Meet the hard-driving, all-female quintet that’s putting Boston back on the bluegrass map
Della Mae looks like a marketer’s dream: a contemporary band composed of five women in their 20s. But the quintet forged its sound on Boston’s fertile string-band scene, putting a fresh twist on traditional bluegrass in an era when banjos and fiddles have even cracked the pop mainstream.
“We owe this band’s existence to the small-family nature of bluegrass itself,” singer/guitarist Celia Woodsmith says. “There were no ads put out. There were no auditions. We’re not the Spice Girls.”
Founder Kimber Ludiker, a two-time National Fiddle Champion, rounded up bandmates from personal contacts, initially on a lark. “We had this fun idea to get a bunch of girls together that played this hard-driving, high-testosterone bluegrass,” she says of a sound they dubbed “mangrass” and briefly pursued in power suits under the moniker Big Spike Hammer, the title of an old Osborne Brothers tune. However, Ludiker says she realized the greater potential for a working band that reflects its different members’ backgrounds, and changed the name to Della Mae after a lyric in “Big Spike Hammer.”
Four years later, Della Mae has sealed that chemistry on This World Oft Can Be, its luminous second album and first with Rounder Records, while storming the summer circuit from North Carolina’s MerleFest to Boston’s Summer Arts Weekend.
Before moving to Boston five years ago, Ludiker was looking for an inspiring place to live when she wasn’t on the road playing Irish music, and she saw this city having a hot acoustic scene, fueled by programs at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. The Washington state native consulted Berklee professor Darol Anger, a fiddler who launched his career with the David Grisman Quintet. Ludiker recalls Anger’s encouragement: “He said, ‘There are moments in cities where the scene is just exploding, and you need to be there for that.’”
Women have long played key roles in Boston’s string-band community. Ludiker counts Crooked Still singer Aoife O’Donovan and fiddler Brittney Haas and Joy Kills Sorrow singer Emma Beaton among her past roommates. Haas and Beaton guested on Della Mae’s self-released 2011 debut, I Built This Heart.
“We’re all so interwoven,” says Ludiker, also mentioning a recent Kentucky fest where Della Mae met up with local bluegrass outfits the Boston Boys and Rounder label-mates the Deadly Gentlemen. “There’s a roots revival happening right now, and all these great young Boston bands are right at the forefront of that.”
Deadly Gentlemen banjo ace Greg Liszt, who helped revive the scene a decade ago with the now-on-hiatus Crooked Still, sees those deep interconnections. “Folk music is known for being an exceptionally participatory music, and that’s true at all levels,” says Liszt, whose new band includes David Grisman’s son Sam on acoustic bass. “It’s a vocabulary that everybody shares.”
Acoustic musicians thrive in venues like Club Passim and the Lizard Lounge. Della Mae’s Woodsmith also credits the Cantab’s Tuesday bluegrass jams. “I know people who’d drive two hours to get there because it was a fun hang,” she says. “The traditional songs, everyone knows them. Any combination of people can say, ‘Let’s play “Old Home Place,” ’ and I’d say 98 percent of people who pick could play that.”
Much of the activity stems from the colleges, and Della Mae helped solidify its lineup with the Berklee-trained Courtney Hartman. “A lot of people I went to school with, I grew up with on the festival circuit from the time I was about 12,” says Hartman, who handles guitar and banjo and became a songwriting partner for Woodsmith. When Della Mae’s previous bassist, Amanda Kowalski, left after the group made I Built This Heart, Hartman suggested the Nashville-based Shelby Means. “I’ve known Shelby since about age 9,” she says. “She was from Wyoming and I was from Colorado, and that’s basically like being neighbors when you’re out there in the music world. Her dad would back me up at fiddle contests.”
The story was similar for mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner—a South Carolina native who toured with her family’s band as a child—and fourth-generation musician Ludiker. “My grandfather plays fiddle and his dad played fiddle,” she says. “Both of my parents are fiddle players, and they actually met at a fiddle contest when they were teenagers.”
Woodsmith offered more of a wild card, coming from rock and blues roots with the Vermont-bred duo Avi & Celia, which migrated to Boston in 2007 and added a rhythm section in 2008 to perform as Hey Mama. She wasn’t exposed to bluegrass until she attended that year’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival and started listening to singer/songwriter Gillian Welch. “That opened up the world to me,” Woodsmith says.
Beyond Della Mae’s picking prowess and shared vocals, Woodsmith presents a transformative element as a lead singer who boasts distinctive tone and phrasing, raising the band’s profile in folk, country and Americana circles. “I’ve not been trained vocally, and that rawness and expression is what I rely on,” she says. “We’re trying to tell a story and bring the audience into being there with us.” Born in North Carolina, Woodsmith grew up with gospel at home and cites Patsy Cline and Bonnie Raitt among early influences. But she also loved the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and especially Janis Joplin. “What I took from her, and I’ve seen a lot of videos, is to try and convey emotion from your singing and your stage presence.”
On This World Oft Can Be, Woodsmith’s resonant voice glides from the spry bluegrass bounce of Della Mae’s update on the traditional tune “Letter From Down the Road” to originals like the impassioned “Heaven’s Gate” and the driving “Empire,” a song about a ghost town in which slapped bass and brisk mandolin chords imply drum rhythms. The quintet also benefits from smoothly burnished, organic production by flat-picking veteran Bryan Sutton, whom Hartman has also known since her midteens.
When it came to finding a place to make the album, Ludiker provided the connection to the famed Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tenn. Ludiker knew the wife of John Carter Cash, who runs the rural studio where his parents, Johnny and June Carter Cash, recorded in their later years. “I’ve known Laura my entire life,” Ludiker says. “She grew up in Oregon and was a great fiddle player and knew my parents growing up.”
Cash Cabin provided plenty of ambiance. “There’s an incredible energy in that place,” Hartman says. “The memorabilia itself was so inspiring. Listening to takes of our songs, one of the chairs you’d sit in was [Carter Family matriarch] ‘Mother’ Maybelle’s rocking chair, and it had Johnny Cash’s initials dug into it. I had Bob Dylan staring me right in the face, and the poster said, ‘Love you Johnny and June.’”
Della Mae spent two weeks at Cash Cabin after two months of rehearsals in Boston, but the group was still feeling itself out with new member Means, having not played any shows with her. “We got to know each other and get the feel of songs,” Woodsmith says, “and Bryan was instrumental in making that happen, parsing out what was the song, what was the vibe and what we were looking for.”
When it came to an album closer, Woodsmith recalls, “He said, ‘What this record needs is this song like looking at your life, a thinking-about-things-at-the-end-of-the-day kind of song,’ and Courtney and Shelby were like, ‘We have the song!’” It was the pensive “Some Roads Lead On” by Wyoming’s Bill McKay. Hartman played a guitar Johnny Cash had given to his wife as a birthday gift. “We sat in the living room by the fireplace of the cabin,” she says, “and recorded that song around one microphone in one take.” Hub rock veteran Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, Morphine, the Dresden Dolls) mixed the album.
Although Woodsmith doesn’t like to emphasize Della Mae’s character as a female band, it was hard to escape the fact when they toured last year as cultural ambassadors under the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program to Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. “They did pick us specifically to go into those areas because we were women,” Woodsmith says. “I don’t like to promote the fact that we’re women. But in this case, when we went to Central Asia, I was extremely proud to be a band of women.”
The tour included stops at orphanages. “We’d let the orphans play our instruments, and for a lot of them, it was the first time they’d ever really touched instruments, and to see their eyes light up was such a joy,” she says. “We did a musical collaboration in each city we went to, with local artists, and most of the time we couldn’t speak the language. We had interpreters, but that only goes so far. But we could sit and play for hours.”
For later this year, Della Mae’s been discussing a cross-country tour in collaboration the Deadly Gentlemen. It’s potentially dubbed the “Ladies and Gents Tour.”
“There’s definitely a core audience that’s interested in all string bands somewhat equally, and that’s a subculture,” says the Gentlemen’s Liszt. “But it’s easier and easier for bands to break out of that and find their niche in the broader mainstream marketplace.” He recalls when Crooked Still played England’s Cambridge Folk Festival several years ago, and one of the smaller stages hosted future megastars Mumford & Sons.
“You can ask if there’s a glass ceiling,” Ludiker says, “but you don’t know what people are going to start embracing.” In the case of Della Mae, people are embracing great music.