Sam Snyder came to the dobro by accident. A real accident.
While working in the Peace Corps, Snyder was cutting a piece of sugar cane for a snack, missed, and sliced the tendons in his hand. It took about five years to gain full mobility back, and during that time he couldn't play guitar. A friend suggested he pick up the dobro -- an instrument that's shaped like a guitar but played laying flat, like a lap steel -- because it doesn't require a player to press the frets the way a guitar does. It's an unusual instrument, and Snyder said that alone can be freeing.
"With dobro I was more willing to get out and take risks and figure it out, because there's usually not another dobro (player) in the room."
A few years ago he started playing with Matthew Pustina (mandolin), Nicholas Pustina (bass) and Lucas Soden (guitar), who had a college band in Wisconsin before moving to Alaska. The four started playing bluegrass around town as Hot Dish. At their first notable gig, a party for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Palmer, each band member got paid in a box of local vegetables and a freshly killed chicken. So bluegrass.
It was just after that they were joined by banjo player Dan Harter. Snyder says that their music is a little different than what some fans of the genre expect. Before coming to Alaska, the Pustina brothers and Soden played a lot of Phish and Grateful Dead covers, he said, and Hot Dish's sound shows its bluegrass-by-way-of-jam-bands progression. That influence comes out in their improvisation and use of additives like distortion pedals. And, he said, "We all play bluegrass instruments but we're not afraid to cover artists such as the artist formerly known as Prince."
Hot Dish will play at the Sitzmark in Girdwood this weekend for the third annual Bluegrass Ball, a showcase that will include High Lonesome Sound and Hot and Awkward. Shows start at 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 13-14 (Hot and Awkward will play Saturday only). Bonus -- there's snow in the forecast and both shows are free.
1. What is a hot dish?
What those of us from the South call a casserole. Ideally, though, with lots of Wisconsin cheese and some tater tots on top.
2. Plastic or pine Christmas tree?
Pine, of course. Not even worth a debate, really.
3. What was the toughest thing to learn when you were becoming a bluegrass musician?
Not sure I am really a bluegrass musician, as opposed to a musician who plays a bluegrass instrument. That said, fiddle tunes remain the hardest thing to learn for me.
4. How has your Ph.D. in environmental studies contributed to your mastery of the dobro?
Honestly, it hindered my progress. I played a lot while working on my master's. During my doctorate, however, my instruments spent way more time in their cases than they did getting played. If I played as much and as regularly as I do now for the six years of my Ph.D., I might actually be a decent picker.
5. What do you think is the ultimate, ideal setting in which to enjoy bluegrass music?
I'd say a porch, with a cold beer in hand.
• Reach Victoria Barber at email@example.com or 257-4200.
By Victoria Barber