Della Mae - learning the business lesson from Dolly
It started as a joke. They were going to be four young women playing fast-as-fury bluegrass tunes, the kind of music that’s largely regarded as a male preserve. Five years down the line, no-one’s laughing.
Della Mae is a serious proposition. The Boston-based group has been given the ultimate country music stamp of approval, having now played the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville three times. A further mark of quality came when the group signed to Rounder Records, which for the past forty-five years has represented the high watermark of American roots music, while a more official commendation has seen Della Mae appointed as musical ambassadors.
“I remember when Kimber [Ludiker, Della Mae’s fiddle player and founder] invited me to join the group,” says singer, guitarist and songwriter-in-chief, Celia Woodsmith. “She mentioned all these festivals that I’d been going to as a music fan and said, Now you can play in all these places. But I didn’t think for a minute that we’d be going to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and a whole lot of places that I had on my wish-list. It’s been wonderful to travel like that because it lets the people in these countries see Americans who are not politicians. We’ve just gone there to play music and it’s true what they say, you can communicate through music even when you don’t understand each other’s languages.”
Woodsmith was, in a way, part of Della Mae before she took up Ludiker’s ‘join us and see the world’ offer. Having grown up in North Carolina with an interest in theatre rather than music, she started writing songs after her parents bought her a guitar as a leaving present when she graduated from high school and headed for college in New England. One of her songs had found its way into Della Mae’s repertoire while she was fronting a blues-rock band called Hey Mama and playing a regular singer-songwriter gig in one of Boston’s many Irish bars.
“People have often said how surprised they are that a bluegrass band should come out of Boston,” she says. “But there’s a lot of music of all kinds flourishing here, particularly folk and old-time stuff, and there’s a real community of musicians who all know each other. I’d actually hired Kimber to play fiddle on one of my bar gig, so she knew I wrote songs. That’s probably how Della Mae started singing one of them and then when I joined the group I had all these other songs that were just sitting in my own personal songwriting file. So they got a singer and I got an outlet for my unused songs. It was a neat arrangement.”
While Woodsmith is happy to be the group’s spokesperson, she points to Ludiker’s vision and drive as crucial factors in Della Mae’s development. If the group began as a bit of fun, then Ludiker found a way to make it into something more than a hobby by locating high quality players. Mandolinist Jenni Lynn Gardner and guitarist Courtney Hartman, both of whom also sing, were brought in to give the group the sort of instrumental presence that could take Della Mae onto the national, and subsequently international, stage.
Sheer hard work and persistence, allied to musical craft, paid off with the group’s 2013 release, This World Oft Can Be, gaining a Grammy nomination. Fellow Rounder Records artists Uncle Earl, another all-female bluegrass group, had already shown that Ludiker’s mission was not impossible, although a bigger inspiration is someone Della Mae will be celebrating as part of their residency at this weekend’s Southern Fried festival of Americana in Perth, Dolly Parton.
“The first time we played the Grand Ole Opry was actually at the Ryman Auditorium, the programme’s spiritual home,” says Woodsmith, “and it was a powerful feeling to stand on the spot where so many of our idols had stood, including Dolly. It would be so easy to write her off just by virtue of the way she looks and the way she acts but she’s such an incredible and prolific songwriter that it’s mind-blowing. She’s also so truthful and honest – she doesn’t care what people think – and that’s rare in female artists because the temptation would be to try and fit in and please the industry.”
As we speak Woodsmith doesn’t know which of Parton’s songs Della Mae will be singing as the house band of Because We’re Women, the Dolly celebration whose cast also includes singer-songwriter Samantha Crain and gospel quartet the McCrary Sisters. The plan is to let the other singers make their choice and take it from there.
“We all know plenty of Dolly’s songs, and it’ll be an honour to sing whichever ones we sing,” she says. “It’ll be a musical tribute but a great reminder of the lesson Dolly has taught us all, because she’s such a shrewd businesswoman and we’re in a business after all: if you’re not good at this business, look out because someone else’ll come along and be better at it than you are.”
Della Mae play Oran Mor, Glasgow tonight [Wednesday, July 29] and are in residence at Southern Fried, Perth from Thursday to Sunday.
From The Herald, July 29, 2015.