Posts Tagged ‘Rounder Records’

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Vintage Della Mae

8 March 2013

It’s during these late winter days that you go down to the root cellar hoping to find some whatnot from which a meal can be made. Sometimes you find a moldy turnip, but occasionally you get lucky and come away with a jar of watermelon pickles or some such delicacy you had previously overlooked. Such was the case this week as we cleared out the last of our 2012 vintage of Joe Val Bluegrass Festival videos. Tucked in a corner was this tasty tidbit…

That is of course an earlier incarnation of one of the bluegrass bands of the moment, Della Mae. I’ve recently reported on the very busy year Della Mae had in 2012. If the first two months are any indication, 2013 will prove to be even more action-packed for these globetrotting pickers. On the heels of an appearance at Washington’s Wintergrass, they are presently attending the International Country Music Festival in Zurich, Switzerland. And let me remind you that the ICMF is “das einzige 38 tägige Country-Festival in der Welt.” How do you say “Yee-haw” in Swiss German?

In a couple of months, things will really start to heat up for Della Mae with the arrival of their first album with Rounder Records. Having at last cleared out our cellar, we’ll be ushering in spring with some video profiles of this talented quintet, along with material that will be on the new album.

While we wait for these new blossoms to burst forth, we can savor “Polk County,” the tune in the clip above. This is a song that the group has done for a couple of years now, and it can be found on their debut album, “I Built This Heart.” As you can hear, its infectious hook has a long shelf life. Polk County is tucked into the southwest border of North Carolina. Lead singer Celia Woodsmith wrote the song after reading about an old mining town down yonder. According to mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner, “it has become one of our more stompy tunes with the mandolin intro and fiery fiddle riffs.” No question about that. Enjoy!

Yer Pal— Curly

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Della Mae’s Busy Year

1 January 2013

We know the feeling: 2012 seems to have passed in a flash. A minute ago we were watching the crocuses bloom, then we blinked, and there’s Christmastime a-comin’ a-gain. Well, however busy we thought the past year was, Della Mae has us all beat. This young bluegrass band had so much happen so fast in 2012 that this video (shot at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival in February) already feels like an historical artifact:

Della Mae’s performance at Joe Val was one of the last major gigs featuring founding bass player Amanda Kowalski, who departed early in the year to pursue other callings. She was replaced by Shelby Means, a Wyomingian by way of Nashville. The band spent the summer busily gigging and recording. In August, it was nominated for an IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year Award and then in the fall, it embarked on an international tour as part of the State Department’s American Music Abroad Program.

Della Mae in Kazakhstan

How many Stans do you know? We don’t mean Stan Musial, Stan Lee or (to pick a bluegrass figure) Stan Zdonik. We’re talking about those states on the Asiatic steppes that virtually define the term “faraway places.” In their fall tour, Della Mae pretty much cornered the market on Stans, touring through Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. If the photographic record is any indication (which you can find on the band’s Facebook page and in the cool new bluegrass website The Bluegrass Situation), the group left throngs of new admirers in their wake. I often say that the bluegrass audience is like the Platte River: an inch deep but a mile wide. Della Mae’s tour undoubtedly widened that fan base even further. It’s heartwarming to think of folks drinking the bluegrass Kool-Aid in places like Tashkent, Bishkek and Islamabad.

We have other good stuff from Della Mae to impart in the weeks ahead, but more importantly, the band will be sharing lots of new music in the form of an album that’s due to be released by Rounder Records in March. It will include the song featured in the video above. “Empire” is just one example of the group’s strong homegrown material. It was penned by Celia Woodsmith, who also sings lead on it. More on the new record as the drop date approacheth.

Della Mae’s founder and fiddler Kimber Ludiker recently referred to 2012 as “easily the best year of my life.” Just looking over some of the souvenirs from her travels, it’s not hard to understand how she feels, and the State Department tour in particular seems like a defining, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even so, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the coming year holds its share of important new milestones for this fast-rising ensemble.

Giving Thanks

Before 2012 recedes into the mists, we need to send some heartfelt thanks out to all the talented folks who contributed to the small mountain of videos that we put out in the course of the year. Working backwards chronologically, Jamie Lansdowne has just escaped to Los Angeles after spending the fall in the tyrannical yoke of Cousin Curly’s editing bay. Jamie gave generously of his time and talents and was instrumental to the shaping of the Josh Williams and Della Mae pieces that we are now sharing with the world. Lauren Scully worked through the summer months and was the core of our media team at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (aided and abetted by colleague and friend Geoff Poister). Lastly, for much of 2012 we had the good offices of two exceptionally dedicated filmmakers, Megan Lovallo and Paul Villanova. Mistress of Mayhem Megan edited a bunch of videos for us and contributed some gorgeous camerawork, especially at the Joe Val Fest, where she was joined by Anna Gerstenfeld. Paul dazzled us with his post-production skills and then went on to prove that his title Minister of Information was no joke. He has been the lynchpin behind our increased presence in social media and continues to be a key player in the Wide World of Curly. Which leads us to one last point…

Second Cousin Curly’s Plan for Domination of Worldwide Bluegrass Craze

It’s a New Year and we’re partying like it’s 2006! Yep, we at Team Curly are launching this thing called a Facebook Page. I know: it’s like hillbilly science fiction. We’ve got lots of good stuff to share, but “sharing with no one” just sounds like a bad Zen koan. That’s why we’re asking you to make “liking” the Second Cousin Curly Facebook page a resolution you’ll actually keep in 2013. Here’s to a tuneful and peaceful New Year!

Yer Pal— Curly

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Sierra Hull: Just Feeling It

24 May 2012

We recently got to sit down with mandolinist and songwriter Sierra Hull. In this second installment of our conversation, Hull talks about her relationship with music and a fundamental issue: how much should you think about what you’re playing? Here’s what she told us:

Hull draws an insightful analogy between learning music and language acquisition. As we noted in a previous post, Hull went from novice to playing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in a matter of a few years. No question, she’s a natural. Hull picked up music the same way that most of us learn to speak. In this regard, I think she’s part of a lucky cohort who are touched in a special way. This intuitive relationship to music eludes a lot of people— including a fair number of professional musicians.

Of course, if you get formal training in music, to some extent, you learn not to approach music intuitively. The very act of reading music requires a certain degree of analysis. Not surprisingly, many formally trained musicians pick up traditional musical forms as a means of developing a more direct connection with the essence of music. A musician like Hull, on the other hand, learned mandolin without the encumbrance of notation or even a fixed curriculum.

A potential down side to this approach is that it might make it harder for her to grasp some of the more arcane musical principles, such as tricks for spicing up a melody or adding color to harmonies. Hull’s already lengthy performance record rebuts such concerns. For example, the video clip above includes excerpts of the new instrumental “Bombshell.” You only have to listen to a few notes of that tune for any notions that Hull has been confined to a homespun and simple musical approach to melt away.

“Bombshell” is from “Daybreak,” Hull’s recent album. On the studio version of this composition, she is accompanied by fiddler extraordinaire Stuart Duncan. Duncan is another supremely sophisticated musician who does not read music— and another player whose natural gifts launched him very early onto a storied career path.

The Berklee Connection

Despite their obvious gifts and demonstrated abilities, one drawback peculiar to many “naturals” who forgo organized music education is that they get caught up in the tautology of not knowing what they don’t know, and thus they worry that they missed out on some secret afforded only to those who get formal training. Perhaps it was such a nagging sense of mystery that propelled Hull to enroll in Berklee College of Music in Boston a couple of years ago, even though she already had an album and numerous tours to her credit at that point. It’s poignant to hear her recall memories of wandering around Berklee, worried that people wouldn’t realize how lost she was. It was left to John McGann, the great teacher who taught Hull while she was in Boston and who died this spring, to make her see that much of what she was studying were concepts that, in her own intuitive way, she had already assimilated.

Berklee seems to have been a good fit for Hull. It let her try out different styles of music and gain confidence without warping her natural gifts. This is a hallmark of the college’s mission. Carl Beatty, Berklee’s Chief of Staff, once remarked that, because so many students come to their programs already some distance down an artistic path, the College takes pains to practice its own version of the Hippocratic oath: “Do no harm.” It seems clear that McGann and his colleagues did no harm to Hull’s burgeoning talent. On the contrary, her evolving musical identity stands as another testament of both the College’s nurturing philosophy and McGann’s rich legacy.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Sierra Hull: From Prodigy to Pro

2 May 2012

We got a chance to sit down with Sierra Hull at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. Hull has been performing in public for a little over a decade. Almost from the start, she shared the stage with the stars of bluegrass, young and old. Stepping into the spotlight so early doesn’t seem to have loosened Hull’s attachment to her rural Southern roots. As we can see in this video portrait, even as she leaves her “child prodigy” identity behind, Hull remains very much a product of the small town in Tennessee where she first picked up the mandolin:

What struck me as I spoke with Hull was how timeless her background was. She may be part of the millennial demographic, but the childhood she describes— attending small churches, learning to play an instrument by ear—  differs very little from the one in which bluegrass pioneers like Ralph Stanley grew up decades before her. In an era where great pickers can come from Brooklyn, Switzerland and Japan, it’s worth remembering that the “true vine” of  the Cumberlands, the Bluegrass and the Smokies still produces a lot of natural talent.

Hull began playing mandolin when she was eight. She was fortunate to live near Carl Berggren, a fine mandolinist who has played with established bluegrass figures like Larry Sparks. (For proof that Berggren is no slouch, check out this video of him playing “Roanoke” with Hull, and while you’re at it, check out this clip of teacher and student horsing around on a Django Reinhardt swing tune.) Berggren gave Hull lessons, and she proved to be a very apt pupil. Within a couple of years, she was performing at bluegrass shows, and by the time she was eleven, she was sharing the stage at the Grand Ole Opry with one of her idols, Alison Krauss (check out this video of that encounter).

It’s not hard to map Hull’s biography through her music. There are the traditional bluegrass tunes of her childhood that still season her set lists, the echo of Krauss in her songwriting and vocals, and the jazz and swing influences from her recent studies at Berklee College of Music that can be heard in her sophisticated solos. In forthcoming profiles, we’ll dig deeper into both Hull’s approach to music and her exceptional technique, so don’t wander too far off.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Paul Villanova for the fine video editing on this series.

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The Great Banjo Awakening

29 December 2011

‘Tis the season for eating crow. Just a few months ago, yer Cousin Curly was issuing jeremiads regarding Vanishing Banjo Syndrome. Turns out that even as I was writing that screed, the banjo wasn’t just having its moment; it was having its season, its year, its epoch. Verily, signs that The Great Banjo Awakening is upon us are everywhere. Don’t believe me? Read on…

Exihibit A: The New Yorker is running banjo cartoons:

Banjo cartoon from a recent copy of The New Yorker

"I'm trapped in an elevator— wait, it gets worse."

Exhibit B: PBS airs Give Me The Banjo, a feature-length documentary about the banjo in prime time. If you missed the initial airing of Marc Field’s fine production last fall, you can watch the whole thing online by clicking here.

Exhibit C: Banjo players are becoming celebrities and vice-versa. Yep, it’s a big deal that Steve Martin is preaching the five-string gospel far and wide, but people would pay attention had he suddenly taken to promoting, say, tiddlywinks. What’s more notable is that he’s not alone. Ed Helms, star of The Office and The Hangover, has also come out of the banjo closet. It’s not just that the banjo has become the accoutrement du jour in Hollywood; it’s more accurate to say that banjo culture itself has become (gulp) cool. Admittedly, this is one of those phenomena that makes you think that yer new snuff is treating you wrong, but for evidence of its validity we need look no further than that fount of online mirth, Funny or Die:

That’s right, friends. We now live in a world in which movie stars line up to perform in a promotional short for a young banjo wiz’s latest album, a world in which said banjo wiz appears on Late Night with David Letterman, a world in which a hot banjo picker can dream of winning a $50,000 prize. In some ways, that New Yorker cartoon encapsulates the weird intersection of banjo culture and celebrity, for it’s obvious that the guy in the drawing isn’t some anonymous Deliverance-era hillbilly; he’s very distinctly and recognizably Noam Pikelny, the aforementioned banjo wiz and winner of the inaugural $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Banjo and Bluegrass.

Noam Pikelny: celebrity banjo ace or ace banjo celebrity?           (Photo: Compass Records)

Not to take anything away from the majesty of the banjo, but it’s always possible that The Great Banjo Awakening will have all the permanence of a collagen injection. If that’s the case, it’s fair to ask: what’s next? The Age of the Dobro? I can see it now: Angelina “The Baker” Jolie stars in and directs It Don’t Mean a Thang If It Ain’t Got That Twang: The Cindy Cashdollar Story.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Joe Val Flashback

10 June 2010

Do you know “Framingham Breakdown?” No? Perhaps if I hum a few bars…

As summer returns, your Cousin Curly offers up the web video equivalent of Dr. Zhivago or Ice Station Zebra— one of those icy epics that takes your mind off the heat and humidity.

This video also works as the bluegrass equivalent of Where’s Waldo— Waldo in this case being your favorite pickin’ partners. I’ve tagged the clip with some of the players I spotted, but there are many others I missed.  Let me know who catches your eye.

Next week, Cousin Curly heads to Jenny Brook— the sweetest little bluegrass festival this side of the Pearly Gates.  Hope to see y’all there.

Yer Pal— Curly

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