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Rookie of the Year: A Conversation With Jobi Riccio

Jasmine McGlade

The central metaphor in Whiplash, the title track of Jobi Riccio’s debut album of 2023, relates to the emotional shocks and sudden swerves that life in one’s early 20s often delivers, especially when those precious years are stymied by a global pandemic. Yet the behind-the-scenes story of Whiplash’s September release is in large part one about waiting.

“I'm not gonna sit here and pretend it wasn't excruciating,” Riccio said in an interview between Christmas and New Year’s Day. “But I also feel like I learned a great lesson about patience.”

Including how patience pays off. While there’s no way to measure it, I can find no Americana album debut of last year that had more visibility, impact or critical acclaim than Whiplash. Jobi’s name was everywhere for months before the record’s release. She played a jam-packed preview show to release her breakout single “For Me It’s You” at Nashville’s Basement in January of last year, eight months before her album date. And when the album did arrive, it received huge acclaim and landed on numerous year-end lists, including ours at WMOT. The very morning we talked, Jason Isbell posted that Whiplash was on his own very short list.

Asked about her personal favorite moments of validation during 2023, Riccio pointed to playing the Newport Folk Festival and receiving the second John Prine Songwriting Fellowship at that prestigious event. Prine was a seminal influence on Riccio, so she was elated by the honor. And this too was months before Whiplash finally came out. That she was even on the radar for those major events is partly due to the efforts of North Carolina’s Yep Roc Records, a label that’s elevated the careers of Chatham County Line, Aoife O’Donovan, Mandolin Orange (now Watchhouse), Chuck Prophet and others.

“I feel really happy with the team and the reception and everything that I've been working on and building and they've been helping me build to,” Riccio says.

I inquired with the label about what seemed like a rather meticulous release strategy, and Yep Roc’s co-GM and head of digital Mariah Czap confirmed they’d played the long game, with early singles, collaboration with radio and streaming consultants, and strategic publicity. “We wanted to take time to build Jobi's audience so that by the time we were ready to launch the new album campaign, she had engaged fans,” Czap wrote in an email. “On paper, our album campaign ran from May (when we announced) to September (when the record was released). But our team was actively working on this campaign starting in January 2023, planting those seeds with press, radio and digital.

A lot happened before 2023 of course. Riccio grew up in Morrison, CO in the years after the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and Nickel Creek raised the profile of traditional roots and bluegrass. Inspired by both as well as a range of singer songwriters, she got a guitar at age 12 and a mandolin at 15 and got involved with the Colorado picking community while learning to write songs.

In 2019, while a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Riccio entered and won the NewSong Music Competition, run out of Asheville by a music entrepreneur named Gar Ragland. One of the prizes was recording time at the studio Ragland runs out of the multi-faceted Citizen Vinylin the former headquarters of the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper. Amid the many restrictions on having groups work together in 2020, they built a virtual team with Riccio’s Berklee friend and colleague Jesse Timm for arranging and orchestrating and musician Isaiah Beard as co-producer and mixer. It was unconventional but it worked.

In the conversation presented here (part of which first aired on WMOT as part of The String #269 with Rosanne Cash), Riccio covers all of these topics, plus her influences and decision to study at Berklee, her move to Nashville, her “insane perfectionism,” and the sense of space she’s giving herself to think about new projects with a fresh mind, staying informed by folk and roots without dogma.

“I think there's this really fine line between being a traditionalist who believes in preserving our legacy and our histories and our human stories and then being like a gatekeeper - somebody who is trying to tell people how they should play music and enjoy music. And I've just never been interested in feeling confined in any areas of my life. I really think fluidity is like the spice of life or the spice of my life.”

Saturday Sessions: Jobi Riccio performs "For Me, It's You"

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