Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Girls Just Want to Play Bluegrass

I don’t know what’s going on in high school these days, but all my favorite recent bluegrass-based music seems to have been created by teenage girls. Or perhaps, given the depth and maturity of their music, they should be referred to as “young women who have not yet reached the age of 20.” The best folk/bluegrass album I’ve heard this year is by Sarah Jarosz (above), whose debut CD Song Up In Her Head will be released by Sugar Hill Records around the time she graduates from high school in Austin, Texas, this June. It may be difficult to understand how Jarosz has managed to master the mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo, octave mandolin, and piano (all of which she plays on the album) at such a young age, but it’s even more astonishing to hear such an assured collection of original songs rivaling that of any of her most obvious influences—Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch, Nickel Creek, or Darrell Scott. But Jarosz, who will be featured in an upcoming issue of Acoustic Guitar, is not just the next great roots-based singer-songwriter. Her instrumental chops are inventive, fluid, and virtuosic. For example, Song Up In Her Head features many guest appearances from acoustic music superstars, including Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Jerry Douglas (Dobro), and mandolin masters Mike Marshall and Chris Thile; Jarosz also plays mandolin on the CD, but you’ll have to consult the liner notes to tell whether it’s Jarosz, Marshall, or Thile playing mandolin on any given tune.

Another new CD that will have you reaching for the liner notes to see who’s playing those great mandolin (and Dobro) solos is the Lovell Sisters’ Time to Grow. Mandolinist Rebecca Lovell was the youngest person (and only female) to win the MerleFest mandolin contest, at the age of 16 back in 2006, and on this CD she not only plays hot, melodic mandolin solos, reminiscent of Chris Thile’s early playing, she leads her sisters with passionate pop bluegrass singing and songwriting (her song “Distance” was a Grand Prize Winner in the “country” division of the 2008 John Lennon Songwriting Contest). In addition, Megan Lovell may be the best young Dobro player to come along in years, with a fat tone and lyricism usually only heard from the likes of Jerry Douglas. While their sophomore recording doesn’t hold up as well as Jarosz’s debut (few do), the Lovell Sisters are definitely a band to watch, as attendees at this summer’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Bonnaroo Festival (among others) are encouraged to do.

Of course, the boys are also getting in on the fun. Jarosz’s CD features the virtuosic fiddle playing of 16-year-old Alex Hargreaves, who is a member of both Jarosz’s band and Mike Marshall’s Big Trio, which can be heard on an eponymous CD released this spring. Hargreaves and his sister Tatiana (13) are the latest sibling string duo to emerge from the West Coast, following Brittany and Natalie Haas and Tristan and Tashina Clarridge. Tatiana’s forte is traditional Appalachian fiddling and singing, as exemplified by her mentor Bruce Molsky, and her debut CD, which will be released this summer, should be a stunner.

So add Sarah Jarosz, the Lovell Sisters, and Alex and Tatiana Hargreaves to the list of great acoustic music being created by the too-young-to-vote crowd, a list that includes (or has included) Cherryholmes, Sierra Hull, and Crooked Still.

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