For those who still hear the banjo lick from “Deliverance” every time the word bluegrass is uttered, fear not. Greensky Bluegrass is re-defining the genre for the next generation. Combining acoustic instruments with the unpredictable attitude of improvisational rock and roll, the five-piece returns to Pensacola for what should be a barn-burner of a weekend show. Mandolin player and vocalist Paul Hoffman spoke with O&A about playing with his idols, the unique spirit of acoustic music, and how he stays sane on the road.
O&A: What first attracted you to bluegrass music?
HOFFMAN: I’ve always been a fan of acoustic songwriter-leaning music as well as jambands like Phish. The mandolin attracted me because it’s such a player’s instrument. Playing guitar growing up and being a singer, I was more motivated to be a better accompaniment to myself than I was to be the best shredder out there.
O&A: Who was the first mandolin player that blew you away?
HOFFMAN: When I saw the David Grisman Quintet live, I knew I had to pick up the instrument. Eventually, that led me to Sam Bush. Those two guys shaped my early learning. I wasn’t familiar with bluegrass at all at the time I saw Grisman. He showed me how the instrument could be used. There was no bluegrass at all to it. It was this jazz fusion world that was completely new to me. The lack of boundaries he presented blew me away. Sam Bush’s percussive style taught me that the mandolin is as much a snare drum as it is a shred tool. I was into that world much more than I was the traditional stuff like Bill Monroe and all those old fiddle tunes.
O&A: What’s the worst thing about the jamgrass stigma?
HOFFMAN: Nothing. We are who we are. I’m grateful that we’re very versatile. People wonder if it’s better to be a “bluegrass” band or a “jamgrass” band or a “rock” band because of all the ground we cover. We typically define ourselves more often by what we aren’t than what we are.
O&A: Have you ever been on a festival bill where you wonder what the hell you’re doing there?
HOFFMAN: There have been a few weird ones for sure. We’re far more comfortable being the only bluegrass band than we are in a setting with a bunch of other bluegrass bands. We get both ends of the spectrum with that.
O&A: How do you keep from going crazy when you’re on the road for 135 shows a year?
HOFFMAN: There are days when you’d rather be home than on a twelve hour bus ride to play the next show, but ultimately, we love it. We are on a month-long break right now and it’s the longest we’ve had since 2006. I’m already excited to play more shows. This two week tour that will hit Pensacola is the last before we go into summer festival mode. I’m excited to do two sets and get the whole Greensky experience out there.
O&A: How do you prepare for a show when when you’ve played in the city so recently?
HOFFMAN:: It’s pretty normal for us. Most places we play two times a year. Our catalog is about 200 songs deep right now and we pay a lot of attention to setlists. We want to play the stuff people want to hear, but we also want them to have a different experience every show. We aren’t a band that puts together a set supporting an album and plays that night in, night out, although I do have respect for that.
O&A: You’ve played with most of your heroes in the bluegrass scene. Can you talk about the importance of having top-flight musicians supporting each other like that?
HOFFMAN: There’s something very communal about this type of music. These guys were our role models growing up, both in the business sense and artistic sense. It’s really cool that we’ve done a lot a lot of stuff with Sam Bush now. To become friends with someone who’s had such a huge influence on my life, and for him to be one of the coolest dudes ever, it’s still a reality check for me. I’m still starstruck a little bit. Ever sense we’ve been doing stuff with him, it seems like he’s right around the corner.
O&A: How do those collaborations typically come about?
HOFFMAN: We invite them up. It’s usually people we know. We don’t go for the stranger card too often. Some of the most “odd” stuff has been sit-ins with Joel Cummins, the keyboardist from Umphrey’s McGee. He’s a friend and we’re mutually admiring musicians. It’s important to mix things up every now and then to keep things exciting.
O&A: The band’s cover choices have become a bit of a signature. Are there songs you’d like to do but haven’t been able to figure out because of the acoustic instrumentation?
HOFFMAN: It’s hard to capture the same energy onsongs with a sparse arrangement. Drums are really useful for filling that space and we obviously don’t have that. Usually we play things the way they are versus “bluegrass-ing” them. We want to learn a Bob Marley tune because we want to play some reggae, not because we want to sing about Jah to a bluegrass beat.
[youtube youtubeurl=”XFUz1gSh9A0″ ][/youtube]
O&A: During the live show, how much space do you guys set aside for improv?
HOFFMAN: There are certain songs that are the jam vehicles. We play about ten songs a set and they run anywhere from three to fifteen minutes long. We don’t want to play all the long ones. As much as we are a jamband, we are also a songwriting band. We want people to hear what we’ve written in a way that’s musical. If you’re singing a sad, dark song, sometimes it’s better to simply play it straightforward. It’s all about balance.
O&A: What are your thoughts on the recent rise of acoustic music with bands like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers?
HOFFMAN: I’m all about it. It helps us. All this new stuff going on with DJs and trans-genre music creates a thirst and need for music that’s stripped down to the chords and lyrics. It’s exciting as a writer. It makes me happy to see these great writers getting properly recognized in the pop world. People are smart. They don’t want all hit factory lyrics that rhyme. They like good lyrics about heavy things, too.
O&A: The new record is coming out in September. What’s different about this one?
HOFFMAN: It’s hard to see how different our records are because they just seem like the next step in our path. We’retaking it out further as far as being able to get it to more people. I think it’s going to reach some new fans for us. We’re pressing this one to vinyl as well as re-pressing some of our older stuff.
Photo: Jamie Van Buhler