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Album Review: ‘Tornillo’ by The Lil Smokies

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Tornillo is the third studio album for Montana-based bluegrass band, the Lil Smokies and named for the small Texas town where it was recorded. PHOTO COURTESY OF LIL SMOKIES

4.5/5 stars


If you’ve spent any time reading theater marquees in southwest Montana, you’ll probably notice our affinity for shoe-stomping bluegrass shows. The Lil Smokies, who formed in 2009 in Missoula and quickly acquiring a national following, are no exception to that theme and have spent their time in the music scene performing energizing shows around the nation.

The release of their newest album, “Tornillo,” is an evolution of their craft. Produced by Bill Reynolds, from legendary groups The Avett Brothers and Band of Horses, and named for the remote Texas town where it was recorded, their third studio album has already warranted praise by Billboard and American Songwriter magazine.

“Tornillo” unfolds beautifully—a steady stream of Matt Cornette’s rapid banjo plucks and Jake Simpson’s fiddle, layered with the guitar and vocals of Andy Dunnigan and Matt “Rev” Rieger, and backed by a strong rhythm section led by Scott Parker on bass. Some moments we feel as though we’re being guided toward, and then exposed to, a grand reveal, apparent in a couple of the album’s centerpieces, “Carry Me” and “World’s on Fire”—both of which should not be skipped.

“It’s about the dreams we have, and what we go through to make those dreams live on,” said Dunnigan in a recent interview with American Songwriter, noting that Carry Me was inspired by the long days the band often spends on the road.

Listeners will notice one prominent shift when comparing past albums against “Tornillo”—the band intentionally experimented with the concept of space, letting notes breathe as opposed to trying to fill silences, something Dunnigan attributes to the solitude the band often finds in their outdoor lifestyle. Because of this, the album will put you in the right mindset for your next road trip through Montana on your way to a trailhead or fishing hole.

If you’re looking for a track that emulates a more classic rock sound, the band did play around with some of ZZ Top’s guitars during their time in the Sonic Ranch Recording Studio, apparent on the track “Blood Money.”

“The word ‘tornillo’ in its literal definition means a screw or a bolt. That’s exactly what this experience in the studio did for us as a band,” said Dunnigan. “We really came together and worked as a unit, and we got back to those reasons why we do this.”

This unity is apparent throughout, and for fans of the vocal harmony they love from the track “Might As Well” off of their celebrated “Changing Shades” album, “Tornillo” is full of it.

“Tornillo” is available on Spotify, iTunes and Pandora, and with an album cover as pink as guitarist Matt Rieger’s signature stage glasses, you won’t miss it.

The Lil Smokies play regularly in the area—keep an eye on their website for upcoming shows.

Joseph T. O'Connor is the previous Editor-in-Chief for EBS newspaper and Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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