The Lil Smokies


The Lil Smokies

by Susan Marquez

An empty platter, once filled with tiny Lit’l Smokies sausages on toothpicks, was the inspiration for the name of a popular band by the same name. The Lil Smokies gelled as a band during their first paid gig at the Lumberjack Saloon outside Missoula, Montana.

“We still didn’t have a band name, and we were as ostensibly green as they come,” recalls band member Andy Dunnigan.

“The bar cooked us up an egregious amount of tiny Lil Smokie sausages, served up on toothpicks. After the gig, everyone wanted to know the name of the band. We looked behind us at this empty silver platter of toothpicks and jokingly told the crowd our name was ‘The Lil Smokies.’ They laughed, and the name stuck.”

The band started back in the winter of 2009 in Missoula. The original six members met at a party near the campus of the University of Montana. “I was a sophomore at the time,” says Andy. “We began meeting in standard garage-band style; then we were constantly busking and eventually got a few paid gigs. We were hooked. I never finished college, and the rest was history.”

All the band members grew up with musical backgrounds. Andy’s father played music for a living around Whitefish, Montana. “There were always instruments and songs strewn all over the house ever since I can remember. At a very early age, words like ‘gig’ and ‘soundcheck’ were implemented into my vernacular.” Andy sings and plays the dobro for The Lil’ Smokies. Jake Simpson, who plays fiddle for the band, started playing the fiddle around Oklahoma when he was five. Matthew (The Rev) Rieger played music at church growing up, and he now sings and plays guitar with the band. Rounding out the band is Jean-Luc Davis on upright bass and Caleb Dostal on the banjo.

The band members all get along well. “We see each other as much as we see our girlfriends, so it’s necessary we all get along,” says Andy. “Everyone in the band is truly as good of a human being as they are a musician.” The band plays about one hundred shows a year, putting them on the road for about 160 days a year when they are super busy. They travel primarily by air in the spring and summer, and in the fall and winter, they all hop into a 12-passenger sprinter van. “We try hard not to inflict injury upon one another!”

Travel, Play, & Genre Hopping

Some favorite venues to play are their standard venues: Brooklyn Made in Brooklyn, New York, The Chapel in San Francisco, and the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. “We also love to play festivals, including Telluride, Strings & Sol, and Under the Big Sky.”

Andy and Caleb still reside in Missoula, but the other band members are spread out. “We still loosely say we are based out of Missoula and will always be proud to be a Montana band.” Andy says the band’s strong suit is that they are not easily categorized. “We will play straight-up rock and roll, subtle lyrically-driven folk songs, and straight-ahead traditional bluegrass music. We are never bored if we are genre-hopping, and if we are not bored, the audience usually isn’t either.”

Emotion and Inspiration

While the band primarily plays original music written by Andy, Rev, and Jake, Andy says they are unafraid to season their sets with a few covers. Asked if he has a favorite song, Andy says he doesn’t necessarily have one song he likes the best. “Any given song we play during our set can have an emotional impact; it depends on what the weather is like in my personal life, or with someone else in the band, or even the state of the world. There have been plenty of times in this last year I’ve been moved to tears by certain songs of ours.” While music can be uplifting, Andy sighs, saying music can also be heavy during challenging times.

The Lil Smokies have two albums for sale on their website. Changing Shades was released in  2017 and is available on vinyl. Their latest album, Tornillo, also on vinyl, was released in 2020.

Andy says he draws inspiration from any band that has stayed together and cultivated a sustainable full-time life out on the road.

“We are all full-time musicians.” Asked if reality weren’t an issue, Andy says he would love to play in Egypt, at or in one of the pyramids. “Or I’d like to play in space. Zero gravity bluegrass.”