The Lil Smokies on the road, longing for home in the desert

The snow is falling in Colorado. The wind is blowing. The mountain roads are horrendous at times as The Lil Smokies trek through promoting their third Studio Album Tornillo. Andy Dunnigan (vox and dobro) and I share a moment over a coffee and joke about the weather that forced the band an extra stop on i70. Dunnigan was in Frisco and happy for the daylight and the open pass so Fort Collins can share an evening with them at Washington’s Thursday, February 13.

“I don’t think it’s [Tornillo] is necessarily a conceptual album, it is not thematic or a concept album with one theme, but there are definitely themes that permeate throughout. I think it’s an album where we are speaking about the longing for home and lost there of a home, or redefining home.”

The Lil Smokies. Image by Producer-Engineer Bill Reynolds.

The Lil Smokies are from Missoula, Montana, featuring members: Matt Cornette (banjo), Andy Dunnigan (vocals, dobro), Scott Parker (bass), Matt “Rev” Rieger (guitar, vocals) and Jake Simpson (fiddle, vocals). 

The band has been touring hard for the last few years. They are on the road 200 days a year, including travel days. “I think it set in the last year or so that this is our job now. I think for a while when you’re first starting touring, there’s kind of that Honeymoon phase, the jet is still there, and the adventure,” Andy says. “And it still is so much of that. But I mean, it’s our job. And I think we are realizing what a sacrifice it is to be away from loved ones, friends and family. It’s a labor of love, but also there is a huge sacrifice. So there is a lot of that on the new album.”

The Smokies took a reprieve from the road to record, in the middle of the desert. They met Producer-Engineer Bill Reynolds (The Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, Midland) at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo outside of El Paso, Texas. The time at the compound in the desert was so defining for the band, they named the album after it. They had so much fun just getting away and enjoying the spaciousness of the barren land and the newness they discovered in the pause from touring. None of them had spent much time in that area of the United States before. And that was the point of the location, to get them out of their element so they would discover a new side of themselves. “The goal of the desert was to be immersed in the music, and be distraction-free,” Andy says.

This was the first time they worked with Bill Renyolds but had always admired him. Bill’s mellow footprint shows on the album as it weaves through sounds of the Laurel Canyon with underlying foundations of new grass that the Smokies are loved for. 

“We had a phone call interview with him. He seemed like a down-to-earth guy and he seemed very laid back. I think that’s where we wanted to go. We didn’t want someone being a stringent producer,” Andy says. “Our last record was heavily produced and ended up changing a lot of the songs. We wanted to wear the cap ourselves to share the duty. We had probably five tunes that were done, and he just let us be ourselves. He would tell us when he thought we were kind of beating a dead horse if we had done too many takes. He had a lot of great input and by the end, he was our Zen master. His energy was just fantastic. And he did a lot of the promo photos.”

Andy’s dad always had the ‘Kings among men’ Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and the cohorts of the Laurel Canyon playing when he first dived into songwriting. As much as Tornillo is a longing for a physical home, so is it a desire to find their home in the musical world.

The band has grown up and evolved together. The bond between them opens doors of trust and creativity. Their new music mimics the emerging progressive changes of bluegrass and newgrass that lend itself to the discovery of new sounds for the group. This time, in this album, the Lil Smokies are opening up to their true roots and a lineage of musical loves, bringing these elements together into their songs as they have not before. 

“I think we are just adding something to a blooming genre. Now we’re seeing a lot of different subsets of bluegrass. We are a bluegrass band but we are trying to focus more on melody, songs, and fuse them together,” Andy says.

You will find synthesizers, drums, baritone guitar, and a sound of freedom on this new album. Andy says, “Lyrics are also a huge part of our band. We take a long time to be happy with our lyrics. I think we’re finally finding our voice, we added a lot of textures to this album, and there’s space in there. And I feel like we’re evolving and maturing.”

Andy’s advice to up-and-coming bands is, “Learn the chops of the people who came before you, everyone in this band really practice and there were no shortcuts. Push the boundary while staying true to yourself and being authentic. Have patience, it takes a while for this to all work itself out, especially if you want it to be a career. Have the willingness to sacrifice everything, it’s a big commitment. It’s all worth it, you know, but stay true to yourself, be present, and be willing to listen and learn.”

Click here to stream or purchase Tornillo on your platform of choice. 

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