“Dueling Banjos” led The Lil Smokies’ dobro player and frontman Andy Dunnigan to bluegrass.
As a high school student growing up in Montana, Dunnigan’s music tastes ran along typical teenage lines: some hip-hop, some pop-punk, bands such as The Offspring and Blink-182. His father, professional musician John Dunnigan, noticed how much time his son spent buried in his headphones, and started dropping CDs off in the teenager’s room.
“Sometimes they would hit; sometimes they would miss,” the younger Dunnigan said from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia. “He dropped off Beatles, ‘1,’ that compilation of all their greatest hits, (and) a David Lindley (CD) — he was the slide player for Jackson Browne, kind of obscure. Then he dropped in the ‘Deliverance’ soundtrack one day. I remember putting it on and … I remember listening to ‘Dueling Banjos,’ and it was just the most happy sound I had ever heard come out of speakers. It was literally from that moment on — I remember sitting on my bed listening to ‘Dueling Banjos,’ and (my dad) played banjo, so the next day I got that thing out and I was in the bluegrass world from that point.”
He sought out band competitions at festivals such as Telluride Bluegrass — he recalled being on hand for Greensky Bluegrass’ win at the 2006 festival. In a full-circle moment, The Lil Smokies (named after the cocktail-weenie brand) would win the same competition in 2015, kicking off its life as a touring band and its steady rise on the newgrass scene.
That’s also about as long as the group — also featuring bassist Scott Parker, banjoist Matt Cornette, guitarist/vocalist Matthew “The Rev” Rieger and fiddler/vocalist Jake Simpson — has been coming to Bend. It will return to the Domino Room on Sunday to support its third studio album, “Tornillo,” due out Friday.
Dunnigan has fond memories of the city. He compared it to the band’s hometown of Missoula, Montana — a similarly outdoorsy, music-oriented environment.
“Like four or five years ago when we were first starting to tour, we played some kind of anarchist party on the outskirts of Bend at some recycling joint or something,” Dunnigan said. “It was really interesting to have an anarchist party featuring a bluegrass band and a banjo.”
That fits The Lil Smokies’ aesthetic in many ways. Formed in the late 2000s by Dunnigan, Parker and Cornette, the band carved out a niche in the burgeoning acoustic music scene with strong instrumental and vocal hooks, introspective songwriting and rock ’n’ roll energy.
“Tornillo” finds the quintet continuing to experiment with new sounds, including synthesizers buried in the mix on songs such as the first single, “World’s on Fire,” and electric guitar on “Blood Money.”
“There was a (Bruce) Springsteen album … ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad,’ and there’s tunes on there like this song called ‘Highway 29’ — there’s just this subtle synth going in the background that gets goosed and gets a little louder as the song progresses on,” Dunnigan said. “I just remember listening to it as a kid, and I was like — it creates such a vibe and it’s a little more emotive. So I was wondering about that going into the studio, and a lot of these songs I just — I was really curious to see how that would work. And as soon as we did, we’re like, ‘Oh man, this is gonna actually work.’”
The band had more time for experimentation in the studio than on its previous albums, Dunnigan said. The five musicians and producer Bill Reynolds isolated themselves at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, during the sessions, which lasted about 10 days.
“It was in the middle of nowhere in the desert on this big, 100-acre pecan orchard, and yeah, we lived there on the ranch — on Sonic Ranch,” Dunnigan said. “We each had our own little room; there was a pool in the courtyard. And then we’d stumble over to the studio, and there were some really nice Mexican ladies who were making us huevos rancheros and burritos at night. It was really cool, man. We really didn’t leave, and that was kind of our intention. We had never really spent a lot of time in Texas, so that was new. We just wanted to flip our worlds upside-down and be distract-free.”
While Dunnigan served as primary writer on previous recordings, the group adopted a more collaborative process for “Tornillo.” Rieger and Simpson, who joined just before recording sessions for 2017’s sophomore album “Changing Shades,” contributed songs to the sessions — in particular, Rieger wrote “Blood Money,” one of the band’s few overtly political statements.
“It seems like they’ve been in the band for about 10 years with us, and I think that just shows how much we’ve been touring,” Dunnigan said. “We’ve just become a unified family, and those guys are a big part of that. Once we finally got those guys dialed in, everything really clicked, and I think this album is a good representation of that.”