This article originally appeared in the March 2018 edition of the California Bluegrass Association's Bluegrass Breakdown.
Bluegrass is full of magical moments -- that perfect set by your favorite band on a starlit evening, or maybe a performance by your own band where the harmonies and rhythm all seem to come together. For young musicians, such moments often come when they get to rub shoulders with and gain some sage advice from their heroes -- we’ve all seen musicians like Frank Solivan II or Rhonda Vincent jam with the hot young pickers, fiddlers and singers at the Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival.
North Country Blue, the barely-teenage band comprised of Ida Winfree, Daisy Kerr, Megan January and Tessa Schwartz, recently had a whole weekend of such magical moments, when they opened for Della Mae on the Freight and Salvage’s Gallery Stage -- the very band that inspired them to combine their impressive talents -- and then traveled the next morning to Los Angeles, where they were the featured students in a master class conducted by Rhiannon Giddens at Mount Saint Mary’s University (Daisy Kerr was unable to attend either event, as she was in Guatemala with her family studying Spanish). Ms. Giddens is a Grammy award- and MacArthur fellowship-winning classical and string band vocalist, banjoist and fiddler, as well as a TV actress and advocate for the inclusion of groups in bluegrass and old-time music who have been traditionally underrepresented. For a band of 13- and 14-year old female bluegrass musicians, it would be hard to dream up a more inspiring and worthwhile combination.
Della Mae, the powerhouse, award-winning, all-female band from the East Coast, delighted the near-capacity Freight and Salvage crowd with their creative songwriting, fiery vocals and impeccable instrumental chops. Perhaps remembering their own beginnings, they took the time to recognize their much younger counterparts from North Country Blue from the stage. “How about that band in the lobby tonight?” said fiddler Kimber Ludiker, eliciting cheers from the audience. “You know how baseball teams have farm teams . . . we consider them our ‘Farm Team’ -- you know, one of us goes down with an injury, we can just bring up one of those girls to the big leagues!”
Still giddy and somewhat starstruck from an evening chumming and posing for pictures with their heroes (“It was awesome to meet everyone!” said NCB’s bassist, Megan January), the girls headed to Los Angeles, where they had been invited to participate in the “Women In Music” Symposium hosted by Mount Saint Mary’s University. The symposium featured female musicians of all types -- Japanese koto players, mariachis, opera singers -- as well as lectures by female music and musicology professors. When MSMU Professor Julius Reder Carlson, who organized the symposium, was able to line up Rhiannon Giddens to teach a master class, he asked CBA members Nate Schwartz -- one of his former students at UCLA -- if he knew of any female string-band musicians who might be suitable candidates for the class. Nate told Professor Carlson about his sister’s budding bluegrass band, and the connection was made. “I thought they would be perfect for this event,” said Professor Carlson. The CBA generously supported the effort with a stipend from Youth Program funds to help with travel expenses.
And so three of the band members, with Nate Schwartz sitting in on guitar, got the opportunity to play bluegrass for Ms. Giddens and about 150 attendees in a stunningly sunlit room, part of the historic Doheny mansion on the Mount Saint Mary’s campus in downtown Los Angeles. They performed “Sacrifice,” an original song written by band member Ida Winfree, that tells the tale of an immigrant to the U.S. “Awesome!” said Rhiannon Giddens, at the conclusion of the performance, before getting down to work with the band. She provided helpful insight on tightening the band’s groove and rhythmic focus, and discussed with Ida Winfree the challenges of singing with braces. “I had 10 rubber bands in my mouth when I did my college audition,” said Giddens, who studied as a classical vocalist at Oberlin College. She then gave them some longer-term career advice: “Know why you are playing this music,” she said. “The music industry is not pretty. Find your people who are going to work for you, make sure they care about what you want and not what they want for you.”
It was a weekend that the girls will long remember. “We were so lucky and grateful to be a part of all of this,” said Tessa Schwartz, the band’s fiddler. “Meeting and working with such great women who have had so much success with their music was inspiring and motivating for all of us.”