Greensky Bluegrass: Stress Management

“I don’t think we sound like anybody else, and I don’t think anybody else sounds like us,” observes Greensky Bluegrass guitarist Dave Bruzza. “When we get together and play, it’s pretty distinctive. That’s not bragging or anything. We’re a special unit of guys. We’re kindred spirits and we share a taste for adventure.”

This intrepid mindset was essential when Bruzza and his four bandmates embarked on a winter tour in support of their ambitious and emotionally engaging new studio album, Stress Dreams.

COVID-19 had already led the group to negotiate new terrain.

As dobro player Anders Beck notes, “There has been no roadmap. This is unlike anything we’ve faced in recent generations. For most everything else, you can call an elder or someone who’s been through it before and get a little bit of advice. But that person has not been available to help navigate a band through a pandemic. It’s been nerve-wracking. We’ve spent so many hours over the last year and a half on the phone, talking about people’s safety and trying to make the right decisions. Everything would be canceled, then we’d book shows and those would be canceled.”

The situation has been particularly vexing given the group’s relationship with its tight-knit community of supporters. “We’re really close with our fan base. Even the people we don’t know, I consider my friends,” declares mandolinist Paul Hoffman. “Many of our fans have become friends and vice versa. That’s even been true of our crew where, over the years, we’ve added some more brothers to the van to make the party bigger. The pandemic has obviously changed the mood quite a bit and led us to make some decisions that we never imagined we’d have to think about 20 years ago—back when we just wanted to meet girls and get free beer.”

This time, however, it wasn’t the global pandemic but rather the winter weather that took its toll.

The first leg of the Greensky Bluegrass tour kicked off in Albany, N.Y., on Jan. 20 to coincide with the release of Stress Dreams. However, by the time that the initial slate of 11 scheduled shows had concluded, two of those dates had been canceled due to snow.

In an era of uncertainty, perhaps that’s to be expected.

As it turns out, Greensky Bluegrass is particularly adept at making adjustments on the fly, since steady evolution has been a hallmark of the band’s career.

When the group’s three founding members first took the stage together in 2000 at a Kalamazoo, Mich. bar, they were all new to their instruments. Both banjo player Michael Arlen Bont and Hoffman started out as guitarists. Bruzza had been a drummer. But all three were interested in exploring acoustic music together as they simultaneously developed their chops while focusing on bluegrass standards.

Even so, they were doing this with what Hoffman characterizes as “the attitude and gusto of a rock band.” He explains, “We were sharing a single mic while we were performing the catalog of the Seldom Scene and Old & In The Way. But even when we were playing ‘Mountain Girls’ at an open-mic night, we were thrashing it like rock-and-roll.”

Bassist Mike Devol began studying classical cello at the age of 8 and continued his schooling at Western Michigan University before he joined Greensky in 2004. By that point, he had started working at Bell’s Brewery where the band would perform on Thursday nights to swelling, swirling audiences. He also had decided that a career in the music business might be a more satisfying path.

“I approached them to gain experience and get my foot in the door in the music business, whether it be promotion or management,” he says. “I thought that we could come to a mutually beneficial relationship where I would be gaining experience and they would benefit from having someone in their corner. I actually wrote a proposal to work for them, which they’ll whip out every once in a while to make fun of me.

“I had just started with them in this sort of ambiguous role when everything changed. I went to a little bluegrass festival and my job was to hand out flyers during their set to people who looked interested in attending an upcoming show in Southwest Michigan. They had a great bass player but he had another job and kids, so he wasn’t a hungry 20-something who was looking to go for it and get on the road. I remember Mike Bont brought up the idea of whether I could use my cello education and switch to the upright bass, which seemed like a much better idea to me than trying to be a manager.”

As Bruzza looks back on this, he references Jack Black’s character in School of Rock who converts one of his young students from cello, telling her “You tip it on the side. Cello, you’ve got a bass!”

Then, in assessing his own path, Bruzza says, “My entire time as a guitar player has been involved with Greensky Bluegrass. I’d only been playing guitar for a few months when we started playing together. I was 20 then and now I’m 42 years old. That’s more than half my life. When we first started playing at Bell’s Brewery, I never thought that we’d be doing the type of things that we’re doing today. It just sort of happened that way.”

“I think a lot of how we became the kind of players we are now was dictated by Greensky,” Devol adds. “We asked ourselves: ‘What does Greensky need? What kind of a bass player do I need to be to make this work in Greensky?’ That was always more relevant to me than trying to learn the tricks that would make me a great bass player for a funk band or a reggae band. I think we learned whatever tricks we needed in order to have some versatility, but a lot of how we played came out of the necessity to support our own sound.”

That sound continued to evolve when Beck completed the lineup in 2007. Unlike his new bandmates, he had already been playing dobro for a few years, switching from guitar after happening upon a workshop at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Prior to joining Greensky he had appeared with Benny Galloway in The Wayword Sons, where he had started to develop an approach that he brought into the new setting.

Beck recalls, “I had a little bit of a different background coming from The Wayword Sons band, where there was electric bass and keyboards. I showed up with a pedalboard and they’re like, ‘Where is that gonna fit onstage? There’s no way it’s gonna fit.’ And then, two months later, there are five pedal boards onstage. I had a vision but we quickly all had it together. They could have told me: ‘No! Let’s play bluegrass!’ But, instead it was a rousing, ‘Fuck, yeah! Let’s get weird!’

“So we tackled figuring out how to make it loud and still sound awesome, which is hard with acoustic instruments. We spent a lot of time doing that, but once we got the sound big enough, then we could really start to build our weird little fantasy band. You’ve got to get to the horizon before the sky can be the limit.”

***

Acoustic music is currently experiencing a renaissance. Artists such as Greensky Bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters and Billy Strings are connecting with surging numbers of fans, drawing enthusiastic younger crowds. In September, Greensky performed three nights at Red Rocks and filled The Anthem in Washington, D.C., over two shows on their latest tour with the Stringdusters. Strings recently sold out four dates at New York’s Capitol Theater for his Deja Tu Experiment, along with three upcoming Ryman Auditorium gigs.

“There’s an underlying thirst for authenticity that people perceive from this music,” Hoffman offers, when asked to account for the rising appeal of acoustic artists. “They’re craving something that feels genuine in a market that gets saturated with overproduced pop music. But beyond that, it’s a great place for songwriting to sit. The meaning of the lyrics or the melody doesn’t get buried in all the ancillary effects, drum beats and whatnot.

“When I go see a bluegrass band, the virtuosity really stands out as well. I’ll watch the soloists and go, ‘Damn that banjo player can play!’ or, ‘Whoa, that fiddle player!’ Watching the Infamous Stringdusters, every single one of those guys is so good at their instrument. I don’t know if you get that from a rock band or a pop band, where the lead guitar player is really talented or the singer is the only person who really gets the glory. Nobody is like, ‘Man, that bass player just crushed it!’”

Strings was a Michigan teenager when he first encountered Greensky Bluegrass, and he credits them for opening his own eyes and ears. “Before I met them, I didn’t know that there were young people who were into this,” he says. “To me, bluegrass appealed to the bingo crowd—old people sitting in chairs and clapping. That was when I pretty much listened to classic bluegrass: Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Bill Monroe. But after seeing them, I went from sort of hating that jam approach to being fully obsessed with it. I’d go open up for them or I’d chase them around the Michigan scene, and they taught me about the freedom that comes with the jam world. You’re less confined and can have these playful musical conversations.

“When you go to a Greensky concert, the music is awesome but another key characteristic is that none of them sound like anyone else,” Strings continues. “Bont doesn’t play the banjo like any other banjo player. Anders doesn’t play the dobro like any other dobro player. Dave Bruzza has his own style of guitar. Paul Hoffman: You know it’s him as soon as he plays the mandolin. They’re like a rock band who just happens to play bluegrass instruments.

“The entire landscape of their concert changed my whole mindset about what a bluegrass concert could be. When I started seeing them playing at Red Rocks in front of thousands of dancing hippies, I was like, ‘Wow, look at this freaking vibrant, beautiful scene.’ It was all these people who were my age with similar interests and it just blew my mind. I said to myself: ‘I want to do that. I want to be a part of that scene.’ So that’s what I set out to do.”

The community aspect has played an integral role in the popularity of the music. In thinking about this, Bont connects two scenes that are familiar to him.

“When Dave, Paul and I first started playing together, we’d go to this festival called Wheatland up in Northern Michigan,” he says. “It’s a quintessential folk and bluegrass festival where there are picking circles until 6 a.m. You go see music, pick all night long, drag your banjo back to your tent at 6 a.m., sleep for a couple hours and do it again. And when you’re standing in these circles, they don’t shun you if you don’t know something. They’re like, ‘Oh, do you want me to teach you this?’ That’s how bluegrass was passed down, and having these people out there who were willing to help us while we were learning the music really mattered.

“It reminded me of the community that was in the parking lot when I would go to see Dead and Phish shows. I was a big Deadhead, and I saw the Dead a few times when I was in high school. Then, I saw an extensive amount of Phish shows in the mid ‘90s. I loved that community out in the parking lot, where you’d be hanging out with all your buddies before the show. Bluegrass is a lot like that, where you start to know all these people and you’re like, ‘Oh, let’s jam!’”

Bont’s mention of the Dead and Phish also underscores a key reference point for many of his peers, who first found their way to bluegrass through both groups and particularly Jerry Garcia’s Old & In The Way project, which also featured David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements and John Kahn.

Devol acknowledges, “Everybody in my band will tell you the same story about bluegrass, which is that we all came to it through the backdoor. We didn’t grow up on it as young pickers. We liked the Grateful Dead and Phish and rock music. It was through those influences that we discovered bluegrass.”

“My mom asked me what I wanted for my 21st birthday, thinking that she would get me the typical 20 bucks and a card,” Bont remembers. “But I said, ‘Get me a banjo.’ That just popped into my head because I knew that Jerry played a banjo. I was like, ‘Jerry played a banjo, so maybe I should know how to play banjo.’ That’s how it started.”

“For every single person I know in any sort of grass band that jams, it all stems directly from Old & In The Way and Garcia,” Beck asserts. “It’s unbelievable. I really think that not enough people understand that direct lineage from the Grateful Dead. You’re listening to the Dead and, all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘There’s a picture of Jerry with a banjo. What’s this Old & In The Way? I’ll check it out.’ Or it’s filler on a tape and you think, ‘Oh, this is cool.’ Then you’re like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ And, all of a sudden, you’re listening to Grisman. Then you ask yourself: ‘What’s this song?’ and you’re listening to the Stanley Brothers or Bill Monroe. So you’ve gone all the way back to the beginning of it because some hippie decided to play the banjo. It’s pretty amazing.

“All of us musicians went back to get to real traditional bluegrass and then we started building it back up to the weird stuff. It’s interesting because when you start playing bluegrass, you try so hard not to be weird. You have to start with the fundamentals. You can’t take that music outside of the box until you’ve really spent time in the box. You can’t just jack it up and steal it without getting the keys to the house for a little while.”

The members of Greensky Bluegrass did their dutiful share of house-sitting in the early days. This enabled the group to take top honors in the 2006 Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition, which yielded a mainstage performance the following year.

Still, Hoffman notes that Greensky had other musical aspirations as well. “We’ve always been drawn to the energy of the performance and the spirit of our enthusiasm,” he says. “When we played the instrumental songs ‘Salt Creek’ and ‘Gold Rush,’ I never quite learned all of the melodies. I recently sat in with Billy Strings on ‘Gold Rush’ and, even though we had been playing it for 10 years, I thought to myself: ‘What is the melody of that song?’ So I finally learned it at age 40. But back then, I was playing by ear. It wasn’t always important for me to play every note in the right order every time. I just wanted to be musical. We were trying to throw a rager, liven up the crowd and just mash it.

“We like the acoustic ensemble unit vibe of bluegrass music and the shared responsibility of rhythm, which is such a cool, powerful thing,” Hoffman continues. “It’s raucous, with five guys playing boxed instruments sharing the drum-kit role, rather than having that fall on one person’s shoulders. I also think it opens a lot of doors for our jamming because if we shift the mood, the rhythm or the texture, then that’s something we do together. It’s a fun way to be creative because we’re trying to do polyrhythms and we talk about who’s playing what part of the beat. I think there’s something more rock-and-roll about what we’re trying to do without a drummer than going out and doing it with a drummer.”

***

In July of 2020, after a four month separation—the longest of their 20 year career—the members of Greensky Bluegrass decided it was time to join forces once again. While Bont still lived in Kalamazoo, the other members had long since departed, with Bruzza and Hoffman in Colorado, Beck in Nashville and Devol in Northern California.

The five musicians experienced a gamut of emotions.

“Unfortunately, I got divorced right before the pandemic,” Bruzza reveals. “That was heavy on my mind. I was alone a lot. There’s sacrifice in being a touring musician, even without a pandemic. It’s not for everybody, although I like that we get to roll around and play for people here and there, even if that had been put on hold for a while.”

Bont admits, “At the beginning, I was bummed that shows were getting pulled down but, eventually, I got to a point where I kind of enjoyed being off the road. Since we’re constantly traveling, home time has been something that happens in little 10 day spans. For the last 15 years, every time I would leave for tour, I would tell my dog not to die. And I got to spend every day of the last year of my dog’s life with her. I was so grateful to have that closure because it’s something that had always scared me.”

“I have a young child, so the time off was welcomed because we’ve been touring pretty much nonstop since 2006,” Hoffman says. “If I could have just known how long we’d be off, I could have really enjoyed it more for what it was. The most stressful part of it was the uncertainty.

“I took some mandolin lessons but I felt like I was in a creative rut, so I started a video podcast from my basement on Sunday afternoons about songwriting. I interviewed friends of mine who are songwriters and I performed a couple of my songs and talked about writing them. I did it mostly to give myself a little kick in the ass to feel inspired.”

Ultimately, Greensky decided to meet up in St. Louis to record a series of full-production performances at The Pageant, which they later released over eight consecutive Fridays in August and September. They dubbed these gigs the Leap Year Sessions, which served as a nod to their song “Leap Year” from 2014’s If Sorrows Swim. It was also a bit of a pun since 2020 was both a leap year and one that was being leaped over in many respects due to COVID.

Beck recalls, “We were hoping to offer our fans a bit of relief with some shows in their living rooms. This was at a time when people were getting tired of watching acoustic guitar covers of Neil Young songs through shitty microphones on Facebook. We pretty much subscribe to the theory that, if we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it the best that we can. So we got Trey Kerr on board to do it in 4K. [Kerr is the longtime LivePhish producer, whose company 201 Productions is based in St. Louis.] All of a sudden, we had a 13-camera shoot in 4K for eight shows.”

“I guess we went too far again,” he adds with a laugh. “However, it also helped keep me sane. People kept telling me they felt bad for us because of what was happening to the music industry but everyone’s lives were getting ripped away on some level. What was really helpful to me, though, was getting to create art out of it.”

In August, the band members reconvened once again, this time in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, to create new art by developing the material for their next record.

“Greensky is a very collaborative group when it comes to turning one person’s song into a band song,” Beck explains. “It starts with a guy and a guitar—a singer-songwriter type of vibe. Then, we go through a collaborative, creative process— sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s trying—where we turn that into a Greensky song. We make it bigger, add parts, just mess with it. We try lots of different ways to play it and turn it into something that’s larger than it was.”

In recent years, Devol had been increasingly active in helping to shape the songs. This was a role well-suited to his classical training and one that first appealed to him back when he joined the group.

“I used to get together with some buddies and we would drink wine and play Mozart string quartets. It was fun and we liked doing it but we were playing something that was written hundreds of years ago. We enjoyed it, but it wasn’t ours. Something about that ownership led me to this band instead of becoming a classical cello player.

“In the last several years, over a few Greensky albums, my education and my structural role as a bass player led me to develop other people’s material, helping with the arrangements and orchestration-type decisions. I have become more of a leader now that our music is getting further away from being bluegrass or, really, fitting into any box. Our name has finally become ironic like we had hoped. We are no longer bluegrass, we are Greensky.”

As befits the band’s ongoing development, after nearly two decades with the group, Devol also began contributing original compositions. Four of these appear on Stress Dreams, including the title track.

“I felt like I was making excuses for a long time about not writing songs. I was afraid of writing the same songs that other people were writing or writing something cliché or cheesy. But at some point, I decided that it wasn’t everybody else’s responsibility to write songs for this band. I saw the pressure that was on Dave, and also specifically on Paul because he’s written the lion’s share of our songs over the years. He’s contributed so many great songs, but I saw it as a burden on him to carry the songwriting in our band. So I put my inhibitions aside, then made these demos and shared them.”

“All he does is play bass and cello, so I didn’t know what to expect,” Beck remembers. “I was excited to listen, though. So put them on my big speakers and closed the door. The first song that came on was ‘Get Sad.’ I was floored and almost a little offended, like, ‘Have you been hiding this from us?’ It was a really emo sort of demo with basses, a drum track and his singing. But the craftsmanship of the song—lyrically, melodically, all the harmonies, everything, was just beautiful. ‘Stress Dreams’ came next and I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ It was really spectacular.”

“I was taken aback by the demos.” Hoffman adds. “In order to present his ideas to the fullest extent, it involved using drum beats and multiple basses to build chords, so that it wasn’t just basslines. I really appreciate his creative skill and musicianship in doing all that. It’s easy for me, I play guitar. I can just write the chords and sing the song the way you’ve heard Bob Dylan do it a million times.

“What he did was really cool and I love those songs so much. I learned ‘Get Sad’ on my guitar right away because it was undetermined who would sing it. I really enjoyed the way that the chords moved, the melody and the lyrics. So immediately, I was like, ‘This is mine now. I’ll sing it.’ It felt so natural to me because my friend who wrote it has been working with me on my songs for 15 years. It was a beautiful evolution of our creative process.”

Of course, Hoffman not only sang on Devol’s song, he also contributed seven of his own. Hoffman’s compositions often carry an emotional resonance as they seek to articulate the unspoken truths of daily life. He is in top form on Stress Dreams.

While considering the full span of his songwriting with Greensky, Hoffman admits, “The first couple of songs that I wrote were pretty bad. When we were a young band learning all these bluegrass covers, I wrote a song about a miner and a song about a one-night stand that was cliché country. I quickly figured out that I needed to be myself and sing about things that I cared about because I would write them better and I would perform them better. I studied a lot of Hemingway in college and I appreciate the power of a simple, short sentence. I’m looking to say the hard thing or the deep, compassionate thing without lofty language.” 

It’s certainly possible to receive Stress Dreams as a pandemic album. Bruzza, who contributed the metaphor-rich “Streetlight” and revisited his initial instrument by adding drums to the version on the record, notes, “The term ‘stress dreams’ just sums it up for so many people over the past couple of years in so many walks of life. We were all dealing with having our livelihoods taken away from us. We were all dealing with issues in our personal lives. I think being forced to stay home and reflect on what was going on around us is a loud presence on the record.”

However, there’s also a timeless quality to the material. One can imagine that new reference points will come to mind for these songs. This is fitting for a band that thrives in the live setting where the music remains of the perpetual moment.

Beck’s tune “Monument” focuses on the group’s experiences on the road. He explains, “It’s about this thing that got ripped away from us—this awesome musical touring life and the crowd that Greensky has created. Thematically, it’s about that but musically we wanted it to feel like it was the first song that you would want to play onstage after coming back from quarantine. So to play it at Red Rocks [where “Monument” opened the group’s third night at the venue on Sept. 19], considering the vibe of what we were going for, was pretty heavy.”

Beck’s bandmates express a similar sentiment about the quintet’s recent tour.

“I don’t want to say that I took it all for granted, but it was a constant for so many years,” Bruzza says. “I always appreciated what we did and respected our audience but I have a deeper appreciation and respect right now. During this last leg, I definitely had some happy tears onstage.”

Hoffman affirms, “It continues to be intensely moving and powerful. We were just at The Anthem for two nights and that’s a venue with a huge rail, a huge floor of people. I was so moved onstage the first night I could hardly contain myself. I was choked up singing and throwing myself headfirst into every single solo. I found myself completely empowered by the spirit of that large concert setting and everyone who was in there connecting with us. I could barely breathe.”

“The Cap show was my favorite—I love that venue,” Bont proclaims. The band’s third founding member then remarks, “It was a special night. We had been rehearsing the new material a whole bunch and we played almost every song. These days it feels like the music has a little more meaning than it did before, and this is the most Greensky-sounding album that we’ve made to date.”