation. The Brothers Comatose, MIPSO and ourselves seem to all be at a really great moment in our respective careers and we all are trying to put our own unique spin on the old rubric of traditional music. We couldn’t be more excited for the tour.
In the midst of playing 175 shows in 2016, what are some routines you practice to stay balanced, focused, and grateful?
I think remembering that just because you are the party doesn’t mean you have to party every night. This year we were all more focused on our health than we ever were, and it was amazing the difference and impact that had. We strap on our gym clothes every morning and hunt down the most gnarly looking YMCAs all over the country. Even if it’s only 45 min, a quick run, a game of PIG on the basketball court and a 10-minute sauna will literally change your life. We try to find time to practice before the show daily, too. Hanging out with fans and doing some signing after the shows really have been important as well and keep us humble and incredibly grateful.
Take us back to 2015, to the events and emotions leading up to winning the Telluride Bluegrass Competition?
There were a lot of emotions prior to and subsequently to winning the 2015 Telluride Band Competition. We had an entirely different band at that point. Even after winning, we knew a few people in our band were not going to make it through the year, and we couldn’t make it through the year with them in either. It was a very mixed bag of emotions. Winning was the greatest accolade and perhaps greatest accomplishment of our career, yet we were terrified of the future. Everything was uncertain, but we soldiered on and ended up, amidst the rubble and shards of the unknown, finding the greatest new replacements you could ever find.
The Bells Garden Opener was met with the tragedy of losing a loved one — myself and many others were moved by your opening set — can you describe that evening from your perspective?
That was definitely the hardest show we’ve ever had to play. We found out what happened only about an hour before we arrived at the venue. We weren’t sure what the protocol was and what we were about to walk into. There was a heaviness in the air that was unimaginably palpable. We had just hung out with Jessica a week earlier in Ann Arbor, MI on one of the stops on our tour. Such a tragedy. But the silver lining was in the music, the show, and the people. Her best friends were all there. It was the greatest send-off celebration you could ask for. It took a lot of courage for Greensky to play on, but that’s exactly what needed to happen. It was an incredible set of music. Brave.
In what ways has Changing Shades guided the direction of your personal spiritual path?
Writing Changing Shades and all the touring and shows has been my spiritual path for the last couple years. The songs were born out of some grief I was experiencing and the process was completely cathartic. Releasing the album this month has really felt like the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. In mitigating the great absurdity of life, I find great spiritual solace in music. I am forever thankful for it.
If you had one lyric tattooed on you what would it be?
“The only saving grace is the changing shades and the shape you take when done.”
What’s the most obscure obstacle the band has overcome to make it to a show on time?
I won’t name any names, but someone in our band had a ‘false alarm heart attack’ on our way to a festival in BC, quite recently. It was tense—like a scene out of Pulp Fiction, but without the drugs. We pulled over at a gas station and called the ER. An ambulance came and picked our guy up and rushed him to the hospital. Two hours later, we were back on the road. All vitals were intact. He got a perfect assessment from the doctor.
Just in case you were listening for one, This is a Good Sound. Catch The Lil Smokies in action Saturday, February 3 at The Parliament Room at Otus Supply.