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Della Mae Reunites With Each Other And Bluegrass, On The String

Della Mae
Amanda Kowalski
The current lineup of Della Mae from left: Maddie Witler (mandolin), Kimber Ludiker (fiddle), Celia Woodsmith (vocals/guitar), Vickie Vaughn (bass) and Avril Smith (guitar).

The great touring lockdown of 2020 was only a few weeks old when Celia Woodsmith, singer in string band Della Mae, found herself bereft and pining for the road, even its uncertainties and annoyances. So she wrote what became the opening track on a new album.

“I’d lay on all the airport floors to know that I could come back for more, let me ride and do the distance with my guitar,” she pleads to the fates in “These Songs,” a tune full of details and memories from rituals and special spots. “This lifestyle’s a part of me,” the song says.

In Episode 186 of The String, Celia remembers the feeling of being inert yet adrift. “I’d be sitting at home, lonely, just thinking about these stories of the past, on the road, and like, will this happen again? Is this permanent?”

“It's all of these minor or major inconveniences that you start to get nostalgic for,” she told me. “Like, man, what would I give to just be stepping on a stage right now or going somewhere? So that's where that song came from.”

Della Mae might be particularly addicted to the road life because since forming around 2010 as an all-woman bluegrass supergroup, they’ve covered more miles than most. In addition to their 200+ dates per year, they became well known as ambassadors of American culture on numerous State Department cultural missions.

“We've been to 18 countries with the State Department,” Woodsmith notes. “We do a lot of work with women and girls when we are in these places. We've been to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Marshall Islands, Guyana, Brazil. We've been to Tajikistan.” The mission is cultural diplomacy she says, which is apolitical and connection-minded. The message: “We play music. And we're here to inspire you and answer your questions and just bring you joy and bring you maybe hope, bring you maybe resolve. It's been an incredible part of who we are as a band.”

Also on the conversation, conducted over Zoom from Celia’s home in Maine, is fiddler and band founder Kimber Ludiker. She turned some whimsical conversations about the need for an all-lady band of killer pickers into action in Boston in 2009. She recruited women she knew from around town and even around the country, and she talked Woodsmith into joining at a time when Woodsmith thought she was hanging up professional music for good.

Della Mae

“The band started to be a showcase for women in the acoustic music world, and it was never really meant to be a solid lineup,” Ludiker says. By the time they got signed to Rounder Records for the Grammy nominated label debut This World Oft Can Be, a long-running lineup had settled, included mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner and lead guitarist Courtney Hartman. By the time the band reconvened to make the cathartic, post lockdown album Family Reunion, those chairs were filled respectively by Maddie Witler and Avril Smith, who was actually the first Della Mae guitar player, plus bass player Vickie Vaughn of Nashville.

The record was written and worked out from a distance as the musicians traded recordings and ideas online. Then at last, freshly vaccinated, they gathered at a Maryland studio in May of 2021. They’re calling the resulting record a “snapshot” of the women in a moment of gratitude and renewal. And it’s unmistakably a turn back toward a bluegrass sound after the more electric folk rock of 2019’s Headlight. The hard swinging track “You Don’t Have To Do That,” penned by John Hartford, becomes a glowing showcase for the band’s instrumental chops as Woodsmith calls their solos by name. Also here, “The Way It Was Before” by Woodsmith and Mark Erelli calls us to not get complacent about the gains made for the marginalized or the need for ongoing political change. Celia’s cover of Hazel Smith’s “Just A Few Old Memories” keeps the project as country as the embroidery on the cover.

Also from Family Reunion, Della Mae covers “Dry Town” by Gillan Welch and David Rawlings.

Della Mae "Dry Town" (Live)

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org