Much of the world was burning around Andy Dunnigan of the Lil Smokies when he wrote "World's On Fire,” premiering exclusively on Billboard today (Dec. 17), from the bluegrass troupe's upcoming third studio album, Tornillo.
Current events were certainly part of the equation, Dunnigan tells Billboard. "It's getting wild out there," Dunnigan says. "The political climate and zeitgeist is all built in there. It's kind of all shaping up to be the reality TV show it was designed to be, and the season finale is coming up." But Dunnigan adds that "World's On Fire" — which he wrote in an AirBnB during one of the Lil Smokies' tours — is about his inner world as well.
"Lyrically it's a bit more ambiguous than some of the other [songs] on the album," he explains. "I think in our own lives we're all pyrotechnicians, so to speak, and I was going through a pyro phase in my life. I was in kind of a transition with relationships. It was a moment where [the band] was on the road non-stop, always moving and things get a little out of control and crazy and you don't have time to recalibrate yourself and your life. So that's part of [the song] as well."
A subtle layer of synthesizer on the track also nods to the experimentation Dunnigan and his mates explored while recording Tornillo, due out Jan. 24, at Sonic Ranch in Texas with producer Bill Reynolds. The quintet added a variety of other instrumental flavors to the set, including electric and baritone guitars — the former played through amplifiers previously used by industrial rockers Ministry — and percussion.
"We got to kind of move away from the bluegrass ensemble cliché sound," Dunnigan explains. "We knocked out a lot of tracks really quickly during the first three, four days, so that left us a lot of room for experimentation and tinkering around, which is something we never really got to do before."
That involved invoking the spirit of an American icon's folk leanings. "I remember as a kid listening to Bruce Springsteen's album The Ghost of Tom Joad, which was like a bare-naked acoustic album but with some cool synth stuff going on in the background — little layers that kind of grow and add drama to the songs," he says. "I've always had that in the back of my mind, and I thought a bunch of these tunes would be cool to do that with."
As for how the new touches will go down with fans, Dunnigan is optimistic. "I don't think we would've done it three or five years ago," he says. "I think we've grown a lot, musically and as individuals, and I think the genre itself has grown a lot, too. You’re seeing more sounds and more of an open mindedness towards instrumentation and techniques in the studio. I think there's different routes up whatever sonic mountain we're trying to get to. Right now we're just experimenting to see where we can get with it."
The Lil Smokies is currently on the road and will finish the year with a New Year's Eve show at home in Missoula, Mont. The group is then off until Tornillo's release, performing Jan. 23 in Seattle before moving around North America for a heavy spate of touring.
"We just had a big break, so we're feeling recharged," Dunnigan notes. "It's going to be nice to have these new songs to play. We've been sitting on the album for a bit, so it's always a breath of fresh air to play new songs for people."
Listen to "World's On Fire” below.