Grow together: Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass
Since its inception in 2000, Greensky Bluegrass has grown from a scrappy string ensemble to one of the premier live stage acts currently touring the country.
It’s been a long road from the group’s humble beginnings at local open mic nights and breweries in its native Kalamazoo, Michigan, and beyond. And, in that time, the quintet has become a melodic bridge between the bluegrass, jam, rock and electronica scenes.
Amid those vastly different realms, Greensky Bluegrass has navigated through those numerous physical stages and emotionally sonic moments with such ease. That’s partly due to their deep and sincere collaborations with such a wide variety of groups and styles, but mostly because Greensky Bluegrass remains a sponge — of sound, wisdom and purpose.
And at the helm of Greensky Bluegrass is singer/mandolinist Paul Hoffman. Sitting on a wooden bench backstage at The Salvage Station in Asheville, Hoffman gazes across the French Broad River and back to the large outdoor stage where his band will perform later that evening, a sold-out crowd of thousands soon to appear.
The de facto leader of the band, Hoffman has become sort of a touchstone of not only modern bluegrass and jam music, but the music scene in general — a musical landscape with as much of a catch-me-if-you-can attitude as it is a place of unlimited possibility.
Smoky Mountain News: With the jam-grass scene right now, things are really blowing up with acts like Greensky, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Billy Strings, where the top tier bands are selling out these massive venues — it’s a rock show at this point.
Paul Hoffman: It’s definitely a rock show. And, every year, it’s growing. Being out playing smaller [outdoor] sheds or boutique amphitheaters, it’s been really fun.
SMN: How do you measure success these days? I mean, the band has already exceeded a lot of the old boundaries of string music and broken through the ceilings that bluegrass has dealt with over the decades.
PH: Being able to do tours like this [current one] makes me feel pretty successful, you know? Being out of the bar [scene] and playing venues like the Wolf Trap [in Vienna, Virginia, recently], just this gorgeous place where you’re like, “Wow, we get to play here.”
Then, the next night we played on the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore — right on the beach, with the carnival next to us, this stark opposite of settings. It was beautiful and we’re grateful to be able to perform at these incredible spots.
SMN: Greensky seems to always record its albums at Echo Mountain right here in Asheville. What is it about this city and that studio where you guys keep coming back?
PH: It’s just this cool studio. It’s an old church and we love it. [Echo Mountain manager] Jessica [Tomasin] is great and so is the whole crew that works there. It’s always nice to be here — [Asheville] is where most of our songs were born.
Asheville has always been important. The first place we thought where we could “make it” was Asheville. We’d play Barley’s Taproom on the bluegrass night, driving all the way down here for that gig, something like 200 bucks on a Tuesday. Then, we’d play up in Black Mountain for 150 bucks and somewhere else for 200 bucks and go home — that’s how it all started for us.
SMN: With Greensky soon approaching the 25-year mark, you’ve been in this band all of your adult life. Do you remember your life before the band?
PH: I’m kind of doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be a performer all of my life, so here I am performing — I live for it.
SMN: Looking back, you were 18 years old with a mandolin in Michigan. Playing open mic nights and making friends. How did you get into bluegrass?
PH: Through the Grateful Dead, David Grisman and Old & In The Way. And then I went saw Grisman and Ratdog at the Hookahville [music festival in Ohio]. It was the day I graduated from high school. I got in the car, went to Hookahville and saw Grisman playing. I thought, “That’s really cool. I might get one of those things.”
Then, I bought a mandolin. And I didn’t even know what bluegrass was. I had no idea who Bill Monroe was. I didn’t know the context of it all. I was just totally going for it.
And I still don’t what bluegrass is, which is why we’re not very bluegrass-y, because we’re just kind of doing our thing. I love playing bluegrass, but it’s not about the bluegrass as much as it’s about this acoustic ensemble thing — the challenge is be a heavy metal band with a banjo.
We’re always coming up with new ideas and ways to do things. How could this harder? How could this be tougher? How can this be darker, louder? I’m constantly up there [onstage] reaching for something. And sometimes, I get it. Sometimes I touch it and see it. And sometimes I can’t find it at all.
I think about other players who can play anything and then they have the burden of thinking of new things to play. They have to come up with new ideas to play because they can play everything. I come up with ideas and then struggle to play them. So, I choose the way I’ve got it versus the other way — I’d hate to be able to play anything and then have no ideas.
Want to go?
Renowned jam-grass act Greensky Bluegrass will perform July 21-22 at The Salvage Station in Asheville.
For more information and/or to purchase tickets, go to greenskybluegrass.com and click on the “Events” tab.