Della Mae (2015)
Rounder Records, 11661-36378-02, 37:22
Music Review by Hermon Joyner, June 18, 2015
In the interest of complete disclosure, I should say that I did support the making of this album with a contribution to the band’s crowd funding campaign to fund the project. So there.
When it comes to Della Mae, I go back and forth about whether to say anything about them being an “all-girl band.” Because in a perfect world, the gender of a band’s members wouldn’t matter and people would automatically listen to and support a band based on their performances without taking into consideration their private parts, not that they have much to do with making music anyway. But this isn’t a perfect world and for most of the history of bluegrass, it’s been a man’s game. Of course, there are exceptions like Allison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, and Laurie Lewis, but for every one of those fine performers there are hundreds of men that have made their careers playing bluegrass. But among younger performers, there seems to be a movement towards the Americana string band model that draws from a more diverse range of influences and seems to be more accepting of female performers. And perhaps this is why I think this is the direction that Della Mae appears to be going.
Della Mae’s first record for Rounder, This World Oft Can Be, was definitely bluegrass oriented. Their current release is a self-titled album called Della Mae, and it takes more chances with the material, venturing into Irish-American labor songs and even doing covers of Rolling Stones songs. The sound of the group is still determined by a bluegrass string band line-up: guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and bass; but the rhythms and melody lines are more progressive and inclusive of sources outside of bluegrass. You can hear bits of Celtic and country and western and pop music throughout the songs. It’s like they’ve decided that the world is far too big and wonderful to let one music genre define their band and their sound.
And if they wanted to take a stand and declare this to the world, they could not have chosen better than their opening track, Boston Town. Starting an album with a feminist, pro-labor movement song is flat-out bold and it makes a statement for sure. And the song is also moving, infectious, and powerful. The passion that underlines this song is heard in every note and word. And this same passion is felt throughout the album. This is music that means something to the people who made it and because of that, it strongly resonates in the listener’s heart. I’ve seldom been moved by music like this.
Most of the songs were written by the lead singer, Celia Woodsmith, and flat-picking guitarist, Courtney Hartman. The more I listen to Woodsmith sing, the more I’m convinced that she is one of the major voices performing today. Her voice just doesn’t quit, and has more depth and character than practically anyone I can think of. And in fact, the rest of the band are just as good. Jenni Lyn Gardner is fabulous on mandolin and I feel that one of these days, the rest of the bluegrass world and mandolinists will catch up to this fact. Courtney Hartman is a flat-picking fiend that can hold her own with anybody else. And as it stands right now, Kimber Ludiker is flat-out one of the best fiddlers playing today. She’s one of a handful of players in the world playing at that level.
So is Della Mae an album to pick up? Yes, it is. It’s their best album so far and I have no doubt that it will be one of the best recordings of this year. Della Mae is filled with heartfelt and virtuosic performances, and it’s music that stirs the emotions. And that’s no small accomplishment. Highly recommended.
Song List: Boston Town; Rude Awakening; Can’t Go Back; For The Sake Of My Heart; Good Blood; To Ohio; Shambles; Take One Day; Long Shadow; No Expectations; High Away Gone.
Contact: dellamae.com; rounder.com