July 23 - July 29, 2009
Rocking the Grass
Sarah Jarosz and RockyGrass take bluegrass
into the 21st century
by Jim Lillie
This coming Sunday afternoon, Sarah Jarosz will play her first-ever main-stage set at the RockyGrass Festival in Lyons. It looks to be the kind of magical moment that every artist dreams of: returning as a conquering hero to the place that, more than any other, helped make the Austin, Tex., resident the musician she is today.
At an age when her peers are thinking about what kind of music they’ll be bouncing off their dorm room walls, Jarosz, who will be a freshman at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in September, is making her own music, big time. And in what appears to be true Jarosz form, she’s doing it her own way and maintaining the values that have been instilled in her since she started crooning at the age of 2.
Just within the past month or so, Jarosz (pronounced “juh-ROSE”) released her first album to critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone magazine. Soon after, Amazon.com’s music editors picked the collection of 13 songs, 11 of which Jarosz wrote herself, as the 29th best album of 2009. She gave an interview to NPR in which she came across as poised yet down to earth, precocious yet mysterious beyond her years, spontaneous yet calculating in all the appropriate ways. While this weekend’s appearance at RockyGrass might seem like the icing on the cake celebrating Jarosz’s official “arrival” on the acoustic/bluegrass scene, in reality she’s just getting warmed up. And she’s got plenty of admirers waiting to see which direction her story goes from here, including noted bluegrass artist Tim O’Brien who is one of three musicians Jarosz counts as her most influential mentors, along with colleagues Mike Marshall and Chris Thile.
Not surprisingly, O’Brien, who has watched Jarosz mature musically for several years, paints as clear a picture of her gifts and abilities as anyone. As part of an introductory sidebar to Jarosz’s MySpace page (www.myspace.com/sarahjaroszmusic), he writes that she “emerged on the scene about five years ago as someone to watch. Jamming onstage with bluegrass icons named Grisman or Skaggs, she played her mandolin with a sure touch and real joy... While her instrumental talents are formidable, let’s make one thing clear: Sarah is a singer. She’s just flat got it... she inhabits her songs the way a fine actress does her role... Nothing’s contrived.”
Listen to a song or two posted on the site, as well as a few more on the CD itself, and it quickly becomes apparent that O’Brien isn’t simply lending his good name to enhance a protégé’s. She proves every bit the musician and singer he says she is. Combined with her engaging personality and keen sense of her place in the music world, it’s inevitable that terms like “prodigy” and “rising star” would begin to cloy their way onto her public persona.
But to hear Jarosz tell it, her journey has been more of a slow, steady climb, and the result of hard work, unending support from established musicians, and a solid foundation provided by her schoolteacher parents.
“I have to say it’s been a really busy summer,” she says over the phone while packing for the next day’s trip to the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in upstate New York, where she’s scheduled to play two sets. “But it’s like it’s all fallen into place.”
In fact, the foreordained unfolding of events seems as though it extends back to her first “audition” happening at the right time in front of the right person.
“The first RockyGrass that I was at, I was just a little girl and I was playing ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ on my mandolin and singing. [Planet Bluegrass president] Craig Ferguson’s daughter heard me and said, ‘You need to come sing this for my daddy.’ She took me over to him, and I didn’t know that he was a big owner of the Festival. So I sang at the top of my lungs, and he was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we need to get you to do a tweener at the Festival this weekend.’ And a tweener is like two songs in between main-stage acts at the Festival. And he gave me as many opportunities [as he could] to do tweeners and workshops, both at RockyGrass and at Telluride.”
Each summer thereafter, Jarosz returned to Colorado to further her studies at the RockyGrass Academy, held the week prior to each year’s Festival for musicians of every age who want to learn from Festival pros.
“That’s a really special aspect about the acoustic/bluegrass music scene,” she says. “So many of the musicians at the top of it all are so willing and generous and giving of their time. They really want to pass the tradition along to the next generation.”
Jarosz, naturally, is aware that she is considered an acoustic/bluegrass NextGen headline act. Like everything else, it’s a responsibility she’s both willing to live up to and take in stride.
“One of the great things about bluegrass is that it can be taken in so many different directions. [Right now] it’s a mixture of all these different musical styles that so many of the younger generation are listening to. I’m just trying to incorporate all of those styles, and I think a lot of other people are, too.”
Including songs with political messages.
“This type of music allows for young people to speak their voices. One of my songs on my new CD is called ‘Broussard’s Lament,’ and I wrote that right after Hurricane Katrina and after seeing an interview on TV with a man named Aaron Broussard, and it really touched me. That’s an example of a current issue affecting the life of a young musician, and it is becoming apparent in the music that’s being created right now.”
Her goal, she says, is “to keep continuing to grow as a musician, to be as original as possible as an artist and to keep being influenced by as many genres of music as possible. And to keep listening.”
And when she steps out onto that stage this Sunday?
“I have a feeling that it’s going to be pretty similar to the way I felt when I had a similar set at Telluride [in 2007]. And honestly, there’s no way to describe that feeling. It was truly one of the greatest feelings in the entire world. It’s sort of the feeling of the culmination of all the work that I’ve put into this so far, coming together and paying off. Because RockyGrass is one of my all time favorite festivals and it’s going to be a great moment and I’m really excited for it.”
For More Info:The 37th Annual RockyGrass Festival
begins at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, July 24 (gates open at 10 a.m.), and runs until 10 p.m. on Sunday, July 26, at Planet Bluegrass Ranch, on Highway 36 just northwest of the historic area of downtown Lyons,
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