Lil Smokies’ dobroist Andy Dunnigan on life on the road—and not being a bluegrass band

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – The Missoula-based Lil Smokies kick off Big Sky’s widely-anticipated Music in the Mountains summer concert series on Thursday, June 22. In recent years, recognition from the International Bluegrass Music Association and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival has catapulted the quintet to the next level of professional musicianship. 

EBS caught up with dobroist and founding band member Andy Dunnigan mid-tour “somewhere in northern Illinois” on May 31. The Whitefish, Montana, native, whose chosen instrument is an acoustic cousin of the pedal steel guitar, talked about the reality of being on tour, trying not to be a bluegrass band, and how good it feels to come back home.

Explore Big Sky: Any stand-out moments from the tour thus far?

Andy Dunnegan: We played a gigantic festival in Illinois called Summer Camp, alongside a lot of our musical heroes. We rolled in moments after it was announced that Greg Allman had passed away and proceeded to watch multiple sets paying tribute to him, including the Infamous Stringdusters and Gov’t Mule. 

It was definitely a heavy day, but the silver lining was seeing some incredibly passionate and emotionally-driven performances. 

EBS: Last year you played something like 176 shows, spending nearly 200 days of the year on the road. How are you adjusting to touring life?

AD: I think we’re all starting to realize how wholly-consuming the touring life is—it’s a gigantic sacrifice. I think it really sank in the last couple months for us collectively. That said, we couldn’t be happier and more grateful for this opportunity.

EBS: Why the dobro? 

AD: I had an emotional connection with the dobro—it was such an expressive instrument. Much more than all the other instruments I was playing earlier on. It sounded like somebody crying at times. Men aren’t supposed to cry in public so perhaps it was my way around the rule. 

EBS: Are you looking forward to getting back to Montana?

AD: Definitely—even more so now than ever. We’ve been hitting the road so hard this year; I think we’re a lot more appreciative of our time home, especially in the summer—we all know how magical Montana is in the summer. We’re really looking forward to playing these stages, and seeing our friends and family…and our own beds. 

EBS: How would you describe The Lil Smokies’ sound? 

AD: That’s always slightly hard to answer. Broadly speaking, It’s progressive acoustic … I tend to stay away from “bluegrass” because there is such a stigma behind traditional bluegrass music. We’re trying to put a new twist on an old genre. We all play traditional bluegrass instruments, but if you dissect [our music] melodically, lyrically, there’s a lot more going on. We’re trying our damnedest to not be a bluegrass band, but simultaneously pay homage to the roots of the tradition that got us here. We’re searching for sonic genre transcendence. 

EBS: Where do you see The Lil Smokies going from here?

AD: Oh, the mystery. We’re in this for the long haul, literally and metaphorically. Touring has been such an incredible experience; I think we’re all getting thoroughly addicted to the unknown and the adventure that comes along with this lifestyle.