Reverbnation Artist: Lil' Smokies

Brian Ripple  |   Friday Oct. 31st, 2014

“Hailing from the utopian garden city of Missoula, MT, The Lil’ Smokies exploded onto the progressive bluegrass scene in the winter of 2009 and haven’t shown any signs of fatigue since.”

BR - We are here today with Andy Dunnigan from the Missoula based progressive Bluegrass band: the Lil’ Smokies, and I have to get this one out of the way. Where does the name The Lil’ Smokies come from?

AD - Yeah, well there has kind of been some misconception because of the prominence of bluegrass music in Tennessee, and of course there is the great Smokey Mountains, but that’s not actually how we got our name. It was our first gig, at the Lumberjack Saloon in Missoula, or near Lolo. It’s kind of a roughneck kinda bar out in the woods and we ended up getting a gig there and we didn’t have a name. We were outside in the parking lot before the show trying to come up with it, and we get inside and we still don’t have a name. Even after the show was done we didn’t have a name, but the whole time they had a plate of Little Smokies Sausages behind as a plate of hour dourves and we ended up eating almost the entire plate. So at the end somebody shouted “what’s your name?” and we all looked back at this plate of toothpicks now and were like “The Lil’ Smokies”. It was kinda a joke but it stuck.

BR- That’s hilarious. When was that, when did the band start?

AD - It was like late 2009 or the very beginning of 2010. We all met at a party and a couple of us were still in school at the University of Montana, and it just came together. We played all through the night. At first we were your typical garage band, we would meet up and practice but it was nothing very serious at this point. Then we started playing out at farmers markets and outside of bars and we just got a lot of encouragement from the community. Then we started getting some paying gigs and it slowly turned into a monster of it’s own you know...

BR - Nice, what were some of your early influences starting off?

AD - It is kind of an array of influences because there is a vast age difference in members ages. Jesse our fiddle player now is 19 and Pete is 36. Jesse used to be the lead singer of a scream metal band before we picked him up. He also plays this virtuoso fiddle, he is classically trained so there is this weird juxtaposition with that, but at first it was just typical bluegrass covers. I think we have evolved a lot. To say we are a bluegrass band now, I really wouldn’t classify us as that. I think there is a lot more going on at this point in time.

BR - How many albums do the Lil’ Smokies have to date for people to buy or stream or download?

AD - We have two. The self titled studio album, and then we put out our live album from this past new years at the Top Hat. We put that out maybe five months ago. Those are the two, but we are looking to get back into the studio pretty soon. We have an albums worth of material so we want to get in the next three to four months.

BR - Great, we will be looking forward to that. How do you approach the songwriting as a band?

AD - It just depends on who is bringing the song to the table. Like I may have a song. Lyrics, a chord progression and a melody, but we all arrange it together. It is definitely a collaborative effort. Everyone will sit around and decide who plays what. There are other people bringing their songs to the table too. It is a very democratic approach.

BR - Excellent. It sounds like it is working. You guys won the Northwest String Summit a while back and were recently honored by the International Bluegrass Music Awards with a nomination for the Momentum in Bluegrass Band Award. What do you think things like this can mean for an up and coming bands career? How does it effect you guys?

AD - It is extremely important. Being in a band can be a lot of fun, but when it gets to a serious level you need that encouragement, you need those little catalysts so to speak.

Winning the Northwest String Summit was HUGE. That really propelled some of us into further thinking in regards to the band and the music and it’s potential for the whole thing, and perhaps pursue this more seriously.
The IBMA Momentum Band of the Year made us think people are taking note of this, even outside of Missoula especially. That’s a real high echelon in the bluegrass world so that is pretty cool. We are pretty proud of that.

BR - That is great. What other things do you feel are important for yourselves or any up and coming band to do or perhaps not to do?

AD - I think it’s important and one of the things that helped make us break through initially to new crowds and have audience members start listening closely was to begin writing original music. For the first couple years we were mainly a cover band. We would have a couple instrumentals we wrote, but I think when we started putting out original material that was decent I think people started re-listening and re-evaluating who we were and our identity kind of changed. Now all the songs we love playing and hearing are original tunes. That’s huge. I think there is a lot of pride that comes with that too. Being in cover bands is great, but I think the band gained a lot of momentum in itself by playing original music.
I think that utilizing social media. You Tube, and then just getting in the van and playing places. You know you’re probably not going to pack the house the first time you go there but a couple people show up the first night and a couple more next time. So hitting the road is obviously a real important tool.

BR - Sure and speaking of that it looks like you have a little West Coast tour coming up this month. Seattle Portland, Hood River and some others. How do you feel the growth in the Montana Bluegrass Scene is being noticed nationally?

AD - That’s a great question because, bluegrass seems to be really conducive to Montana, or the whole aura that Montana is endowed with. The Northwest String Summit was huge like I said because that got our name out there. There actually is a surprising scene. I was surprised that Portland and Seattle had such a scene and that there was so many people that not only knew bluegrass and bluegrass music, but had also heard of us. We have had a lot of success in those areas and I think there is kinda a counterculture going on that like ‘banjos are cool’. Mumford and Sons kind of folk revolution that happened a couple years ago kinda restored that.

BR - I gotcha. Here is one from a reader. Can you tell us about the time Cameron fell into the river with his mandolin?

AD - Well Cameron has probably fallen with his mandolin a lot. He carries it around with him and it is basically another appendage.
I wasn’t actually present but I have heard the story a million times. It wasn’t a river, it was the ocean. He was playing up on a cliffside and lost track of where his feet were and ended up sliding into the ocean with it. He said it got a little wet but not enough to deter him from playing and singing. He has since got a new mandolin, but he played that one for a long time.

BR - Nice, well back to the touring questions. You have a small Montana tour in line for this year too. What are your favorite venues in Montana to play?

AD - Well definitely we are biased. The Top Hat in Missoula. Actually I don’t think being biased has anything to do with it. It truly is not just the best in Montana but it is a great venue for the Northwest. We have played a lot of nice venues in the Portland and Seattle area and the Top Hat in Missoula has a real cool thing going on.

That said, we love playing Bozeman as well. The Filling Station has always been a real great venue for us. It has a cool feel to it. It is one of those places kinda old and retro. It has a unique style with all the beer cans on the wall. It has a Montana vibe to it.

BR - It’s not something you could just build.

AD - That’s a great point. It just built itself over time and all the pints of beer that have been drank at that establishment. It is just that, a bar that built itself over time.

Also lets see. Whitefish has always been really good to us. There is a great scene and a great music loving demographic there. It is a younger crowd with the ski crowd up there. So like the Great Northern Bar has always been real good to us.
I would say those for sure.

BR - Yep, I like all those myself. So you kind of touched on this, but what are the Lil’ Smokies plans for the next six months or year to keep pushing this thing forward?

AD - At this point we are starting the preliminary stages of touring, we have done three now and this will be our fourth to the Northwest. In January we will be heading out to Colorado for the first time which we are all really excited about. We have all heard so much about Colorado. It’s kinda this bluegrass oasis in the desert for bluegrass bands. That’s going to be a few week tour for us.
Then we are really trying to get an idea of when this album is going to come out. So we are in the early stages of planning the next album. I am really excited about getting into the studio. I know all the guys are too. We got a bunch of new songs so we are really excited to get those out there.
So that’s kinda the plan for the next six months or so. Then hit the festivals in the summertime.

BR - We appreciate your time today and look forward to seeing you at the Filling Station next Month.

AD - You bet, I’ll see you there!  

Listen to the Lil' Smokies on Reverbnation at

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