Greensky Bluegrass keeps a sound alive

Oh blue moon of West Michigan, keep on shining

Dec 30, 2015 at 1:00 am
Greensky Bluegrass keeps a sound alive

It wasn't that long ago that Paul Hoffman was gigging with a few tents in the back of the van.

Tight budgets and small checks from booking agents forced his band, Greensky Bluegrass, to camp when they toured.

"We'd get to a venue, maybe they would be good enough to give us dinner, then we'd play," Hoffman, the mandolin player and vocalist, says from his home in Colorado. "Then we'd go back to whatever campsite we were staying at, grab some ground, and try to get some sleep before getting up and doing it again in another town."

The touring nights are now a little bit more comfortable for the band, which hails from Kalamazoo. They've traded the sleeping bags and tents for hotel rooms, which fall a little more in line with the rock-star-on-tour image. The gigs have gotten better too. When Hoffman was giving this interview, he was preparing to leave for Mexico to play at Strings & Sol, a festival at an all-inclusive oceanside resort.

Over the past decade, Greensky Bluegrass has gone from playing half-empty bars to selling out two- and three-night stands at respectable venues. In fact, the band has a two-night run at the Royal Oak Music Theater on Dec. 30 and 31.

"We dig coming to Detroit," Hoffman says. "We just love coming back to Michigan. It's exciting after being on the road. We love the (Royal Oak Music Theater). It's a great venue; everything sounds amazing there."

Banjo player Mike Bont agrees. "There is something special about playing in Michigan," he says. "We tour all over, but the bulk of our fans are in Michigan. And Detroit is a great place for them to get together. It's always fun to play in Detroit."

The band was formed in 2000 in West Michigan, and Hoffman says the area and the state will always hold a special place in the hearts of all five members. But the New Year's Eve show will be a little different for the band, as four of the members are now living in Colorado (Bont, who lives with his wife in Kalamazoo, is the only member who still resides in the Mitten).

"It's a strange feeling," Hoffman says. "Michigan will always be home, even though I'm not living there right now, if that makes any sense."

Since planting roots in Kalamazoo and playing shows at Bell's Brewery and the State Theater, Greensky Bluegrass has seen a rise in popularity that hasn't happened rapidly, but has still garnered a number of faithful and loyal fans.

The band's biggest fan group on Facebook, called Greensky Bluegrass Friends and Family, boasts over 6,000 fans, many of whom follow the band around the country.

"That's what it's all about at the end of the day," Hoffman says about the fans. "We'd still be playing music, but we'd be playing for ourselves in a basement somewhere.

"And that would be OK. But without our fans who love and embrace the music, we'd just be jamming by ourselves. I like playing for (the fans) a lot more."

Bont agrees. "You could find a lot worse jobs to do," he says. "Our fans are amazing. We love playing for them and they seem to enjoy seeing us play, so it's a win-win."

Hoffman says the band's rise to semi-popularity is kind of surreal, given that the music they play is rarely heard on any mainstream radio station.

"You know, we haven't really spent a lot of time dwelling on it," he says. "We just kept playing, and playing. Traveling, meeting new people, and making friends. And then one day we wake up and we're playing at Red Rocks (Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colo.)."

It's somewhat of an enigma that in an era of one-and-done pop songs and a thriving urban and dance scene, the kind of music Greensky plays would be able to get a foothold and even get to the ears of a captive audience. Despite the group's name, they don't play bluegrass music, rather, they play music that is a conglomeration of different genres.

"It's acoustic jams with bluegrass influence and rock influence," Hoffman says. "There's folk, there's some jammin'. There's a lot going on at any given time. It's good music backed by real, relatable lyrics."

So how has a hodgepodge of musical styles played by an all acoustic lineup gotten so popular? "We rock the F out," Hoffman says. "I really think that's the big reason we have kind of become a draw. We have fun, and I think this kind of music is contagious. It's kind of the opposite of what makes EDM popular. People love it because it's highly produced. We are the complete opposite.

"You look some of the bands over the last few years, like the Avett Brothers and the Lumineers — they got popular because they play a stripped down, acoustic, lyrically driven style of music. And they've had a lot of success with that. I think we are kind of following in that vein."

Bont says the band's popularity might be even more simply explained. "People love the spontaneity," he says. "The way we play, you could show up one night and hear a distinct sound then come back the next night and hear something completely different. With us, you are never going to hear the same song played the same way. Ever."

Despite being able to bend genres and play unscripted, high-energy shows, it hasn't been easy to get noticed. Today's musical landscape requires new acts to bring a solid catalog to the table. If they don't, they are liable to get be drowned out by the next YouTube up-and-comer.

"We never went in to this business to become huge stars," Hoffman says. "We never knew we'd be popular in any sense. You know, pop music is pop music. We aren't ever going to be Taylor Swift or Adele or Bieber. We'll never be big like that. But we've carved a little place for ourselves, and it's working out. We wanted to do string jams with meaningful lyrics, and I'm proud of the music we're putting out.

"The way (music) is heard now is different. I know that sounds weird, but it's true. If you've got an Internet connection, you can listen to any performance from just about any band. So, you can either let that pressure smash you, knowing that you have to be perfect every time you step onstage, or you can kind of laugh at it, go out and play, and know the people who want to hear you will take it for what it's worth."

Bont prefers the band's slow burn to prominence, over an explosion into superstardom. "I just think things happened the way they were supposed to," he says. Bont says the band's big break came in 2006, when it won the band contest at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

"That was a turning point," he says. "Winning an award really gave us some confidence, you know? It made us say, 'Well, we won a contest, maybe we're doing something right.'"

From there, the band adopted a touring schedule that put them on the road 200-plus days a year. That was 10 years ago and they haven't really slowed down.

The band took a break in 2014 to record their fifth and best studio album, If Sorrows Swim. It peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart and featured some of the best songwriting of Hoffman's career. And then they continued touring. They played Michigan's Hoxeyville Music Festival in August, along with other gigs on the summer festival circuit.

Their next tour starts with these shows in Detroit and will see the band play 26 shows through the end of February. "It's still fun," Hoffman says of touring. "Traveling still feels good. It is what it is. When it stops being fun, that's probably when we'll stop doing it. Until then, we'll probably have a full touring schedule."

Bont even says that at this point it doesn't even seem like touring. "You know, we've been doing this for a long time, and we've made a lot of friends on the road," he says. "So, for me, a couple of times a year I get to get on the road and go see all my friends in different places. Plus I get to play music when I'm doing it."

Greensky Bluegrass, which also includes Anders Beck, Dave Bruzza, and Mike Devol, will continue to tour and tour, picking up fans wherever they go. But new music is coming. Last month, Hoffman let slip in an interview that the band was preparing to record a new album.

When asked about it now, though, he is tight-lipped. "We are in the early stages," he says. "Early, early stages. That's all I want to say right now."

Greensky Bluegrass will perform with Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers on Dec. 30 and Dec. 31 at Royal Oak Music Theater. Doors at 7 p.m.; 318 W. Fourth Street, Royal Oak;; Tickets are $30, 2-day passes available for $59.