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Listening to Della Mae’s assured new album, “This World Oft Can Be,” it’s funny to think this progressive five-piece string band based in Boston started almost as a gimmick.
Fiddler Kimber Ludiker initially had an idea for an ensemble that sounded good, at least in theory.
“She was at a festival probably about four years ago and thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to bring together a bunch of ladies who can pick real hard on their instruments and play what at the time they called ‘mangrass’ — just really fast, testosterone bluegrass,” says Celia Woodsmith, Della Mae’s singer and one of its primary songwriters.
They thought they’d call themselves Big Spike Hammer, after a song by the Osborne Brothers, and wear power suits and high heels. That lasted for one show, Woodsmith says, before they decided they wanted to be what they’ve finally become: a virtuosic modern bluegrass band with broad appeal. (The name Della Mae, by the way, also came from that Osborne Brothers song, as mentioned in the chorus.
As the group’s founder, Ludiker gradually assembled the lineup over the years, which now includes Woodsmith, guitarist Courtney Hartman, bassist Shelby Means, and mandolin player Jenni Lyn Gardner. They play at the Lizard Lounge on Saturday, along with performances at Club Passim on Monday and the Middle East Upstairs on Tuesday.
“This World Oft Can Be” is the group’s second full-length, which also marks their debut on the venerable roots label Rounder Records. They turned to Bryan Sutton, a respected bluegrass guitarist who had known Hartman and Ludiker through the bluegrass community, to produce.
“One of the challenges we had was defining the roles because the lineup they now have was brand-new going into the record,” Sutton says. “Within that, it felt like everybody was just excited about being there. It didn’t feel like roles were so defined yet — this person picks the songs, this person does all the solos. Usually bands figure that stuff out after a while, but it was a clean slate [with Della Mae]. That’s what I liked about it: seeing the potential that was there and working with that.”
Woodsmith was already a fixture on the local roots-music scene when Ludiker invited her to join the band, having cut her teeth with the folk duo Avi & Celia, which later became Hey Mama before disbanding altogether. She was also aware of Della Mae, since the band had been playing one of her songs.
“I accepted basically on the premise that we’d play some cool festivals, and I could have a hobby,” Woodsmith says, laughing. “It happened very smoothly and almost without me knowing that this band had become incredibly special to me. Here we are 2½ years later and releasing a record on Rounder.”
With Woodsmith in the mix, they self-released their debut, “I Built This Heart,” in 2011, but she says the new record is a more accurate portrait of a fully formed band.
“I think there are a lot of differences, both subtle and pretty noticeable,” Woodsmith says, adding that she wrote 10 of the songs on the first album over a long span of time. “This new record is more of a collective group effort. We really worked hard together on these songs and came up with our sound, which had been building over a couple of years. There’s a lot of different influences on it, but it’s us. It’s finally who we are.”
As the lead singer, Woodsmith is quick to point out the strengths of her bandmates, ticking off a list of what makes each unique: Gardner comes from a straight bluegrass background; Ludiker is an award-winning Texas-style fiddle player; Means has excellent rhythm; Hartman’s great at arranging and coming up with ideas.
Woodsmith, the daughter of a mother who’s a poet, considers writing her strong suit, but also acknowledges Della Mae’s appeal boils down to a simple fact: “We all rely on each other.”
It also helps that their sound is both traditional and contemporary, right in line with what’s happening across the board with American roots music.
“The environment right now for modern string music is really exciting,” Sutton says. “I like the concept of doing bluegrass festivals and rock clubs in the same weekend. There’s a movement across the country that’s reflected a little bit in the bigger commercial bands like the Lumin-eers and Mumford. But it also filters into a lot of the energy of bands like Della Mae and Punch Brothers.”
“The thing about traditional music is that it’s strongest when you can turn the page and still understand where it came from,” Sutton adds. “And I think people are doing that today, and Della Mae is part of that.”