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Voices of AnyCreek • Updated Sat, Mar 9, 2024

The Angler behind the Banjo: An Interview with Chris Pandolfi of The Infamous Stringdusters

Blending tradition with nuance and creativity is no easy task in the world of music. Chris Pandolfi – banjo player and vocalist for the Grammy-winning Bluegrass band The Infamous Stringdusters – sat down with us to talk about the development of an outdoor mindset and the importance of remembering your roots in both Bluegrass and fishing.

Courtesy of George Trent Grogan.

Courtesy of George Trent Grogan.

This article covers:

  • Growing into an outdoor headspace
  • Picking a path
  • Tradition in Bluegrass and fishing
  • Conserving place through musical conversation
  • More about Chris Pandolfi, TRAD PLUS, and The Infamous Stringdusters
  • Chris Pandolfi FAQ

Growing into an outdoor headspace

Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Chris made frequent visits with his two brothers and family to their Catskills cabin. They prospected with any gear they could get their hands on – Dad's old rod, some makeshift flies, and miscellaneous lines they found lying around. The Pandolfi boys became somewhat of a hot topic amongst local anglers, as their scrappy stream tactics often proved surprisingly successful. But ultimately, fishing for the Pandolfis was deeply intertwined with the two F’s —“family” and “freedom."

Chris hoisting a fly-caught golden dorado on a recent fishing trip to South America.

Francis Pandolfi — Chris’ dad and former Chief of Staff for the U.S. Forest Service — instilled in his boys at a young age the importance of nature and preserving the environment. He brought fishing into Chris’ life permanently, teaching him everything from fly casting basics; to tying tiny dry flies like the Parachute Adams — a favorite pattern on their local Catskill streams. Chris’ visits to his family cabin always fed his natural environmental curiosity and cemented an inseparable bond between fishing and family.

“It wasn't necessarily the fishing, it was also the freedom and the ability to let our minds roam. Fishing was this playground. Not only were we free to explore our consciousness, our mental capacity — but we also had the inspiration of nature right there, front and center.”

Picking a path

A desire for more experiences of profound environmental immersion gave way to a degree in Environmental Studies from Dartmouth College; and a few summer guiding stints on the fabled trout waters of Montana. However, in a turn of fate, a banjo — a graduation gift from his parents in the summer of ’97 — ushered Chris down a new tributary of life. “Music embodied a whole new set of challenges for me — one with both personal and professional aspects to it. Nothing felt quite like the challenge of preparing for a live musical performance.”

Chris’ love for the banjo inspired him to return to school on the East Coast, where he became the first-ever banjo principal in history at the Berklee College of Music, before kicking off his professional career with The Infamous Stringdusters over 16 years ago. Chris began touring the country with his bandmates, filling gaps in his tour schedule with skiing or fly fishing. In the mid-2000s, a move to Nashville placed him in a creative space that would solidify his career as a Bluegrass musician.

Chris and The Infamous Stringdusters performing at the famed Red Rocks amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado.

Contemporary Bluegrass music is sonically quite varied, but it stemmed from a very rigid, formative style in the 1940s. Bluegrass legends like Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe (The Infamous Stringdusters were nominated for a Grammy for their album, “A Tribute to Bill Monroe”) have had a profound influence on modern style. Indeed, Chris points to Earl Scruggs’ signature 3-finger banjo picking style, vocal harmonies, and the use of fiddle and mandolin as integral to the generic definition of Bluegrass. Chris and The Infamous Stringdusters create music that pays homage to the founding fathers of Bluegrass while establishing their own blend within the genre. It’s a way of thanking early iterations of this traditional music while making way for their own creative vision — even while covering the work of other artists outside the Bluegrass genre.

“When people ask us what The Stringdusters are, I say we're a Bluegrass band. We may reinvent the music of ZZ Top, The Police, or Avicii, but we do it with the three-finger banjo roll, the bass playing, and the guitar rhythm of traditional Bluegrass. When it's time to make music as The Infamous Stringdusters, it's really about making an original statement and doing something that's all our own. But we always draw on those Bluegrass fundamentals. It’s a crucial part of our process.”

Tradition in Bluegrass and fishing

Chris and The Infamous Stringdusters electrifying a sold out venue.

Chris believes that traditional influences in both music and fishing are meant to be emulated and reflected in ways that create newfound respect. Drawing upon the traditional sound of artists like Scruggs and Béla Fleck continues shaping Chris’ playing style. “Artistry, and what I'm chasing as an artist, has as much to do with understanding tradition as it does with understanding, exercising, and developing your own voice. For me, it's about taking the parts of musical tradition that I really value and applying them to the bigger task of writing my own music or creating my own voice.”

Bluegrass is an incredibly technical genre of music, with specific nuances that make it unique compared to contemporary folk or country music. The world of Bluegrass has grown astronomically from its humble beginnings in Appalachia. However, the age-old adages of form and technique still hold much truth – much like the basic principles of an effective fly cast.

Chris and his catch after some successful fly fishing.

“When I'm in a rut musically, I actually think about fly casting. When I pick up a fly rod, it's probably the most intuitive thing that I can do. I'm a steelhead fisherman, so spey casting and the art or two-handed casting dynamics — the way the rod loads — is simultaneously intuitive and highly technical. But that's something that I don't ever think about the technique for, it's something that I just do, having done it so much – and I try to emulate that mindset — that flow state — with music.”

The orchestration, teamwork, and camaraderie of playing in The Infamous Stringdusters are an important creative outlet for Chris; however, he also flexes his musical muscles through his solo venture, TRAD PLUS. Chris adapted this name from a phrase coined by Bluegrass legend Doc Watson, who dubbed his own experimental tendencies as “traditional plus.” The musical signature of TRAD PLUS is experimental — mixing vinyl samples and sequenced drum beats with traditional banjo motifs and other stringed instruments. This ultimately comprises a profoundly nuanced sound, uncategorized by design.

To dive deeper into Chris’ venture TRAD PLUS, click here.

Conserving place through musical conversation

Always an ardent conservationist, Chris’ music is deeply enmeshed with preserving wild places. His podcast – Inside the Musician’s Brain, which delves deeper into all this talk of tradition and creativity — supports organizations like Trout UnlimitedWild Steelheaders UnitedBonefish and Tarpon Trust, and Protect Our Rivers. “If you are someone who really loves the outdoors, you have to be thinking about what you can do for that resource and how you can protect it.”

Chris alludes to a natural crossover here, as many Bluegrass lovers are anglers, hunters, and outdoor adventure seekers. Chris strives to support conservation nonprofits through his work and music and has even facilitated organized river cleanups before the shows. Moreover, Chris’ music has a powerful way of immortalizing wild places through artistic homage, particularly when writing new banjo music.

Chris, front and center, with the Infamous Stringdusters. Courtesy of George Trent Grogan.
“When I'm writing instrumentals, I feel inspired by where I am. There's a song on a Stringdusters album called “Middle Fork.” And on my first TRAD PLUS record, there's a song called “Underwater Canyon,” and “The Ballad of Earl Parrot,” the hermit of this impassable canyon. That all references a real place, one that is very special to me from a float trip that I've been really lucky enough to do five times now. It’s an incredibly inspiring spot. I bring my instrument with me when I travel places and see what comes up. And I am constantly inspired by the various places that fishing takes me.”

More about Chris Pandolfi, TRAD PLUS, and The Infamous Stringdusters

Chris Pandolfi resides in Denver, Colorado, where he continues the 4th season of his podcast, Inside the Musician’s Brain. His solo venture – TRAD PLUS – fulfills the adventurous side of his music by bending genres together. You can, of course, find Chris and his banjo on tour with The Infamous Stringdusters throughout 2024.

Chris Pandolfi FAQ

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