The Green Sky Above, The Blue Grass Below
On Stress Dreams, as ever, Greensky Bluegrass are a band of contrastsPhoto by Dylan Langille Music Features Greensky Bluegrass
When three Michigan pals first formed Greensky Bluegrass in 2000, the name was the kind of stoner pun that seemed funny at the time. Later, however, as the group expanded to five members and became one of America’s top jam bands, the name created more than a little misunderstanding. Were they a traditional bluegrass band? Were they a joke band? Was the first word pronounced “green sky” or “green ski”? The group’s members seriously considered changing it.
But the more they thought about it, the more they realized that the humorous moniker described the group better than any other phrase. On the one hand, they did play the bluegrass instruments of banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass and dobro, and their sets do include a fair amount of bluegrass tunes—both originals and standards.
On the other hand, they used reverb, delay and other effects to give those instruments an electronic edge, especially on the rock and funk tunes—again, both new songs and covers. They employed both: the earthy traditions of bluegrass and the airy experimentation of a green sky. They needed both halves of their name to describe their music.
“We saw that Greensky is the opposite of Bluegrass,” says Paul Hoffman, the band’s primary singer/songwriter, “and both halves of that are what we do onstage. We’re a string band, but we’re also a groove band that cares a lot about our songwriting. We are rooted in bluegrass, but we’re so much more than that. Our name doesn’t make sense if you don’t have both words.”
Hoffman, who recently turned 40, is calling from Albany, where Greensky Bluegrass are getting ready for the first show of their 2022 tour. When they perform live, the drummer-less group lines up in a straight line at the front of the stage, and Hoffman is usually the second from the audience’s left, his dark red hair spilling down the back of a denim shirt, and his bushy beard hanging like Spanish moss over his mandolin.
The tour is in support of a brand new album, Stress Dreams. Like the band’s name, the album’s title hints at the paradox of Greensky Bluegrass’s music. From the beginning, the group’s songwriting has been marked by a tension between their hopes and their frustrations. They long for success in their work, their relationships and the society around them, but they’re all too aware how elusive and transient such fulfillment can be. Life is full of dreams, but also stress, and you can’t write honestly without including both aspects. This friction gives their songs a dramatic quality that stands apart from the vaguely sketched, utopian fantasies of so many jam bands.
“The music I listen to is like that, full of desire and disappointment,” Hoffman says. “When you sing along to something that’s hard to say, that puts the words into your mouth to say them. Ten years ago, when I was in a pit of despair about my life, my career and my relationships, I was listening to a lot to Johnny Cash’s version of the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt.’ Feeling worse makes me feel better somehow. When you’re in a bad mood or having a tough time, you want to hear a sad song.
“I wanted to be that vulnerable in my own writing. I wanted to say, ‘This is my passion, and these are my doubts.’ Confronting my fears in my songs was a kind of catharsis. To do that in the context of a fun, psychedelic rock show is a strange kind of therapy.”
The song “Stress Dreams,” the disc’s longest track at eight minutes, was actually written and sung by the band’s bassist Mike Devol, his first contributions in both categories to a Greensky Bluegrass studio album. It begins with a vivid description of insomnia—“in bed soaked in sweat,” “when rest isn’t restful,” “waking up tired”—caused by working too hard with too little satisfaction. The music reflects this unease with its patient, exploratory solos and moody changes in 6/8 time.
This tug of war between dreams and stress is reflected in most of the project’s 13 tracks—seven by Hoffman, four by Devol and one apiece by guitarist Dave Bruzza and dobroist Anders Beck (banjoist Michael Arlen Bont fills out the lineup). Hoffman’s opening song, “Absence of Reason,” confesses to “the emptiness in me,” but at the same time declares, “I wanna do right more than anything.” On “Give a Shit,” he adds, “With these broken eyes, I’m looking forward to tomorrow.” On “Cut a Tooth,” he sings, “I don’t want to go through the pain they say I need to.”
“Longing, regret, fear, that’s the way I try to be real about how I feel,” Hoffman says. “When I first started finding my voice as a songwriter for the band, a lot of that longing came from trying to make it as a band. But now that we’ve made it to a certain level, the fear is about hanging on to that. If you want to make a career of what you love, and you succeed, what happens if you don’t like your job anymore?” That hasn’t happened yet, but what if it did?
That fear is crystallized in Beck and Chris Gelbuda’s driving, uptempo number “Monument,” where he worries that the castle of success can crumble into a cave, the monument of triumph into a grave. On Hoffman’s relaxed, country-folk tune “Until I Sing,” he confesses, “I feel worthless without a purpose,” till he can climb onstage and “sing for you.” On the breezy, Brazilian-flavored “Screams,” Hoffman describes himself as torn between “emptiness” and “greed,” between “rage” and “empathy.”
These lyrics are not the result of the band members being more screwed up than anyone else; they’re the result of examining the universal human condition. We all have aspirations that are hard to grab hold of. And even when we’re occasionally successful, we’re surprised that it’s just as difficult to keep our grip on them. Hoffman discovered as much when his first child was born in the spring of 2019. He wrote “Grow Together” to mark the occasion, and now that it’s on the new album, he’s surprised by its undercurrent of worry.
“When I became a dad,” he recalls, “everyone was wondering how it would affect my songwriting. I resented that everyone assumed I was going to write these bubblegum love songs. And then I wrote ‘Grow Together,’ and I said, ‘There it is, the song I said I wasn’t going to write.’ Watching my wife become a mother was very inspirational, and I wrote, ‘We can grow old together.’ But I added the line, ‘If we can find the time.’ I asked myself, ‘Why do you keep doing that? Why do you add that bit of doubt?’ This is what we’ve been talking about: the album’s underlying theme of something good is always accompanied by the worry that it might go away.”
Every jam band is influenced to one degree or another by the Grateful Dead. What makes Greensky Bluegrass different is they’re influenced by Robert Hunter as much as by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Hoffman and his fellow songwriters in the band care as much about the paradoxical aphorisms in the lyrics as much as the freewheeling solos.
Hunter, who almost never appeared onstage with the Dead, but was their principal lyricist, was the master of paradoxical aphorisms. Certain couplets in his lyrics could sum up the close proximity of our small victories and lingering letdowns in just a few words. “Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me,” he’d write, “other times I can barely see,” or “Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.” The old-time-sounding phrases were so easy to remember that they became memes for the modern era.
Hoffman is working the same vein. In previous Greensky Bluegrass songs, he came up with aphorisms such as, “We can wrestle with our worries and reach for something to believe,” and “It’s such a subtle difference between the fool and fearless.” On the new album, he adds phrases like, “When a heart is full, somehow it yields the space for more,” and “I’m not loving what I’m good at now or not good enough at what I love somehow.” And he insists that the push and pull in the lyrics carries over into the playing.
“Sometimes a dark lyric will inspire a dark jam,” Hoffman says, “or else it might inspire a happy jam to provide contrast, but there’s always a dialogue between the words and the music. The jams have a purpose that’s more than melodic. On ‘All for Money,’ for example, we wanted the jam to be cantankerous, to reflect the discomfort of the lyrics, and that would be relieved by the last part of the song, which is a triumphant mandolin part. Our dobro player often has the job of filling between vocal lines, so he always wants to understand the mood of the words.”
The band’s songwriting is done individually, but the arranging is done collectively. When a band celebrates their 20th anniversary, as Greensky Bluegrass did during the pandemic, it becomes more and more of a challenge to make each song and each improvisation stand out from all the ones that came before. How do you explore new territory without getting too far away from the sound of who you are?
“How do you make one jam different from another?” he agrees. “At a certain point, what chords are left? I’ve never used a minor IV chord, but how would that work? Maybe instead of a dominant VII chord, we’ll use a major VII instead. Maybe we’ll make it more rock ‘n’ rolly. Or more bluegrassy. Or more ethereal.”
All these arranging choices are democratic decisions. “The advantage of band democracy is that everyone has ownership,” explains Hoffman. “We’re a stronger creative machine as a result. But it’s challenging at times, because we don’t always agree, and it can take a long time to reach a consensus. We don’t outvote each other; everyone has to say yes. If there’s one outlier, he has to compromise or resign. And resigning has never happened. With age, there’s less ego and pride than when we were young.”
That’s the way it’s been since 2000. Hoffman had been doing the emo-singer/songwriter thing as a solo guitarist, but he got so excited when he heard David Grisman and Sam Bush that he rushed out and bought a mandolin. Eager to hear how his new purchase sounded with other bluegrass instruments, Hoffman approached Bruzza and Bont about sitting in with them at an open-mic night in Kalamazoo. Inspired by the mesh of the string-band instruments, the trio started gigging as Greensky Bluegrass, but it was a hard sell to club owners.
“When we started and I tried to convince the agent or the bartender to book us,” Hoffman remembers, “they’d say, ‘I don’t know, an acoustic band without a drummer?’ And I’d say, ‘I promise you that people will dance and people will drink.’ To deliver on that promise, we worked up an arrangement of Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry.’
“The audience knew the song and liked our version of it. They were dancing and carrying on, and they kept it up when we did the Stanley Brothers’ ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love.’ They started saying, ‘Hey, maybe this bluegrass is OK.’ It worked because the audience had the same relationship to bluegrass as we do: they like it, but they didn’t grow up with it.”
To this day, the band still plays several cover songs in each show, everything from Bill Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss” to Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.” That breadth of influences explains the wide range of sounds in Greensky Bluegrass’s own music. And all that practice singing other people’s songs prepared Hoffman for the challenge of singing the new tunes written by his bandmates Devol and Beck.
“With the covers,” Hoffman points out, “I have more freedom to change the lyrics and arrangements if I want. With these new songs, I can suggest changes, but the songwriter has to agree. I’m trying to carry out their creative vision, just as they’ve carried out my creative vision so many times in the past. It’s interesting to have those roles flipped, but it’s only fair. It was an awesome experience for me, and it made this record unique. And yet it still sounds like us.”
Watch Greensky Bluegrass’ 2020 Paste session below.