Greensky Bluegrass is an eccentric collective, to say the least — the five-piece jam band, formed in Kalamazoo, Michigan, cannot be defined by genre, though their name might suggest that they are pigeonholed. The name Greensky Bluegrass was initially formed as a joke — “Greensky” being the exact opposite of “bluegrass.” Over their 20 year career, Greensky Bluegrass has released 11 albums, the most recent being 2022’s Stress Dreams. Rolling Stone Magazine describes Greensky as having “a broadly inclusive sound that features wide-open psychedelia and sturdy Americana songcraft.” In an interview with the Michigan Daily, the band’s dobro player Anders Beck spoke on the band’s origin.
“It started as three guys just learning how to play music together,” he said. “(The first gig) was a party in a college basement, but they needed a name, so some guy told them to name it Greensky Bluegrass because it’s funny.” And despite this delightful play on words, or what Beck described as a “cool, dumb joke for a gig,” Greensky Bluegrass generously takes from the spirit of bluegrass music through traditional instrumentation, hootenanny jam sessions and vivid storytelling.
Greensky Bluegrass was formed in 2000 by banjo player Michael Bont, guitarist Dave Bruzza and mandolin player Paul Hoffman, though the band has since migrated to Colorado. The 2004 release of Less than Supper was recorded with bassist Chris Carr and dobro player Al Bates, though both left the band in that same year. In later years, Beck, as well as bassist Mike Devol, joined the fray. Beck describes those first few days as particularly grueling; extensive tour dates, cramped cross-country vans, and dumpy hotels.
“It’s been a big, long evolution from a single-mic bluegrass band to a full-scale rock ‘n’ roll band with bluegrass instruments,” Beck said. “And while we initially liked bluegrass, we’ve sort of grown into the name more than we could have ever known.”
As the band has grown, they have evolved their sound while staying true to their bluegrass roots. Bluegrass is deeply rooted in the Appalachian region, blending elements from gospel music and the blues, with its definition leaning heavily on acoustic string instruments and lyrical themes of everyday life. And while Greensky Bluegrass fits within this basic definition — acoustic string instruments, and lyrical theme — it proves to be so much more than that. Beck cited an eclectic set of influences for their sound.
“The Grateful Dead and Phish — that was my shit,” Beck said. “I would travel all over the country following the Phish tour in 1996. I couldn’t not see what was going to happen at the next show. Improvisational music was such a big deal to me.”
Beck’s love for jamming is particularly apparent in the band’s live performances full of lengthy improvisations, the entire band riffing off of one another. Beck told the Daily that he was drawn to bluegrass by its complex musicality, akin to that of his jam band influences.
“It’s like hillbilly jazz. Bluegrass is like a jam band if the jam is only a few seconds long.”
Regardless of other classic rock or jazz influences that the band has, Greensky, to its core, is also a jam band: “We’re a live band. Making music for people in venues is a huge part of what we do.” Each night spent with Greensky Bluegrass is distinctly unique from the rest — lengthy jams, extravagant light shows and raucous new sounds each night are found in droves. In-the-moment creativity is what Beck loves so much about playing live for audiences.
But bluegrass is quite conventional as a soundscape — some traditionalists have tight reins on what is considered bluegrass, and there is not much room for classic rock and jam band-influenced collectives like Greensky.
“We’re certainly not traditional bluegrass. At times we are as far from it as you can get, and for a while, we were really wrestling with how to define it. I mean, ‘Bluegrass’ is literally in the name,” Beck said. “We’ve been pretty ostracized by most of those (bluegrass) purists the whole time,” and “for a little while, we tried to get into and be accepted by that world, but eventually, we sort of blew past it a little bit and didn’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Now, Greensky Bluegrass has sold out the Red Rocks for three consecutive nights and has amassed a devout audience — the band has rejected the prescribed boundary of the genre and lived to tell the tale. From its very beginning, Greensky has never compromised its sound for the sake of tradition. Beck described their truest intention as authenticity: “The whole idea is to try and sound like ourselves. Our tunes are allowed to sound like us, because, dammit, they’re us!”
And what is most remarkable of all is their rigorous touring schedule — Greensky Bluegrass rolls and rambles across North America on consecutive tours, topping out at nearly 180 shows in a single year, even selling out large venues like Nashville’s Ryman. Last spring, the band combined forces with fellow bluegrass outfit The Infamous Stringdusters for an awe-inspiring concert in Detroit at The Fillmore. For a jam band, live performance is of the utmost importance, which is why their touring schedule is so intense — each night is a new platform for musicianship, another chance to breathe new life into each song.
Beck said the long weeks of touring and consistently providing top-notch energy to the crowd can be taxing.
“Every night you have to make sure that the energy is there, so that’s sometimes the hard part about touring all the time, but I consider myself so lucky to be able to do that,” Beck said. “We are essentially providing the party. When you go to a Greensky show, every night is Saturday night.”
At the end of our conversation, Beck said, in regards to those who may say that they must make a decision to conform to genre, “We think (the music) is cool, whatever the fuck you want to call it. My hope is that someone, somewhere, will sit down and put on headphones, or stare at their speaker, and focus on it and really have that experience with an album.” Greensky Bluegrass is composed of especially talented storytellers, and each song is tethered to tangible emotion.
And emotion really is the ultimate goal of Greensky.
“I really hope that (our music) makes people feel. I’m not sure if I even care what they feel, as long as it hits hard enough that there is emotion attached to it,” Beck said. There is a stark difference between Greensky Bluegrass live and recorded, and Beck spoke on those distinctions: “(The albums we make) are the things that are really going to stand the test of time, but the cool thing about the jam or live music is that we can leave it all there.”
Beck said he hopes that they will continue to create music in a way that feels authentic to the band, regardless of whatever obstacles they may face. When asked where he hoped Greensky Bluegrass is heading, he had a simple answer: “Forward.”
Music Beat Editor Claire Sudol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.