Della Mae

By Greg Tutwiler
Not many years ago, an all-girl bluegrass act was a rarity. The 70s gave us what some say was the first all-female act of the new-grass movement, The Buffalo Gal’s; but nevertheless, it was a heavily male dominated industry. That, of course, has changed in recent years, and not only have the ladies began taking center stage more often, audiences are digging their music too. Such is the case for this edgy grass group of ladies called Della Mae.
I caught up with mandolin and vocalist, Jenni Lyn Gardner, fresh off their most recent European tour. Gardner, originally from Conway SC, now lives in Nashville where she’s closer to band mates Celia Woodsmith, vocals/guitar, Kimber Ludiker, fiddle/vocals, Courtney Hartman, guitar/banjo/vocals, and new bass player Zoe Guigueno.
Boston Roots
The band was started in Boston in 2009; the idea of fiddle player, Kimber Ludiker. Jenni told me it was almost as a joke in the beginning, like a female power band. But it quickly took on a life of it’s own and Kimber set out to create something that they all could be proud of and that people would take notice to. Jenni said, “She wanted a group of girls who were proficient on their instruments, at a high skill level. We all came together through mutual friends – I don’t think any of us knew each other in the beginning.”
Everyone came from a little bit of a different musical background, which helped shape the flavor of the band. Jenni grew up playing bluegrass in a family band with her dad and grandma, she told me. “We just wanted something to happen,” she recalled. “Several of us had already done the side-woman thing, and this was an opportunity for all of us to get together and have a voice in a band, and be able to collaborate on music together. It just took off. Every year we’ve added more festivals and received more accolades, and put out more records. It’s just gotten better every year. It’s been something we’ve all wanted to continue to be a part of too, and see it grow.”
For Jenni, she packed up everything she had, stuffed it into her Subaru and moved to Boston, “on a whim,” she said, “to join this group. I had a feeling about it. After I flew up to Boston to meet the girls for the first time – we jammed for over five hours, and I knew, I have to do this. I have to play music with these girls. There was just something there.”
That Groovy Sound
And it is clearly unique. Not just musically, but vocally as well. “We’re not really ever going to sound like a traditional bluegrass band. We’re all women for one thing,” she laughed. “We don’t sing in the same key as Bill Monroe, you know? It’s never going to be that. Because we’re women, and our ranges, and our point of view even, it’s always going to be different.”
Like many start-up bluegrass bands, in the beginning they started out playing more traditional songs with more of a traditional instrumentation. But as time has gone on, and especially with this current album, Jenni said they started giving themselves the freedom to create the music that they feel in their hearts.
Their latest CD is self titled, for a reason. “We feel like it’s the best representation of us right now and who we are as a band,” Jenni said. “We went with a different producer on this one in Jacquire King (Punch Brothers, Nora Jones). He really made us stand behind the mics until he got the perfect feel for each song that he wanted to get out of us. And we were pumped to do it. We wanted to be pushed. That was our goal with this album to be pushed and stretched as musicians. It is a different sound. We didn’t want to do a 180 degree turn, we wanted our fans to still be able to recognize us as Della Mae, but also add some different elements of sound and production, and take it up a notch.”
Jacquire King has won Grammy awards for his work on albums for Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, Norah Jones’ The Fall, Buddy Guy’s Blues Singer and Kings of Leon’s Only by the Night. He has a knack for capturing creative chemistry and spontaneous moments of inspiration, and it was an ideal match with Della Mae’s vocal and instrumental skills. “The whole experience was so inspiring and so much fun, and Jacquire changed the way we think about recording,” Celia Woodsmith commented. “None of us had ever worked with anyone like him before, and he really forced us to rethink a lot of our assumptions about how we make records.”
”One big difference on this album,” Celia observed, “is the emphasis on the groove, which is something that people maybe don’t notice consciously, but which is so important.  That’s something that we hadn’t really focused on before, but this time we felt that it was absolutely essential.  We would spend hours and hours trying to get the groove right.  We also put our instruments through amps in the studio, which is something that we’d never done before.”
Grammys And Airplanes
In 2013 Della Mae received a Grammy nomination for their previous record, This World Oft Can Be. Gardner recalled the moment when the nomination came in. “We had just finished a show at the Down Home in Johnson City, TN. We just packed up and loaded the van, and I was the first one in. I checked my emails and there it was; the email from our manager congratulating us. I just screamed. We actually googled it to make sure it was true,” she laughed. “It was so cool to be there at the Grammys and be a part of that celebration. It was very surreal.”
Of course, like with any band, song material is equally important to the success of the band, and Jenni said that most of Della Mae’s songs come from within the band. “Courtney and Celia are the main writers,” she said. “They’ll write a new song and either send it via email, or we’ll get together for one of our band retreats where we rehearse and work on the material. Sometimes we sit down with a bare bones song and work together on the arrangements until we’re all happy with it and feel like it’s complete.”
Ambassadors Of Song
The ladies are hard at work year round too, promoting their music out on the road, and abroad. Typically, they are on the road over 200 days a year. “We’ve just been out pretty hard for three weeks, and now we’re home for 10 days, and then we’re back out for another tour to the Philly Folk Fest, and then back through D.C.,” she said. “We’ve been touring a little harder this summer because we have the new album out.”
Jenni told me that they have a pretty busy fall before heading out on another State Department tour in October. “That’s been really cool for us,” she said. “The first tour we did was back in 2012 to Central Asia. It was life changing in so many ways. We’ve done a total of three tours now with this program, Diplomacy Through Music, and they have brought so much meaning and so much inspiration to our band.
We always love playing shows, and putting out albums and touring, but whenever we have an opportunity to build relationships with people from different cultures and backgrounds in parts of the world that we had no idea about, then all of the sudden you start to realize, music is so powerful, and can form such strong bonds. We’ve also been to Brazil and most recently the Middle East. For this next trip we’ll be going to South America. The title track from our last album, “This World Oft Can Be,” came about right after our first State Department tour, and it had a really deep meaning for us,” she recalled.


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