The Evolution of The Lil Smokies

The band drops its new album Tornillo on Jan. 24

By Maggie Dresser
The Lil Smokies perform at Under the Big Sky in Whitefish, Montana in July 2019.

A few days before his show in Whitefish, dobro player and vocalist Andy Dunnigan of the Montana bluegrass band, The Lil Smokies, traveled across international borders from Vancouver, Canada, a place he’s recently started calling home base.

The rest of the band arrived in waves from Oklahoma, Seattle and Missoula to converge together in Whitefish and play a dynamic, triple-header at the Great Northern Bar in Dunnigan’s hometown.

After performing 160 captivating shows nationwide in the past year, the band was burnt out from traveling. In 10 years of playing bluegrass, The Lil Smokies gradually realized they don’t need to live in the same place to be a successful band, and it’s helped relieve some stress.

In addition to their tour, the five-piece band converged last year to create their new album, Tornillo, named after the small town in Texas where it was recorded.

The recording process differed from the group’s previous album, Changing Shades, recorded at SnowGhost Music in Whitefish. For nine days, the band members lived at the studio in Tornillo. They slept there, ate huevos rancheros every morning and immersed themselves in their music in the small town outside of El Paso. The dobro, guitar, fiddle, bass and banjo were their focus.

“Because it was so immersive, we had a lot of time to tinker,” Dunnigan said.

Before The Lil Smokies arrived in Tornillo, they were fried. In the last few years, they’ve grown from a local Montana band into a well-known presence in the bluegrass world. Tornillo brought them back together after years of success, traveling and stress.

“It was a very unifying experience,” he said.

The recording came at a time of evolution for the The Lil Smokies. Since starting out as a bluegrass garage band playing keggers in their hometown of Missoula, their lyrics have grown deeper and the members more versatile.

“Each member has brought a different nuance,” Dunnigan said. “We’re all a little more conscious of space and not as fast and furious as we were. I think that’s a sign of an evolved musician. Let the space between the notes prosper.”

Tornillo opened the doors they needed to grow musically. The experience allowed them to experiment and impacted them so much they named their album after it.

Before The Lil Smokies were recording albums and playing 160 gigs a year, the band formed during their years at the University of Montana in Missoula. It all started in 2009 when Dunnigan brought along his dobro to a house party, jamming into the night with other like-minded musicians.

“We shared a catalog of interest,” he said.

From there, they grew as a local Missoula favorite and began playing small gigs in town. It wasn’t until they won a band competition at the Northwest String Summit in 2013 and another at Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2015 that their success skyrocketed. Dunnigan says that was the catalyst that ushered the band onto the road.

Although two members left the group once they started getting big, the newest members, Matthew Rieger — or “Rev” — and Jake Simpson, joined three years ago and maintained the Montana vibe.

While they have evolved into a nationwide bluegrass staple, nothing compares to playing in their home state of Montana, Dunnigan said. After the hustle and bustle of the big cities they visit on tour, the band is always excited to come home.

“I love the slow pace and the friendliness of Whitefish and Missoula,” Dunnigan said. “That’s foreign to a lot of places.”

Dunnigan says he likes to finish tours in Montana because of the sense of homecoming. Following months on the road, the band is warmed up and ready to showcase their music at home, he said.

The Lil Smokies sometimes make it to play in Billings but always hit Bozeman, Missoula and Whitefish on their tours.

“Missoula, Whitefish and Bozeman is the Holy Trinity for us,” he said.

A final weekend in Whitefish and a New Year’s Eve celebration at The Wilma in Missoula is becoming an annual tradition.

“It’s nice to have these staple events to look forward to every year,” Dunnigan said.

The Lil Smokies will finish their tour in Whitefish at the Under The Big Sky Festival on July 18 and 19.

To order The Lil Smokies’ new album, Tornillo, visit

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