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On The String: Sarah Jarosz Talks “Hometown” And A Grammy Bound Album

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Grammy season is upon us, albeit delayed about six weeks as the Recording Academy gets its arms around producing an awards event that honors the music from the shadow of the industry-crushing Covid-19 pandemic. Yet it seems like they could have the Grammy Awards on Zoom or from the Moon and somehow it’s likely Sarah Jarosz would be included.

She’s been nominated nine times in 12 years, winning three. She approaches the 2021 event nominated for Best American Roots Song and Best Americana Album for her June 2020 release World On The Ground. And this all from Act 1 of her career; she turns 30 this May.

The qualities and musical purpose that’s led to this astonishing run of national industry recognition have been evident since Jarosz was a girl growing up in Wimberly, TX and running around the country with her family, finding a home in the bluegrass and roots communities. She was a gifted banjo and mandolin player, and her voice was pure of tone with throaty nuances and an old-soul quality. She had a record deal by age 16 and released her debut Song Up In Her Head in 2009, about the time she graduated from high school. 

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The nominated song “Hometown” is something of a thematic center on Jarosz’s 2020 album, because she’s come so far from her own. In Episode 157 of The String, we talk about striking out from Wimberly for Boston, where she refined her musical skillset at the New England Conservatory. Then she moved to New York City, where she thrived on the energy and the small but elite crew of acoustic colleagues including Chris Thile and Michael Daves, leaders in 21st century bluegrass. The experience kept her mind firmly in the now, but working in the Manhattan studio of producer John Leventhal, finding some new methods of writing, Jarosz found herself ruminating on the place that raised her and the age-old dilemma of the safety of the known and the risk-reward of new horizons.

“It was a thrill. I was really ready,” Jarosz told me about leaving home for college. “You know, by the time I was 18, a lot of what the new record talks about, I was ready to get out of my small town. Because of the fortunate nature of the music situations that I had been a part of as as a young kid and then through high school, I had been able to travel. So I had little tastes of what life was like, beyond my little town.”

Between 2009 and 2016, before and after her move to New York City, Jarosz made four albums in Nashville with producer/engineer Gary Paczosa, renowned for the clarity and accuracy with which he tracks acoustic music. They floated in liminal space between old-time tradition and urbane cool, with natural textures and enough drums or percussion to give them hearty groove. They defined the sweet spot for high-aspiration newgrass that Nickel Creek had found a decade before. At last, the artist decided to seek a new studio relationship, and New York polymath John Leventhal kept coming to mind.

“I've always sort of had a list of dream people that I would love to make records with, and John's name just always came to the top of the list. (His) Shawn Colvin records were so heavily important upon my early ears, when I was really developing as a musician, back almost before I was even aware of it. My parents played those records. And so it was just always kind of around, even if I wasn't paying attention. And then I feel like in the last couple years, I've come back to those records and pinpointed things about them specifically, about John's production - choices that I kind of said to myself, man, I want to work with him.”

With that came a new kind of collaborative relationship, because Paczosa wasn’t a musician, and with Leventhal, they agreed they’d write and play the album together. “With Gary, I feel like I went into those records having a lot more almost pre-planned in my brain - how things sounded and musical choices. And with John, I was just like, trust. I just I kind of want to not fill in all the blanks from the get go and see what happens and be led a little bit.” She says that as with Colvin in the 1990s, he would give her musical tracks over which she wrote melody and lyrics, and that opened up channels to new subject matter.

We talk about all that, plus how Wimberly, TX feels to Sarah today, in the new String, which you can stream here.