In the traditional bluegrass canon, there’s a song called “Big Spike Hammer” by the Osborne Brothers. It’s sung from the point of view of a man on a chain gang who’s complaining that he can’t satisfy his woman. Della Mae is that woman’s name, and she never gets the chance to tell her side of the story.
Della Mae is also a rapidly rising, all-female string band. And the voices of all five members can be heard clear as day in the emotionally potent storytelling and imaginatively fleshed-out arrangements on their new album, This World Oft Can Be.
Founding fiddler Kimber Ludiker took time out from teaching at a fiddle camp to recount the journey she and her band mates have traveled to established their own identity.
CMT Edge: I read somewhere that you decided to start the band when you surveyed the acoustic scene and didn’t see any all-women bluegrass bands out there touring. Is that really how it went?
Ludiker: Yeah. Well, there’s Uncle Earl. They’re good friends of ours. I was actually hanging out with [former Uncle Earl member] Abigail Washburn when I was talking about the idea, and Amanda Kowalski, who was the original bass player. … We were just kind of hanging out and saying that there’s not really any serious, all-female, bluegrass bands out there. And it started out as a joke. We were talking about having an all-girl bluegrass band with chicks who could just slay their instruments and have all the girls playing “man-grass,” is what we called it. Like high testosterone bluegrass, wearing power suits. … Then we decided that we’d actually take the band seriously.
The roots of that idea that was floating around in my head probably came from Laurie Lewis. She was probably my first bluegrass influence. … She became a mentor for me, and she’s done projects here and there with all-girl groups or collaborations. I guess that would probably be the first exposure that I would’ve had to that idea even. And that was before I really knew about Uncle Earl.
It’s pretty striking that an all-woman group is still considered an anomaly.
And it’s also a novelty, to a certain extent. We went full circle from, “Well, we don’t really want to focus on the fact that we’re all women. We don’t really need to talk about that too much. We want our music to speak for itself. It’s blatantly obvious when people see a photo, or even hear the name.” So we stayed away from talking about that for the first two years.
Since then, we’ve really embraced it as a focal point: “Yeah, we’re a bunch of women.” And we’ve had the opportunity to travel to Pakistan and speak with girls and be role models for young women across the world, saying that we have chops and we can go out and hold our own in the world. It’s been a really empowering thing for us, especially in the last year.
You did your tour last year, on behalf of the State Department, to developing countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In countries where women live very separate lives from men, were you able to do things or play places that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to?
Yeah, definitely. Pakistan is completely a different world form the rest of Central Asia. … You can very much tell the social differences there, with segregation. It was definitely cool to be able to go to women’s colleges there and talk to them and perform. College is different there. It starts when you’re 16. … We were able to go there and give the girls the first concert they’ve seen because they can’t really go out after dark.
So there’s this weird thing happening there where there’s tradition, and then they’re crawling out of that a little bit. But the nicest people we’ve ever met. I mean, it definitely changed our worldviews being there.
One of your band mates wrote an account of the trip and said everywhere you went, you were asked if you knew any Justin Bieber songs. I’m guessing that’s a no. Did the people you encountered seem to resonate with any particular aspect of what you do?
A really cool thing that American Music Abroad had us doing was they got in touch with local musicians. We collaborated with a bunch of local musicians, and then we’d give a free public concert and we’d play with them. So we’d mesh our music. It was really cool to see the effect that had on everybody, that we’re taking the time to learn their music and vice versa. I think what’s really successful about that program is that it’s bringing real people to meet real people. And in places like that, that doesn’t really get to happen.
Speaking of rare occurrences, you’re a string band whose lead singer is an ex-rock ‘n’ roller with a husky, full-bodied voice. How’d that happen?
You know, when it first started, it was meant to be exclusively a bluegrass band. So we went for guitar, fiddle, bass, banjo, mandolin. Then after we had the band, you can’t help but take on each individual band member’s backgrounds, and that influences the music.
I’d heard a lot about [Celia Woodsmith], and I got this gig [playing with her at an Irish pub] and it wasn’t too far away from my house. I went down there and played fiddle and she was singing and I was just blown away. It was probably a year after that that we were losing a band member. We needed to make a change. We thought a huge thing that was missing was a really solid lead vocalist. So I was like, “Well, I’m just going to ask Celia if she’s interested.”
Her father had just passed away and she was quitting music. She was at the end of her wanting to play music and tour, and she was talking about going back to school or joining the Peace Corps. … She was kinda not sure about having a full-time thing again. And I was like, “OK, just play these [festival dates], and we’ll kinda keep it a hobby,” [hoping that] if we could get her into it, she’d stick with it. [laughs] And now we have a really solid songwriter in the lineup.
I saw a video of you all performing “Muleskinner Blues” back in 2011. The way Celia was singing then had a louder, more forceful attack than it does on the new album. The arrangements and playing on the new album are subtler and more stylistically varied too. How’d you get from there to here? And what role did Bryan Sutton’s production play?
I think when we were just starting out and when Celia joined the band, she was almost trying to fit in to something that was already existing. … We found our sound through a huge process. I feel like this album is a good example of our growth as a band and taking our influences and throwing them all together to create something. Where we were primarily focused on playing bluegrass, now we’re starting to find a sound that’s a combination of all five of us.
And having Bryan in the studio was so good. He has the best ear ever. … He’s a great sounding board and offered really good advice and had some really cool arrangement ideas. He definitely had a huge hand in both “Heaven’s Gate” and “Mabeline.” … I don’t think there’s another person who has logged more time behind a microphone than Bryan, in so many different styles of music. His talents don’t stop at bluegrass, so we knew that he’d be a really good fit.
Do you feel like your identities as women come through in your material?
Yeah, I think so. You mentioned before that even the sound and Celia’s vocals went from a harder, more cutting bluegrass thing to [something subtler]. You know, we definitely embrace the femininity in our band. Not only can we play hard-driving bluegrass stuff, but we choose to play how we feel. … A lot of the songs are story songs and they’re about real-life influences. Sort of that singer-songwriter thing of telling a story and filtering it through who we are.