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"Everybody Loves Bluegrass; Many Just Don't Realize It Yet"

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a week in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee last summer, and when I started to work on this article, that experience kept coming back to me. Not only because of the connection between that region of the US and bluegrass music, but because of the feeling I had when I'd step out on the cabin's balcony, surrounded by treetops and looking right at the misty Smokies as the morning haze started to dissipate or dusk softened the landscape. Like those almost surreal moments in the mountains, there’s something about the music below that just reverberates within. I may know next to nothing about bluegrass as a genre, but I know when something (pardon the pun) strikes a chord. And like the quote that I used for the title, I had no idea how much I liked bluegrass until I discovered the artists that I'm about to talk about. Give them a listen; you never know what realizations are waiting around the bend.

Sara Watkins

I can’t remember how I found the video for Sara Watkins’ song “You and Me,” but it wasn’t one that took a few listens to grow on me. I became enamored with it immediately, and spent the next few days hitting the “replay” option. There was a quiet earnestness in her voice, the lyrics did one of the things that I like best in a song—set me down in the middle of a little story—and then there was the lovely, low sound of the fiddle, which Watkins was playing. Thank goodness for the handy suggestions of other songs in the sidebar, because I started seeking out more of her songs—and still liked what I was hearing.

As a founding member of Nickel Creek, Watkins got her start in music when she was just a little girl. Initially made up of Watkins, her brother Sean, and mandolin player Chris Thile, Nickel Creek is a bluegrass group that released six albums (and won a Grammy) before taking a hiatus in 2007. (Last year they announced that they’ll be releasing a new album and touring again.) During this hiatus, Watkins pursued solo projects, including the release of two solo albums, and working on a third that she hopes to release in the early part of 2016.

She’s worked with a bevy of well-known music-world names, including Jackson Browne and John Paul Jones (former bassist for Led Zeppelin), as she’s embarked on her solo career, and Watkins has done anything but pigeonhole herself or keep from being adventurous in her music-making. On her album Sun Midnight Sun, she collaborated with Fiona Apple on a re-imagined version of the Everly Brothers’ “You’re the One I Love.” Another song, “The Foothills” has a Celtic feel. Then there’s the stand-alone song she wrote with Switchfoot frontman Jon Forman called “Miss My Kisses”; the fiddle gives it a bluegrass flavor, but it has a catchy pop sound to it too. I could imagine it playing on Top 40 radio.

Lucky for me, being so new to Watkins’ music, there’s a vast catalog of work for me to go back to. Besides Sun Midnight Sun and the upcoming album she plans to release, there’s also her 2009 self-titled album to discover, not to mention all of the music she made as part of Nickel Creek. The BBC said that “Watkins’ time in the spotlight is a triumph, with her agile playing and the kind of voice that gives your goose bumps the shivers.” After all that I’ve heard so far, I agree, and encourage you to check out www.sarawatkins.com so that you can experience those shivery goose bumps yourself.

Della Mae

Watching a video of the women in Della Mae performing at a bluegrass festival, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how fast the bows flied while they fiddled and their fingers flew on the frets of their guitars and mandolin; it was truly impressive. With all of the members of the group playing instruments like that's more or less what they'd been born to do and contributing vocals on so many tracks, the result is a multi-layered, abounding sound that hits you with emotion; sometimes joyful, sometimes wistful, or maybe even a little bit of both.   

Originally from Boston but now based in Nashville, the group formed in 2009.  All of the women in the band play an instrument: Celia Woodsmith plays guitar, Kimber Ludiker plays the fiddle (and is the fifth generation in her family to do so), Jenni Lyn Gardner plays the mandolin, Courtney Hartman plays both the guitar and banjo, and Zoe Guigueno plays double bass. Although they usually all contribute background vocals and sometimes take turns stepping in front of the mic for certain songs, it’s often Celia who’s lead vocalist.

Their 2013 album, This World Oft Can Be, was Grammy-nominated, and they just released a new, self-titled album in May. (Their first studio album is I Built This Heart.) In addition to touring nationally, I was intrigued to find out that the group has also participated in the U.S. State Department’s “American Music Abroad” program. Traveling to places like Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia (they wound up visiting fifteen countries last year), they played for locals, participated in music education programs for children, and collaborated with local musicians. Talking about the experience, Woodsmith said, “It’s really opened our eyes as people and as musicians, and hopefully it’s had the same effect on the people we’ve met on those trips. It’s strengthened our camaraderie, and it’s helped us become a better band…we came home feeling totally inspired, and wanting to create those kinds of connections with people in our own country as well.”

And I don’t see how someone could listen to Della Mae and not make some kind of connection; alternating between songs that make you want to jump up and dance, slower songs that strike a chord in your heart, and even occasional covers with a little Della Mae twist. Even though I’m pretty brand new to their music, I definitely plan to play catch up as I seek out more of their work. To find out more about the dynamic Della Mae, visit www.dellamae.com.

Alison Krauss

Until recently, Alison Krauss was on my periphery; I knew the name, but not much of her music. Then one day while I was listening to an online radio station that plays music based on your preferences, a song that I didn’t know popped up. It sounded like an old gospel song, sang by a delicate, almost ethereal voice, with subtle background vocals that allowed the lead vocalist to really shine through. It turns out that it was the version of “Down in the River to Pray” that Krauss had recorded for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Krauss has had an impressive career, spanning at least twenty-five years, and she doesn’t show any signs of slowing her momentum. A fiddle player with that gorgeous voice that I mentioned above, she’s most often singing with her band, Union Station, comprised of Dan Tyminski (guitar and mandolin), Jerry Douglas (Dobro and lap steel), Ron Block (banjo and guitar), and Barry Bales (bass). With all of these instruments and the vocals that the band lends, the tapestry of sounds weaves together to create a rich background for Krauss' voice. That's not to say that "the boys" are always in the wings though; Krauss is more than happy to share the stage and let each of them, who are successful musicians in their own right, step up and into the spotlight too.

When Krauss isn’t with Union Station, she can also be found collaborating with other artists. She’s done duets with Brad Paisley (“Whiskey Lullaby”), James Taylor (“How’s the World Treating You”, “The Boxer”), Robert Plant, Vince Gill, Kenny Rogers, and many more. In 2013, Krauss even joined other musicians on stage to share the vocals with Vince Gill and Taylor Swift on Swift’s song “Red” during the Country Music Awards.

Krauss is quoted as saying, “The only thing you can do is record things that move you—that have a connection with you—and to represent yourself truthfully. Things have to be true that I sing or I can’t do it. Whether I write them or not, they have to be true for me to say it, and for the guys (Union Station) to play it. The only recipe is if it feels true, and true may be incredibly sad. But that’s the part that feels good, because it’s truthful. It might not be true for anybody else, but it is for us.” That sums up beautifully the instant connection I made that day when a plaintive voice came through the speakers, singing a Gospel song from well over a hundred years ago. There’s a genuineness in Krauss’ work that speaks to universal truths in anyone’s life. As with Sara Watkins and Della Mae, it’s fun to be standing on the threshold of discovering more of her music. If you’d like to join in, a good starting place is www.alisonkrauss.com.

So, readers, we'd love to know: has there been a genre of music that you stumbled upon that was new to you, but you quickly became a fan of? If so, please share in the comments.