07/24/2014 11:17AM ● Published by Phil Reser
Della Mae to Play at the Sierra Nevada Big Room
Five years ago, when Della Mae got together, there wasn’t a single all-women bluegrass band on the national touring scene.
Today, this all-female quintet is making a name for itself on the charts and at festivals throughout the country.
They recently won the Emerging Artist of the Year Award at the 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association’s conference, and their latest album, “This World Oft Can Be on Rounder Records,” was nominated for a Grammy in the bluegrass category.
Originator of the band, Kimber Ludiker, is a fourth-generation fiddler who picked up fiddling the old-fashioned way, by learning with her family.
“My very first memories of playing were actually with my grandpa Lloyd. He used to play fiddle for dances during the Depression for change. My parents, my brother, aunts, uncles and cousins all were fiddlers. Grandpa bought my brother and me our first fiddle. It was a little mini-fiddle. We’d always get in trouble trying to pick up my parents’ fiddles, so he brought us this little one and I remember sitting in the dining room of my grandma and grandpa’s house and just playing fiddle tunes with him and my brother. My mom was a fiddle teacher, so when I was a baby, my mom’s students’ parents would be holding me while she taught their kids. Growing up, I was playing American fiddle tunes and Texas-style, Western swing, Bob Wills stuff. I came to bluegrass after going to my first bluegrass festival when I was about 15 years old.”
That upbringing and her commitment to the instrument resulted in her winning the title of Grand National Fiddle Champion in 2009 and 2010.
“When I started this band,” she says, “I started it actually as a joke. Late at night with a group of friends at a music camp in California, we were joking around about how fun it would be to start an all-female bluegrass band that played high-testosterone really fast bluegrass music, what we called ‘man-grass.’”
Ludiker hand-picked the other musicians in Della Mae from musicians, she had gotten to know from all over the country: singer Celia Woodsmith comes from a blues/rock background, guitarist and banjo player Courtney Hartman studied at Berklee College of Music, bassist Shelby Means played with various bands in Nashville, and mandolin player Jenni Lyn Gardner was schooled in traditional bluegrass.
“We booked a couple of shows. The shows were really fun, and we decided it wasn’t a joke anymore. We decided to be a real band and not a gimmick. The music is a combination of the influences of all five of us. We have a singer-songwriter in there, we have an Americana element, we have this kind of indie-pop thing happening. But we’re definitely grounded and rooted in bluegrass.”
The group has toured throughout the United States, performing at festivals, music clubs, house concerts, and churches, in addition to participating in the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program.
Selected as cultural ambassadors, they spent 43 days traveling in Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where they collaborated with local musicians, taught educational programs for children, and played concerts for local audiences.
Says Ludiker, “A cool thing about playing music in Central Asian countries is in the lack of distinction their audience places between musical genres. We found that if music is played with feeling, all people connected to it. They find themselves smiling and relating without even understanding the language. It was so eye-opening. I can credit our formation and maturity over the past year and a half to that trip.”
Della Mae’s first performance on the tour was at a women’s college in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. “It was so fulfilling to see all of these young girls appreciate live music from the United States. It kind of brought about the ignorance of what we have of the people over there. But to go beyond the media, the headlines of what is happening politically, and spend time with people there, whether it was musicians to collaborate with or government officials or being at orphanages, was truly amazing.”
In a relatively short period of time, Della Mae has become a sensation in the music world. Clearly, they are demonstrating how effectively music builds bridges and transcends artificially constructed borders.