Nobody starts a string band to make a quick buck. Then again nobody can accuse Greensky Bluegrass of taking any shortcuts. The Michigan-bred quintet, known for marathon live shows that have earned a continuously swelling Grateful Dead-like fanbase, have been gigging relentlessly for nearly two decades, using the best parts of bluegrass — hard-driving rhythms, speedy solos, ascendant harmonies — as a foundation for a broadly inclusive sound that features wide-open psychedelia and sturdy Americana songcraft.
“We don’t want to put ourselves in a box, even though bluegrass is in our name,” guitarist/singer-songwriter Dave Bruzza tells Rolling Stone. “That’s how we found each other — through our love of bluegrass — but our tastes are all over the board. We’re more of a rock band.”
That certainly comes across throughout All for Money, the group’s ambitious new album, out January 18th. Opener “Do It Alone” starts with hissing feedback and sustained, distorted chords before charging forward with a head-bobbing groove. The seven-minute title track moves from the fleet-fingered picking of Bill Monroe to the floating space of Pink Floyd. In the latter, Paul Hoffman, Greensky’s mandolinist and other main songwriter, looks at the motivations and grapples with the pitfalls of being in a steadfast independent band. With a rugged, reverb-laced voice he sings: “What if we’d done it all for money, and nobody ever even really cared?”
“There were certain gigs where we broke our backs driving across the country for no pay,” Hoffman says, reflecting on the band’s early days. “It was a labor of love, and it felt like we made one fan at a time in a lot of cities for a lot of years. We were always having fun, and I could’ve done it forever — in a passenger van with a trailer, loading up our own PA every night, playing for 20 — but at some point you have to be realistic.”
Persistence paid off. Last year the band played a two-night stand at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, warmed up sheds for Willie Nelson on the Outlaw Music Festival Tour and hosted their own home-state festival, Camp Greensky, where they jammed with Phish’s Mike Gordon.
Formed in 2000 in Kalamazoo — a small city halfway between Detroit and Chicago — Greensky started when Bruzza, originally a drummer, met Hoffman, who has a background in choir singing, and banjo player Michael Bont. Hoffman admits early versions of the group “learned bluegrass together” at open mics and a weekly residency at Bell’s Brewery. To fill stage time they stretched out concise traditional tunes with improvised instrumental extensions or played twangy, sped-up takes on pop songs like Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere.”
When the band started touring in earnest, they settled into a five-piece unit with bassist Mike Devol and dobro player Anders Beck, who adds heft to songs with soaring, effects-laden solos. While crisscrossing the country, playing nearly 200 dates a year, the group became festival-circuit favorites in the progressive string world, taking the baton from predecessors like Sam Bush’s New Grass Revival and mingling with contemporary acoustic explorers like the Infamous Stringdusters and frequent collaborator Billy Strings. But as their roots-based sound has gotten bolder, Greensky has continued to move beyond the conventional boundaries of bluegrass.
“Now we’re doing different things to challenge ourselves, not playing fast but playing something new,” says Hoffman. “The more we go into weird rock & roll fusion we risk losing some people, but as artists it’s important we go our own way.”
To make All for Money, their seventh studio album, the band returned to Echo Mountain Recording, a converted old church in Asheville, North Carolina, that’s become a favored destination studio for artists including Dierks Bentley and the Avett Brothers. It’s the same place Greensky made 2016’s breakout Shouted, Written Down & Quoted, which was produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. This time they opted for co-producers, enlisting Glenn Brown and Jack White bassist Dominic John Davis, who’s now based in Nashville but has known the band since his days playing acoustic music in Michigan.
“They love bluegrass, but I feel like they’ve been getting on this power-pop thing, and I wanted to expand on that,” says Davis. “Their songs can start small, almost down-beat, and then get huge with tension. With quite a few jam bands you have to get around the vocals, but these guys can sing and they write songs that really set them apart.”
As lyricists, both Bruzza and Hoffman deliver more depth than the expected jam-party anthems. Bruzza vents about feeling displaced in Trump’s America in the stormy backwoods-metal stomper “It’s Not Mine Anymore,” and Hoffman, who cites the personally revealing styles of Ryan Adams and Jason Isbell as influences, digs into the emotional turmoil of a dysfunctional relationship in the dusty ballad “Collateral Damage.”
“I want to be in a band that’s inspiring a good time, but I also think it’s important that there’s a gravity to what I’m singing about,” Hoffman says. “Even while you’re in a carefree place you can confront something painful and find heavy moments of catharsis.”
Those moments are built into the fabric of an album that, like a Greensky live show, casts a wide sonic net. Moods shift between the dark country storytelling of “Murder of Crows,” the buoyant funk romp “What You Need” and the atmospheric folk tune “Wish I Didn’t Know.” While recording, the band tried to incorporate the aging character of the nearly 100-year-old church building into the record’s aesthetic: a microphone was placed near a large stained-glass mural of Jesus to capture the ambience and Hoffman recorded vocals for the title track in the bathroom — at times with bandmates jokingly sitting on the toilet behind him — to get the right acoustics.
“We like messing around in the studio and embracing mistakes,” Hoffman says. “This time we had some really archaic effects. There’s something too perfect for us about nice mics and a pristine studio; we like the variables of using old dirty gear and being in a room that creaks and slaps around the sound.”
That edge fuels the album’s centerpiece, “Courage for the Road,” a nine-minute fist-pumper with a series of building, wild-eyed fret workouts. It’s the kind of pulsing, dance-ready song that ignites the band’s loyal tribe, which is filling increasingly bigger rooms. Greensky’s extensive album-release tour, which included a sold-out show at New York’s Beacon Theatre, visits Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on January 17th.
“The important thing about our band is the community that surrounds us. Our fans like to come for the experience, because they know it always changes,” says Bruzza. “We never shy away from experimenting with almost anything. Living in the moment is something we do really well.”