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Sarah Jarosz: Redefining The Sound Of Bluegrass
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Sarah Jarosz: Redefining The Sound Of Bluegrass


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

There's long been a creative tension between the original sound of bluegrass music and its many contemporary offshoots. The latest generation of bluegrass players borrows freely from jazz, classical, pop, and many are developing their skills at traditional music schools. Sarah Jarosz, a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, takes the fusion further than most on her second CD.

Craig Havighurst of member station WPLN reports.

CRAIG HAVIGHURST: The New England Conservatory, the oldest independent music school in the United States, is not a place you'd likely have found a bluegrass-trained artist just a few years ago. But like the artist herself, the school is stretching out.

Ms. SARAH JAROSZ (Singer/Songwriter): I mean, the program that I'm in is called contemporary improvisation. And it's kind of the development of your personal style.

(Soundbite of song, "Here Nor There")

Ms. JAROSZ: But also, like last year, I was in a world music ensemble and I've been doing, like, this Jewish music ensemble, which is really fun, like klezmer and Yiddish folk music. And that's, as a vocalist, that's really, like, pushed me to use my voice in a way that I, like, would normally never use my singing voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Here Nor There")

Ms. JAROSZ: (Singing) When I ventured here, truth was far, not near.

HAVIGHURST: That moody, clear-toned voice caught the attention of talent scout Gary Paczosa nearly four years ago at one of the festivals where Jarosz got her first musical education, specifically the plunging Rocky Mountain canyon of Telluride.

Mr. GARY PACZOSA (Audio Engineer): And, you know, it was one of those days where it was really hot out, and I was leaving, just going to find shade and go back to the hotel. And I was all the way out of the festival grounds and heard this voice, you know, I heard this girl started singing. And it's like, oh, man, that's got to be her, and went back and, sure enough, it was. I mean, and I heard it from a ways off, you know? I was all the way out of the grounds, and it just was - it was something fresh. It's like I need to hear more of that.

(Soundbite of song, "My Muse")

Ms. JAROSZ: (Singing) I spin around in your love, in a place of wonder. I want to wander...

HAVIGHURST: Paczosa, a producer to Alison Krauss and many other bluegrass-based musicians, signed Sarah Jarosz to her record deal and has worked in the studio with her ever since. They finished her first album when Jarosz was just 17. That debut shot Jarosz to the forefront of the new acoustic scene, but Paczosa is pleased that his young protege opted for college and didn't rush headlong into a full-time stage career. He did, however, voice misgivings about her choice of a classical conservatory.

Mr. PACZOSA: You know, you just want to make sure that they get it, who she is, you know, and that they're not going to try and change that. When I hear trained musicians, you know, that makes me usually want to run in our world, you know, because that's not a plus. It hasn't been in the past - a classical approach. And her raw talent is what we want to make better, what she naturally does. And so I knew going conservatory, you know, was I thought for sure would not be the place to maintain that, but it really has been great.

HAVIGHURST: For her part, Jarosz says there's no easily drawn line between her studies and the songs on the new album, rather that she feels more confident in her singing and versatile in her writing. The folk influences certainly shine through as she frails in pre-bluegrass style on her banjo and channels Edgar Allan Poe.

(Soundbite of song, "Annabelle Lee")

Ms. JAROSZ: (Singing) Many a year ago in a kingdom by the sea, there lived a maiden you may know by the name of Annabelle Lee. No other thought did trouble her mind but to love and be loved by me.

HAVIGHURST: She also composes instrumentals that nod to what some have called chamber-grass. She plays octave mandolin with a bass, cello, violin and Dobro star Jerry Douglas, one of her heroes and a pioneer of this hybrid American sound.

(Soundbite of music)

HAVIGHURST: Exactly what is and isn't appropriate in bluegrass has been a hot subject of debate for decades. But Tim O'Brien, a traditional-leaning icon, is a defender of those who depart from bluegrass orthodoxy. He says Jarosz is part of a particularly skilled generation of players, and as they push forward, more established fine arts music communities are meeting them halfway.

Mr. TIM O'BRIEN (Bluegrass Musician): It's about time. And, in fact, people are calling for this. There's a lot of really talented kids that want this. The roots are still strong. And that's what's great. Our institutions are realizing that.

HAVIGHURST: Including another major academy in Boston: the jazz-focused Berklee College of Music, where some of Jarosz's friends and colleagues have studied.

(Soundbite of music)

HAVIGHURST: And like anyone her age, Sarah Jarosz listens to much more than classical, jazz or bluegrass. She covered Tom Waits and The Decemberists on her debut. On the new record, she and The Punch Brothers make over Radiohead.

(Soundbite of song, "The Tourist")

Ms. JAROSZ: (Singing) Hey, man, slow down.

HAVIGHURST: This collage of influences - the festival scene, school, the music on her iPod - has inspired in Jarosz a clarity of purpose.

Ms. JAROSZ: I come from a background where everything is organic, and it's not complex, and it's just these folk songs, you know, and that's how I grew up, so kind of trying to preserve that aspect of it while still trying to push it.

HAVIGHURST: Music teachers often say they learn as much from their students as the other way around. Sarah Jarosz's self-aware approach to her studies suggests that might be more than a cliche.

For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville.

(Soundbite of song, "The Tourist")

Ms. JAROSZ: (Singing) Hey, man, slow down, slow down. Hey, man, slow down, slow down.

SIEGEL: And you can hear Sarah Jarosz perform a full concert tonight at

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