Redefining Bluegrass: Sarah Jarosz and the New Bluegrass Contemporarists

Have you heard of Sarah Jarosz?  If not, you should check her out.  She’s part of an interesting develop in modern music.  Call it “classical bluegrass.”  NPR recently did a story on Jarosz and this developing sound, suggesting that her brand of performance is the child of a marriage between classical music schools and traditional bluegrass.

If you like music, this is interesting stuff.  The NPR piece tells the story:

The New England Conservatory, the oldest free-standing music school in the U.S., is not a place you’d have been likely to find a bluegrass-trained artist just a few years ago. But, like the artist herself, the school is stretching out.

“The program I’m in is called Contemporary Improvisation, and it’s kind of the development of your personal style,” Sarah Jarosz says. “Last year, I was in a world music ensemble and a Jewish music ensemble, which is really fun, like klezmer and Yiddish folk music. And as a vocalist, that’s really pushed me to use my voice in a way I’d normally never use my singing voice.”

The piece also details the specific influences on her style:

For her part, Jarosz says there’s no easily drawn line between her studies and the songs on her new album — titled Follow Me Down — but that she feels more confident in her singing and versatile in her writing. The folk influences shine through, as she plays her banjo in pre-bluegrass style and channels Edgar Allan Poe.

Jarosz also composes instrumentals that nod to what some have called “chamber-grass.” She plays octave mandolin with a bass, cello, violin and dobro star Jerry Douglas, one of her heroes and a pioneer of this hybrid American sound.

I’ve listened to Jarosz’s music and found it compelling and fresh.  You can listen to it for free here.  This is her artist page.  “Chamber-grass,” “classical bluegrass,” or whatever else you call it, it’s worth hearing out.  Bluegrass features some of the most thoughtful songwriting around, often delving into expressly spiritual themes.  Jarosz fits this bill; her work is good driving music, thinking music, reading music.

(Photo: Simon Simontacchi/NPR)

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