“If we are able to shift our focus to think about bluegrass and its musicians as a community, and not a club, then we’re on to something. Bluegrass as a tradition is more likely to be treasured and preserved and grow and thrive if it’s sung from the mountaintops, not just the front porch.”
Sarah Jarosz, 2020 Keynote Speaker
With her captivating voice and richly detailed songwriting, Sarah Jarosz has emerged as one of the most compelling musicians of her generation. A three-time Grammy Award-winner at the age of 28, the Texas native started singing as a young girl and became an accomplished multi-instrumentalist by her early teens. After releasing her full-length debut Song Up in Her Head at 18-years-old, she went on to deliver such critically lauded albums as Follow Me Down, Build Me Up From Bones, and 2016’s Undercurrent, in addition to joining forces with Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan to form the acclaimed GRAMMY winning folk trio I’m With Her.
In the making of her newest album World On the Ground, the New York City-based artist collaborated with producer/songwriter John Leventhal: a five-time GRAMMY Award-winner known for his work with Elvis Costello, Shawn Colvin, and his wife Rosanne Cash. Working almost entirely on their own, the two musicians crafted a subtle tapestry of sound perfectly suited to Jarosz’s lyrical storytelling. In a departure from the nuanced introspection of her previous work, World On the Ground unfolds as a finely wrought collection of stories from her hometown of Wimberley, Texas (population: 2,626), presenting a series of character sketches nearly novelistic in emotional scope. As she inhabits characters both real and imagined—exploring the tension and inertia of small-town living, the desire for escape and the ease of staying put—Jarosz reveals her remarkable gift for slipping into the inner lives of others and patiently uncovering so much indelible insight.
Hello! My name is Sarah Jarosz, and I’m deeply honored to have been asked to be the 2020 International Bluegrass Music Association’s keynote speaker. Big thanks to Paul Schiminger, Eddie Huffman and Daniel Mullins for the incredible invitation to help kick off the conference this year. And what a year it’s been. I know the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially tough on the entire music community. I, like all of my musical buddies, have had to cancel all of my touring plans for the foreseeable future, and with an industry that is currently so dependent on live music, it’s a harrowing blow to so many. But that’s why it’s so important that we’re coming together virtually this week to talk about the future and how we can best rebuild as a community.
Community. This is a word I keep coming back to in thinking about my experience in music. Communities are living, breathing and always evolving. So often in bluegrass, the song, or the solo, or the high-lonesome harmony is the thing that pulls us in. But it’s the community that keeps us showing up. As bluegrassers, it’s sometimes easy to feel like we’re a part of a small club, and it’s better if outsiders stay away lest they tarnish the finely-tuned tradition. But, in my mind, if we’re able to shift our focus to think about bluegrass and its musicians as a community, and not a club, then we’re on to something. Bluegrass as a tradition is more likely to be treasured and preserved and grow and thrive if it’s sung from the mountaintops, not just the front porch. The image of members of a bluegrass band shifting and dancing around one microphone is a metaphor for the style itself. Each contributing musician is responsible for carrying the rhythm and creating a full, balanced sound. There is a deep musical maturity required to be great at bluegrass. It’s not just about being able to shred on your instrument, although I’ll admit it can be fun to witness. Rather, bluegrass soars when the individual musicians playing and singing melodies aren’t thinking only about their musical role, but rather the band’s sound as a whole. If a bluegrass song can thrive when this perspective shift happens, then so can the bluegrass community. At the end of the day, bluegrass is a communal art form with a rich history that benefits from its players and listeners alike keeping open ears and open minds. This should be the standard: really listening to each other.
I first attended IBMA as a 12-year-old kid way back in 2003 when Pete Wernick, most well-known as the banjo player from Hot Rize, organized a group of young musicians to come together as the Young American Bluegrass Idols and perform at the awards ceremony that year. The group consisted of myself, Sierra Hull, Cory Walker, Will Jones and Maggie Beth Estes. Ten years prior to that, in 1993, Pete had been asked to put together a band of young pickers for a similar spot on the award show, and that resulted in the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars, which featured Chris Thile, Michael Cleveland, Josh Williams and Cody Kilby. Not too shabby! The 2003 award show brought together both bands in a collaborative culmination. I’m sure you can imagine, as a young musician who had a total newfound obsession for bluegrass music, it was the absolute thrill of a lifetime. Back then, the conference was at the infamous Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky. I can still recall the smell of the carpeted hallways with any number of liquids seeped in, the packed elevators making stops on every floor, stairwell jams and folks of all ages managing to make music together in every possible nook and cranny of that hotel. The whole event emitted a joyous (albeit sometimes raucous) spirit. It was the first event of its kind that I had been to as a young 12-year-old, and my musical mind was blown. It was also the first time I was in the proximity of other kids my age who were equally as ecstatic about this tradition of music we’d come to discover and fall in love with. It was a thrill to run up and down the halls joining different jams and generally being so fired up about music. When I think back on it now, something that stands out to me to this day is the frequency with which musicians in the bluegrass world were willing to mentor and pass the baton to the next generation. Back in 2003, most of us in the Young American Bluegrass Idols were only 12 years old. And yet, there we were, being given this immense opportunity to stand on that big stage and pick with our musical heroes. If that isn’t an impetus to want to get better at your instrument, I don’t know what is. I felt that opportunities like that were plentiful at bluegrass festivals I would attend across the country, such as RockyGrass, Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Wintergrass, just to name a few. It seemed like a common occurrence and a part of the bluegrass culture for me and any number of my young musician pals to get a last-minute invite to sit in with our musical heroes and swap solos back and forth or jump in on a harmony part. It was a beautiful balance of being made to feel included, but also understanding that there was a simultaneous expectation of high-quality musicianship, meaning it wasn’t an invitation to sit in for the sake of having a cute kid on stage (okay, maybe there was a little bit of that), but rather, it was legends setting a precedent for us youngsters to step up to the musical plate.
One of my favorite things about bluegrass is this sense of always needing to bring your A-game. There’s a spirit of spontaneity that brings so much fire and drive to the music. This idea that a jam could pop up in the hallways of IBMA or in a campground at a festival at any moment really keeps you on your toes. You may find yourself suddenly jamming with one of your heroes when moments before you were getting a snack out of the vending machine. That spontaneity and intensity requires a dedication to quality. From an early age, I always wanted to work as hard as I could to be as proficient on my instrument as possible should I find myself in a jam. If so many of our shared musical heroes and mentors in bluegrass hadn’t been so giving of their time and spirit, I’m not sure there would have been enough kids for Pete to even put together a kids band at the award show in 2003. That open, giving nature is what has kept and what will keep bluegrass alive.
My love of bluegrass started a few years before my first experience at IBMA. I grew up in the Texas Hill Country in a little town called Wimberley just about an hour south of Austin, one of the country’s most loved music cities. Music was always a constant in my house. From the time that I was two years old, I would sing along to any given commercial with a good jingle and my parents were always playing albums across a wide swath of genres. I think I’ve probably never cared much for squeezing music into a genre because I was exposed to so many different styles so early on. One day, my dad put on something I hadn’t heard before: the opening mandolin riff of “Colleen Malone.” Tim O’Brien’s effortless vocals washed over me and little did I know, I’d never be the same. It was that recording single-handedly that turned me on to bluegrass. At the time, of course, I didn’t realize that I’d soon be working my way backwards from there, and that Hot Rize was considered to be pushing the boundaries of the tradition, and the roots of this sound that I was falling in love with as a nine-year-old kid ran deep. Shortly after that, I was flipping through the channels on the television one day and happened across a music video on CMT for a band called Nickel Creek. My mind was blown. Here were these young musicians playing this music with acoustic instruments — like that band Hot Rize I’d discovered — but it had a whole other feel to it. A modern sound. Now of course, some traditional bluegrass pickers might not have loved what a band like Nickel Creek was doing with their music: taking strides to incorporate a pop sensibility with acoustic instruments and a bluegrass framework. But it was exactly that exploratory vision that had me hooked. Their willingness to think outside of the box and not get hemmed into stylistic or repertoire strictures is a gigantic part of what turned me onto bluegrass in the first place.
Shortly after hearing those Hot Rize and Nickel Creek recordings, my parents and I discovered a weekly Friday night bluegrass jam in Wimberley. The jam was nestled in the back parking lot behind a catfish restaurant called Charlie’s. It was headed up by one of the nicest humans you’d ever want to meet, a gentleman by the name of Mike Bond. There I was, this little nine-year-old kid who arrived with my mandolin in tow, braces-clad, probably wearing a tie-dye Speedo cover-up as a dress, and without a second thought, Mike and his buddies welcomed me in with open arms. Now, they called it a bluegrass jam, but they played everything from Ola Belle Reed to Willie Nelson to John Prine. I was hooked, and I continued to go every Friday night well into my high school years. I’m eternally grateful for the openness I received from the start. I was never made to feel like a little kid trying to keep up, but rather, just one of the crew. I think we can all learn a lesson from folks like Mike and all the pickers at the Wimberley jam. They weren’t overly concerned with the types of songs folks brought in from week to week, even though it was technically a bluegrass jam. It was simply about sitting around the campfire and sharing the music with each other. It was family. It was community.
When it comes to bluegrass music, I don’t think of it as a genre, but rather, a tradition. While genres often end up boxing things in, traditions are more of a starting point: the beginning of something to be built upon. Bluegrass roots run deep, and all of the music influenced by it is better off for it, having come from somewhere with such a strong identity. So, in that sense, bluegrass isn’t a means to an end. It’s the solid bedrock for so much more. With an open mind and a studied understanding of those who came before, I would argue that bluegrass is perhaps the musical starting point that lends itself to the most growth possibilities of any type of music. Many of the most well-rounded musicians I know started out in styles which are largely aurally passed down rather than written. By learning music by ear, I think the musician develops a deeper, intrinsic feel for harmony and rhythm. From an early age, I noticed how traditionalists and newgrassers alike placed such an importance on the quality of musicianship that carried the music, and it spurred a whole generation of young acoustic musicians, myself included, to continue their musical studies beyond the bluegrass jam and into the classroom. In my own studies at New England Conservatory in Boston, I often noticed how far my aural training took me. I was able to harness the understanding of harmony that I’d learned by singing many a late-night tenor vocal and apply it to a number of other styles, including jazz and classical. That high-lonesome sound informed my musicality in ways I never expected, and soon, I was singing songs by Billie Holiday and passages from Johannes Brahms. In my own music, I’d be the first to say that I don’t consider the songs I write and record nowadays to be bluegrass. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a part of me. On my new album, “World on the Ground,” I have a song called “Pay It No Mind” which is written from the perspective of a little bird sitting on the seventh floor of a building looking down at the world below her. I wrote it almost as an exercise for myself as a songwriter. So often in life, it’s easy to get caught up in our own thoughts and opinions, and you come to find that you’re only looking inward. A subtle shift in perspective helps one realize that there’s a whole world out there. You can still be true to yourself while shifting your perspective. You can still be true to bluegrass while widening your musical scope. And I believe that the music only stands to benefit from that shift.
The last couple of conferences I attended in Raleigh felt particularly energized. Having moved beyond the confining walls of a convention center and out into the streets gives the sense that we’re sharing our love of bluegrass with the entire city of Raleigh. It’s been so encouraging to see organizations like Bluegrass Pride helping to further the message that the more people who feel included within the world of bluegrass, the better it is for the longevity of the tradition. I often have people tell me, “If I had just heard this kind of music sooner!” I believe that bluegrass will continue to thrive for generations if the emphasis is placed on inclusivity and a high caliber of musicianship. Perhaps some of y’all may worry that if the secret gets out, or if the repertoire or demographics start to change, the music will lose its magic. But, at the end of the day, demographics don’t have much to do with music. The key is to identify the foundational musical qualities of bluegrass while simultaneously widening the net for new listeners and players. We should strive to maintain a high standard of musicianship to pass down to the next generation. A spirit of openness only enriches the tradition which we all hold so dear to our hearts. The music that has defined different chapters of our lives. I would encourage all of you to keep your ears and minds open, honoring the tradition as it was, as it is and as it might be in the future.
I feel fortunate that I’ve always been treated warmly and welcomed into jams. If my first experience back in Texas as a nine-year-old beginner on the mandolin hadn’t been so welcoming, I sometimes wonder if I’d still be playing music today. I fell in love with the music, but the community kept me coming back. I urge everyone to follow the lead of folks like Mike Bond and my friends and heroes who led that magical Friday night jam in Wimberley, Texas. I owe so much of my music making to them because of their warmth of spirit and the warmth of spirit of so many of my heroes within the bluegrass world. Music is a gift, and bluegrass is a tradition that needs to be preserved. And I think the best way to preserve something is not to lock it up and only look at it every 50 years, but rather hold it up, keep it fresh and share it with the world. Let’s all keep listening. Thank you.