Fear, Doubt, and Responsibility: A Conversation with Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass

photo by 3-Minute Storyteller

With last year’s release of their sixth studio album, Shouted, Written Down & Quoted, Greensky Bluegrass emerged from the pack of their improvisational brethren with one of the best records of the year, jamgrass or other.  It’s a record that further defined their sound and set their north star.  Principal songwriter and vocalist Paul Hoffman wrote and sings on nine of the eleven originals: a nuanced collection of songs narrating doubt amid maturity, running while standing still.   

Featuring new producer (Los Lobos vet) Steve Berlin’s vivid, dynamic sound, and Hoffman’s voice pronounced in the mix, the record allows the best emotional access yet to his tales of regret and questioning.  What it reveals is a songwriter doing the best work of his career, settling into a voice that is consistently provocative.

Guitarist Dave Bruzza also writes for the band, coming at it from a slightly more traditional bluegrass approach than Hoffman. Restorative and warm, Bruzza’s songs interspersed with Hoffman’s are welcome jams--comforting and toe-tapping at once, and a great foil to Hoffman’s tunes.  

Of course, the whole notion of “traditional bluegrass” strangely remains a sticking point for plenty of the genre's faithful.  Partly because of their name, every article written about the band addresses the fact that what Greensky does is “not quite” bluegrass.  These depths have been plumbed.  In fact, in their own promotional material, GSBG describes their sound as “their own version of bluegrass music, mixing the acoustic stomp of a stringband with the rule-breaking spirit of rock & roll.”  So that’s settled; no more questions about Flatt and Scruggs.  And in fairness, rock bands don’t get asked much about Little Richard any more.

More intriguing than discussing tradition and genre is to explore Hoffman’s excellent set of tracks.  His songs are a bit like trying to hold sand. He'll give a glimpse of a narrative, and then change directions. He’ll sometimes spill a line over the edge of a bar instead of cutting it cleaner like most singers would, which makes for some intriguing lyrical moments. And as I discussed with Hoffman, he has collected some great and unexpected turns of phrase.  Together, they form patchwork narratives of regret and unrest. 

Delivered in a clear-voiced, mournful tone, Hoffman’s vocals are often augmented by the fiery, evocative dobro work of Anders Beck, who joined the band a decade ago.  The two work together almost in a call-and-response: Beck’s dobro sweeping up the debris of Hoffman’s broken psyche in minor key.  It’s powerful stuff, particularly on tunes like “Past My Prime,” “Merely Avoiding,” and the epic “Living Over.”

We also talked a bit about how GSBG built their fan base, a fiercely loyal band of travelers and obsessives called “campers,” many of whom have been around since the band's nascent Kalamazoo, Michigan days, and with whom the guys in the band generously and proudly mix with frequently at shows.   

I caught up with Hoffman as he was decompressing after a long, gray winter tour bus ride from Syracuse.  The band was in a midst of a string of sold-out shows from Boston to D.C.   Festival darlings for the last few years, Greensky Bluegrass has built on that little Michigan fan base primarily through word-of-mouth praise of their musicianship (banjoist Michael Arlen Bont deftly matches Beck solo for solo, and bassist Mike Devol is a classically trained cellist).  Constant touring and wildly changing live sets have the band recently selling out multiple runs in mid-size theatres around big population centers, and they look headed to even bigger draws.

When I arrived, a member of the crew told me Hoffman would be back soon, that he was on a “walkabout” in the light snow that was falling up in the Poconos Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania where we met.  He’s indeed a contemplative, soft-spoken dude: a persona slightly incongruent from his stage presence.   It’s only one of a number of contradictions around Greensky Bluegrass, foremost of which is that lingering songwriter ethos surrounded by a jam band perhaps best known for its lengthy psychedelic workouts and killer light shows.

It’s also clear that even with the continuing success of the band, Hoffman understands what most come to know about doubt: it doesn’t fade, it just mutates. As he sings on the album-opening “Miss September”: “Looking out at . . . life now from somewhere close to the middle, the second half doesn’t look any easier than looking back.” If Shouted, Written Down & Quoted is any marker, we’re likely to hear more about Hoffman's fascinating, uneasy second half in years to come.

Mike Mannon: I always ask songwriters this because it fascinates me.  What were you like creatively as a kid?

Paul Hoffman: I was in theatre a lot as a kid, and started playing music early.  I was in theatre and classic choir and show choir and all of that all through school.  I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid.  You know when they make you do that report—what are you going to be when you are older?  And you have to research it and find out if you are chasing a pipe dream?  I wanted to be a professional actor.

So I think I made a good shift, well seemingly I have . . .

How long did that last? When did music really come in to play?

I was 10 when I started playing the viola, 12 I got a guitar, 18 I got a mandolin.  I went to college to be an English major because that’s the only thing I could tolerate, but I didn’t really have a concept of what I was going to do with that.

I’d be interested in that too when you find out . . .

Ha! Yeah, well then I met these guys and started playing music and one thing led to another.  We never really had the talk, you know “hey, let’s do this.” But eventually when we became a little more successful, we kind of had that talk—quit our jobs and stuff. 

Were you writing early on too? 

I made a record, a solo thing, when I was 16.  It’s pretty depressing [laughs]. Kind of terrible.  I just listened to it recently with my girlfriend.  It was entertaining.

I’ve read about your progression as a mandolin player, but I wonder about your progression as a songwriter.  How do you assess yourself, particularly after this last record?

As a writer, I think everything is getting better and better, and I’m exploring new things. You hit slumps where everything sounds like yourself and you are trying to break your own mold, but I think I’ve settled into something.  I learned a couple of years ago that to my writing, observation is so important.

And listening.  I’ve really been trying to tune in to what people say.  And often how they say just little things, and don’t realize how deep those little things are. 

For example, on this record—a guy I used to work with, he’s a chef, I was talking to him one day and he told me “even in his dreams his limits were real.” And I was just kind of like “what did you just say?”  [Laughs] And it’s a lyric on the record.

Stuff like that, I’m trying to tune into. Simple ways to say profound things. Those are the things that attract me the most right now. 

Well to me, it’s really interesting because you use a lot of first-person—which is why I think people worry about you a little bit…

[Laughs] Yeah, I guess so. . .

But on this last record, you’re not necessarily telling a straight-ahead first person story, the way you typically think of as a first-person approach. You’re painting something more impressionistic: little images, lines, where the listener has to piece it together to form something.

Yeah, very much so.  I think you hit the nail on the head.  I do write a lot of first-person.  Second-person, third person: those are just hard for me to write. So I’ll often put myself into someone else’s shoes, my brother, a friend.  If I know someone who goes through something horrible, I’ll write that in first-person. And I’m thinking I’m writing about someone else, only to discover it’s a lot about me too.  My impression of what my fears, my doubts would be in that situation.

Those are things I write about a lot: fear, doubt, responsibility.

You did get the word “vulnerable” into a refrain—that’s pretty damn hard to do.  But all those things you just mentioned, they do kind of belie what your stage presence is. I mean, you look very content, seem very comfortable in your skin when you guys play live.  I would not say the same thing if I was reading your lyrics.

You know there is a lot to that old blues mentality of catharsis.  Things that are heavy to say or live through—that just always has struck me a good song lyrics. You know, people will tell me the songs really help them through things, or they’ll come up and say “how do you know what I’m going through?”

Those things are hard for me to sing too sometimes, but I figure if people are having a hard time confronting something like that, maybe they are singing along and it’s helping them.

But I do feel comfortable up there when we are playing live.  I just love what we do. It’s fun—I live for that, for sure.

About that, you are twelve-thirteen years into national touring, hitting 150 shows a year.  What’s the road do to you, not as a musician necessarily, but as a person, does it make you reflective? Or regretful?  Or is it just what it is—your life?  Where are you with it right now?

You know, all of that.  Somebody told me the other day they really appreciate the record, because they’ve heard enough songs about the road, and this one wasn’t like that.  Because you know, musicians write about that a lot.  It’s hard not to. 

There’s like this paradox out here, simultaneously embraced by many, but also so alone, because we just get up and go all the time.  So that juxtaposition creates a real bipolar emotional state on tour.  One minute you are the centerpiece of all the fun, and then they all leave and you are standing there alone, and you get in your little coffin and roll down the highway.

In 2006 we played 165 shows, which I think was our high up until then.  So thousands of shows.  We’re playing a few less each year because we’re just getting strategic about how we do it.

But on some levels, even though those early days were harder: less money, shittier food, worse beds to sleep in, less luxury, fewer fans, there was something really exciting about just being out there, carving our way and seeing the country for the first time.  Over and over and over again. [Laughs]

And it’s a credit to your band—and a lot of bands out there—that as the whole concept of making money from recording has essentially collapsed, you truly have done the time, working your way through those tiers of slightly larger venues as you come back through towns.

That’s definitely the way our band has grown.  We’ve had a little greater success with each record, but we’re very much a one fan at a time kind of live band.  Come to a town, play for 60 people, come back play for 80, come back play for 110.  And just keep doing it and doing it.

Well, when I know I’m going to write about someone, talk to someone, I’ll often duck into their social media world and who follows them online and try to get a feel for the fans; it tells you a lot about a band.  I have to say, your followers are incredibly . . . how do I say this . . . well-adjusted and positive.  It’s seems like a really decent group of people; and you don’t always see that in some of those groups. 

Yeah, we’re super aware of it; we’re pretty lucky.  And it’s kind of surprising to us sometimes because we’re such cynical bastards [laughs]. And crude and vulgar.  But yeah, they are.  We’ve succeeded in creating a community of people who come to the shows for more than the music, which is pretty awesome. 

It can be a little overwhelming; some people come to a lot of shows, and we’re like “what the hell are we going to play for them now?”  But really, they are coming for that experience, that feeling just as much as they are coming to witness something we’ve never done before.

Getting back to the record for a second, the song “Living Over” is incredibly intricate and emotional all at once. It’s I think the best representation of your live sound that you—or bands like yours—improvised music as a whole, really—have put on record.  What was that recording process like?  I’m sure you’ve wanted to tap into that before with other long, jammy pieces.

Yeah, it’s tricky. But I appreciate it, because I think it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done in the studio.  Over the years, there have been others we’ve tried it on—trying to improvise and be open.  We cherish that; we try not to overplay on a lot of stuff and we leave it open sometimes to a fault.  You know, “if only we had made better plans maybe it could have been cooler. . . “

But we weren’t afraid to fail, which is an important part of improvising.  There’s a song called “All Four” [from 2011’s Handguns] that’s a real long one too.  We had already been playing it two years live, so we had expectations of it and it was hard to harness the beast in the studio, and it didn’t feel right when we did it.  We did three takes, and they were like 12, 14, 16 minutes, and we ended up keeping the 12.  We just couldn’t do better, it was weird. 

With [“Living Over”], we went exactly the opposite, and we were intending for an open section, and we just roughly arranged it before recording it.  Our producer, Steve Berlin, was kind of like “what the hell is going on here?” [Laughs] It’s mostly studio improvisation, and it came out pretty beautifully, it goes through these phases of being very bluegrassy, but it has a climatic rock ‘n roll moment, and a slow, soft psychedelic moment.

And we did it, and we were like “wow.” 

A couple of last things: what are you reading, what are you listening to on the bus?

I’m actually trying to read a Tom Robbins book, but I’m having terrible success with it.  I can’t seem to wrestle the demon.  But like we were talking about, there’s rewards. Every now and then there will be a one-liner that is so good. . .

I’m listening to Bruce Springsteen read his biography—I was just listening to it while I was walking out there.  It’s pretty interesting.  It’s a lot different than reading Bill Kreutzmann’s book, that’s for sure. [Laughs]  He’s just forming the E Street Band, so it’s cool.

How about the writing, are you already working on something?

I’m a little slow on this one.  After we put one out, I don’t write very much.  Those songs were the culmination of about two years of songs I was writing.  And as we push them into the next phase—you know, like children—now that they are teenagers, I’m ready to have some newborns again. 

I’ve been writing pieces of stuff but I haven’t been finishing anything. 

But I listen to a lot bands outside of what we do. And I get ideas—how they go about arranging things.  “Oh instrumental bridge before the third verse, I should try that.” Or a reoccurring hook over a different chord progression later in the song—that’s something I should try.

And my writing goes back and forth between those that are very much like little chemistry experiments.  Like a song like “The Four,” it’s all about the arrangement and the way the song is put together.  It’s not about the lyrics. At all. 

And then another one like “Living Over” is the same chord progression everyone writes to and I was in lyrical mindset where I had to get this idea out. 

So I try to do both a little bit of both things. It doesn’t always have to be a chemistry experiment.