The Lil Smokies catch afire

When The Lil Smokies guitarist Matthew Rieger picks up the phone from the road, he’s perched atop the tour van in an instrument bay known as the playa and not entirely sure where in the world he is.

July 1-2 | 12:30 p.m. | High Sierra Music Festival | Quincy
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“It’s very flat and there are a lot of fields around,” he says with a practiced hesitancy. “Based on that, I would suspect we are in northern Indiana. But either way, we’ve been having an absolute blast zigzagging around the Midwest.”

Rieger is known to band members and fans as Rev, short for The Reverend. He earned the nickname because of his affinity for traditional bluegrass, gospel tunes.

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“People started calling me the Reverend and it just caught on like hellfire,” he says. “If you really want to be a bluegrass guitar player, you need to know the standards and you need to know the melodies. You learn all these tunes and then you interpret them. That’s where the art comes in.”

Rieger joined the up-and-coming progressive bluegrass band out of Missoula, Mont., on New Year’s Eve 2016, just a few months after the group won the coveted Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition. They had previously won the Northwest String Summit crown in 2013.

“There are many arts forms and styles that come together to make us what we are. It’s easy to call us a bluegrass band, but that is only one aspect of what we do.” -Matthew Rieger

“From Greensky Bluegrass to Trout Steak Revival, all of them have been served very well by winning that competition and using it a platform for momentum,” says Rieger. “You win something like that you have confidence that you haven’t wasted all this time having a modest income. We’ve all been working a very long time and struggling. It validates that struggle and makes it all worthwhile. All those shows I played with no one there is no longer a problem. That was really the last push to get into the world where you got that cred.”

Rieger had been playing as a hired gun out of Seattle and San Francisco when he first met The Lil Smokies during a late-night picking session with Lukas Nelson, Willie Nelson’s son, at Chinook Fest in Naches, Wash.

“It’s just like you find every cool musician — late night in the woods at a music festival,” he says. “One thing led to another and they asked if I would be willing to join full time. Playing with the Smokies has been a real treat. One job, one band, one situation. The biggest benefit is I’m now a partner rather than an associate.”

Rieger and fiddler Jake Simpson replaced two former members who decided to take a break from the long, lonely hours of the road to start families at home.

“This is a rough life we lead and it’s not for everyone,” he says. “You have to sacrifice a lot of the parts of life that people take for granted: groceries in your fridge, significant others to come home to, washing your laundry whenever you like. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but the weight of not having all the things you are accustomed to can wear on you. Sometimes all I want sometimes is peace and quiet and a chance to cook my dinner with no one else around. The road takes a toll on you.”

But sometimes the rewards do outweigh the costs. Rieger’s dream of being a professional bluegrass musician was planted 10 years ago at a little gathering known as High Sierra Music Festival.

“High Sierra, man, that’s about as cool as it gets,” he says. “If I could pick a single festival that has shaped the course of my life, that would be it. I saw all these people playing for what seemed to be the time of their lives. I was playing music but not necessarily what I wanted to. I decided I wanted to be there. Ten years later, here we are. This dream is a decade in the making. Sometimes they are few and far between, but when they do come true it’s really quite a blessing.”

The Lil Smokies recently completed recording a new album scheduled for release this fall. It was produced at SnowGhost Studio in Dobro guitarist Andy Dunnigan’s hometown of Whitefish, Mont. It will be representative of the diverse, progressive style of acoustic music played by the band.

“We are proud of the material and the songwriting,” says Rieger. “Jake [Simpson, the fiddler] and I are thrilled to have something out there to represent what the band is now. There are many arts forms and styles that come together to make us what we are. It’s easy to call us a bluegrass band, but that is only one aspect of what we do.”

For more information, visit thelilsmokies.com.