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The award-winning Infamous Stringdusters has embraced the "jam band" label because it was a way for the band members to be themselves. (Photo by Tom Daly, courtesy of LiveLoud)
Chris Pandolfi of The Infamous Stringdusters bought his first banjo without knowing what bluegrass music was.

"I just remember seeing Bela Fleck and the Flecktones when I was in high school," Pandolfi told The Park Record during a telephone interview from his home studio in Nashville, Tenn. "That was a stunning introduction to the banjo, so once I got my own, I kind of took a backwards road to discover the instrument and the music."

The more he researched, the more Pandolfi got excited about playing the instrument.

"In fact, those same things that got me pumped up when I saw the Flecktones still get me excited about music today," he said. "It was all about doing something original and unique, and finding that special something that existed in the live environment. I mean, when you see the Flecktones, you see and hear pure creativity. They're a jam band with virtuosic musicians, and that gets me excited."

Pandolfi and The Infamous String Dusters will share their passion for bluegrass when they play Park City Live on Wednesday, Feb. 20.

It was that unbending love for the music that pushed The Stringdusters' original line up — which also included dobroist Andy Hall, bassist Travis Book, fiddle player Jeremy Garrett, mandolinist Jesse Cobb and guitarist Chris Eldridge — to start playing together in the mid 2000s.

"We just wanted to start a band because we didn't really know any better," Pandolfi said with a laugh.


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That "ignorance" proved beneficial, because the band sprinted out of the gates in 2007 and was named the International Bluegrass Music Association's Emerging Artist of the Year. The Stringdusters also won Album of the Year for their debut CD "Fork in the Road," and the disc's title track earned the Song of the Year award.

"Looking back, it's amazing to see what we've done," Pandolfi said. "When we reminisce, we always wonder how we stuck together, especially those first couple of years when we were so broke and poor.

"What got us excited was just the notion of having a band with our friends, being our own boss, running our own business and playing our own music and seeing how deep we could take it," he said.

Still, the hardships did take a toll on the band when Cobb and Eldridge dropped out.

While no one replaced Cobb, Andy Falco filled the vacancy Eldridge left.

"The awesome thing that kept (the core) together was that we knew we had something special musically and personally," Pandolfi said. "We felt if we could stay together and put it in the right place on display in the right venues with the right production that people would take note of it.

"A career in music can feel fleeting and unstable to people who are on the outside looking in, but I think there is a flip side to that," he said. "It can also feel very stable because we still get to work on music every day and see, once again, how deep we can take it."

While the fans definitely did like what they heard, music critics were quick to categorize The Infamous Stringdusters as a jam band.

"Being categorized is a natural thing that happens," Pandolfi said. "When we started up, we were in a particularly confusing gray area between genres when Bluegrass wasn't as vibrant and alive as it is today."

The band had a love/hate relationship with being pigeonholed, but that only spurred the musicians to carve out their own niche.

"One day we think too much of it and get upset, and another day we don't think it matters," Pandolfi said. "We gave it a lot of thought and, stylistically speaking, we found we needed to essentially be ourselves when it comes to our music."

The more the band members did what they felt was right, the better off they were.

"There are so many bands out there that play music that has a lot of room for improvisation and experimentation in front of a crowd, and the irony is that improvising is one of the hardest things to do in music," Pandolfi said. "But for a while, that was kind of looked down upon by some people, but when we really thought about it, the times the audiences really react to what we did when we play and then go into outer space."

Although there are some nights when the jams don't sound as good as they could, the times everything does gel are "insanely rewarding," Pandolfi said.

"That's when we realize that we are our own entity and don't have to conform to other people's conceptions or styles," he said. "And whatever we do, we do with our heart and soul, and then worry later about what people think."

That's the path the band took when it recorded its most recent CD, "Silver Sky."

The Infamous Stringdusters recruited producer Billy Hume, who is known mostly for working with hip-hop artists.

"Billy was introduced to us by our manager who had worked on some projects with him," Pandolfi said.

While hip-hop and bluegrass seem worlds apart on the surface, the collaboration was a good fit because The Stringdusters' members all write other styles of music.

"Since the band is made up of five individual producers so to speak, we didn't want to bring in another producer to revamp the way we do things musically," Pandolfi said. "We were looking for someone to come in and give the music for the CD a sonic touch that it didn't have previously."

The thing the songs lacked the most was capturing the dynamics of what the band does live.

"One limitation that surrounds bluegrass in general is the amplification factor, and we happen to play a really big and loud show with different musical effects," he said. "So why not bring some of that into the studio?"

Hume helped the band with individual performances during the sessions.

"He was a great guy to work with and we're gearing up to do more recording with him later," Pandolfi said. "He helped us create a great final product that we're all proud of."

The Infamous Stringdusters will perform at Park City Live, 427 Main St., on Wednesday, Feb. 20. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and available at www.parkcitylive.net , www.ticketcake.com and www.smithstix.com . For more information, visit www.thestringdusters.com.