By Annette Hinkle
Bluegrass is a musical style most closely associated with the American south and traditionally played by the men folk.
But this weekend, a band called Della Mae is performing on Shelter Island — and they will make you reconsider everything you thought you knew about bluegrass.
Not only is this band based in Boston (hardly a hotbed of old-timey tunes), but Della Mae is also made up entirely of women — Celia Woodsmith (vocals, rhythm guitar), Kimber Ludiker (fiddle), Jenni Lyn Gardner (mandolin), Courtney Hartman (guitar) and Shelby Means (bass).
And make no mistake…these gals love to give the boys a run for their money.
“I think it’s given us a boost — being women is a totally different thing,” admits Jenni Lyn Gardner. “We have a love and respect for the tradition, but we’re doing original music – and we’re psyched to be playing in this circuit.”
Gardner grew up in South Carolina and started making music with her family when she was just four years old. For Gardner, guitar came first followed by the mandolin which she laid claim to at age 8 after her father brought home a custom instrument (presumably for his own musical enjoyment). From that point on, she never looked back.
“We had a family band growing up and vacationed at bluegrass festivals,” she says. “It was always part of my life.”
These days, though she lives in New England, far from her native soil, Gardner is still surrounded by family — in this case, a group of musical sisters who share a common vision. While the five take on all the traditional bluegrass instruments (with the exception of the banjo which is only an occasional visitor to their lineup), they are hardly limited by the genre. Instead, Della Mae’s real specialty is in writing original tunes and that, in fact, is where they truly differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. As a result, the members of Della Mae are carving out a new musical form for themselves and melding the traditions of bluegrass into something entirely new.
“It’s such a creative outlet in itself. Being able to write songs and come up with our own melodies and music is something we all enjoy doing,” says Gardiner who notes that though Celia Woodsmith is responsible for the bulk of the band’s original material, all the members do some writing. “She’ll come to us with a shell of a song and the lyrics and we’ll put the instrumentation to it and come up with different melodies and chord progressions and put it all together.”
“Improv is a part of bluegrass and we love to do it, but in putting the body of a song together we come up with well thought out melodies,” she adds. “Though we do partake of jams, which is a big part of bluegrass, once we decide the song is finished we tend to stick pretty closely to that piece of music.”
Della Mae’s visit to Shelter Island (were they’ll perform in the Shelter Island School auditorium on Saturday) comes early in a six week tour which will include stops throughout New England and New York, a few southern venues, a bit of the Midwest and the Wintergrass festival in Washington State, before finally ending in Switzerland (of all places) at the International Country Music Festival.
If this sounds like a world-wind globe trotting tour, it’s nothing compared to Della Mae’s last six week musical jaunt this past fall which took the musicians all the way to Central Asia.
“The first stop was Pakistan. From there we went to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan,” notes Gardner. “All the ‘Stans.’”
It seems like a most unlikely part of the world for a group of young females to share their music. But in fact the tour was organized by American Voices, a program administered through the State Department which creates cultural bridges with other nations through the performing arts. Though it was all untested ground for Gardner, it was an experience that greatly moved both she and her band mates.
“We didn’t know what to expect. We had a few conference calls with the State Department where we asked about accommodations and what we should wear,” she explains. “Once we were in it, it became like another tour. We found our mission and it came together nicely.”
“You sit down with people who don’t speak the same language and, like you would in America at a campsite where you teach songs, that’s what we did,” she says. “Within 10 to 15 minutes we’re playing a song together. It’s the most beautiful way to exchange music. When you’re looking people in the eyes with an interest and common goal, all the stereotypes fade away.”
“Soon you’re becoming friends,” adds Gardiner. “The idea is diplomacy through music and I tell you what, there’s nothing like food and music to get the heart stirring and make friends.”
The food and music connection is one that’s not lost on Gardner in this country either — particularly where the new focus on Slow Food grown locally and organically is concerned. Perhaps it’s no accident that Saturday’s concert is sponsored by the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, a place where a new generation of young farmers is tilling the earth and reviving other cultural traditions along the way as well — particularly folk music. It’s a trend Gardiner has witnessed among young people around the country.
“I definitely see that — people who have a desire to promote a healthy way of life,” she says. “Instead of playing video games or watching TV, people are getting together and playing music.”
“I think it’s the most beautiful way of life that I can imagine being part of.”
Della Mae performs Saturday, January 19, 2013 at the Shelter Island School Auditorium (33 North Ferry Road, Shelter Island). The music begins at 7:30 p.m. with the East End’s own Dunegrass opening for the band. Tickets are $20, $25 and $30. The concert is sponsored by the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm with support from the Shelter Island Town Recreation Department. Currently there is a waiting list for the show. Call 749-0626 to add your name to the list. In conjunction with the concert, Sylvester Manor (80 North Ferry Road, Shelter Island) will be open for self-guided tours on January 19 from 1 to 3 p.m. (visit www.sylvestermanor.org) for more information on the farm.