The Lil Smokies ain’t your grandpappy’s bluegrass band – they are one of the premiere outfits carving a new musical path out of the Midwest from their home state of Montana, alongside Minnesota’s Trampled by Turtles and Wisconsin’s Horseshoes and Hand Grenades.
Some bluegrass purists like to put these bands in their own sub-genre called Newgrass, which trades the aesthetics and tones of traditional bluegrass for a more modern approach. Ditching the three-piece suits, cowboy hats, and Appalachian twanged murder ballads. Newgrass dons lots of plaid and trucker hats, and pens odes to whiskey, weed, women and wine.
No matter what you call them, The Lil Smokies know how to stay true to the many unspoken traditions of Bluegrass, including covering popular songs in a way nobody has heard before.
Their newest release, a cover of the Led Zeppelin ballad “Going to California,” swaps the song’s classic-rock-gone-acoustic sound for heartfelt Americana. Jimmy Page’s fingerpicking lives on through guitarist Matthew Rieger, but it takes a humble backseat to more prominent fiddle lines from Jake Simpson, and silky dobro slides by Andy Dunnigan.
The somewhat chaotic middle sections from the original tune, highlighted by Robert Plant’s frantic vocalizations, are replaced by mini-jam breaks. When you see them play live – and oh boy, you really should see them play live – these mini-jams evolve into the kind of soundscape that you’d always assumed jam bands could achieve if they tried a little harder.
That’s another one of those Unspoken Bluegrass Traditions – jams aren’t just several solos strung together, they are chances for the band to deviate from the song structure and show off a little, sometimes alone but sometimes as a group.
Despite dobro player and singer Dunnigan not possessing the same high-vocal reach as the Zep frontman, he brings his own brand of sweet, smooth singing that won’t leave you pining for Plant. Keep an ear open for some creative license with the melody, because heck, it wouldn’t be a bluegrass tune if there wasn’t some playing around with the notes.
Now that you’ve found yourself with the Bluegrass Covers Fever, check out their two other recent cover releases: Elton John’s sing-along classic Rocket Man – which gives a spotlight to the musical prowess of banjo player Matt Cornette – and The Beatles’ Paperback Writer – which has bassist Scott Parker turning Paul McCartney’s signature bass parts into bluegrass grooves. Both tracks showcase even more of the band’s intricate harmonies, which is again a staple of their live shows, and oh boy you have to see their live shows (did I say that already?).
If you’ve found yourself thoroughly tickled pink by The Lil Smokies in the studio, and you have this weird feeling like you should catch one of their live shows, this release comes with an announcement of their multi-season tour. The band began their tour on Jan. 17 in their home state of Montana, and will be on the road through April. In addition to their regularly scheduled tour, fans can catch them at a number of already-announced summer festivals, such as Dark Star Jubilee in May, Bonfire Brewing Block Party in June, and Grey Fox Bluegrass Fest in July. They also have a show planned at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre in September.