OWhen violinist Kimber Ludiker traveled to Colorado last month, she had just spent 10 days in bed with Covid. “The altitude was really hard on my poor recovering lungs,” says Ludiker, one of the founding members of bluegrass band Della Mae. But the trip was too special to miss: She and teammate and partner Avril Smith were taking Smith’s 11-year-old daughter to see the Chicks. “And honestly,” says Ludiker, “there would be no Della Mae without the Chicks.”
The same way the Dallas trio broke ground to dominate country music, Della Mae has become the most influential girl group in bluegrass. And as a predominantly queer and fiercely feminist acoustic group, they also sing fearlessly about topics that might annoy the genre’s traditionally conservative audience. Recent albums have covered everything from domestic violence and fertility issues to family separation on the US border with Mexico. They also play barnstorming numbers on motorcycles and bourbon.
Their live shows are heart-pounding, crowd-pleasing riots, full of the kind of high-octane instrumental skill the band – now in its twelfth year and third incarnation – was always meant to showcase. Ludiker has always been frustrated with the lack of female representation in music, where women are still most often seen in the guise of lead or backing vocals. “It was hard for me to think about being involved in music when in most genres you don’t see women who are sidemen,” she says before catching herself. “And that’s the word we use!” Side the musicians.”
In 2009, Ludiker booked a gig at a Boston dive bar in an effort to showcase the talent of women playing bluegrass: “I couldn’t even find enough women to form a band that day, so we asked our friend Dominick Leslie, who had very long hair at the time, to play too. As the project grew more serious, Ludiker reached out to Celia Woodsmith, who was about to leave her rock band to return to college. “I was really interested in agriculture and local food systems,” says Woodsmith, the band’s lead singer and lead songwriter. “I’m sure that in a parallel universe, another Celia works for a women’s NGO and just as happy, but I’m still happy to be in this one.”
After Della Mae signed with Rounder, their very first album with the label – This World Oft Can Be – was nominated for a Grammy. Two years ago they released Headlight, a collection of moving songs about being a woman in modern America that took their acoustic sound further into American territory with its mix of gospel, rock and of funk. Their fifth and most recent album features swing, waltz and honky tonk alongside its bluegrass vibe; it’s called Family Reunion for the joy they felt being reunited in the studio after the pandemic.
One track that has become a radio favorite in the United States is Ride Away, loosely inspired by Richard Thompson’s 1952 classic Vincent Black Lightning. It’s Woodsmith’s attempt to write his own motorcycle tale of tragedy, although in classic Della Mae style there’s a very emphatic commentary hidden within about how parents pass their hurts on to their children. . Meanwhile, The Way It Was Before covers modern slavery, mass shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement. “There are a lot of hotspots in America and we managed to pick them all,” says Woodsmith. Among the true stories he tells is that of Kevin Mahoney, who had just learned he was going to be a grandfather when he was killed alongside nine other people in a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado. .
Wordsmith says writing the song was a “very tender” process, but its first performance was even more poignant, at a festival in a town near which Mahoney was murdered. “There were people in the audience who were personally affected by this tragedy,” Ludiker says. “Playing him in that context was really intense.” Sometimes, especially when performing in more conservative areas, they strategize to present their more political songs to ensure they are heard in the right spirit. “You want people to listen with an open mind, not just get up and walk out. Most of the talk we have with people in real life is positive – even if they don’t agree with us, people who want their guns aren’t fans of them being used to kill people.
The name of the group comes from the choir of Big Spike Hammer, from the Osborne Brothers. Della Mae is an archetypal woman who wrongs her man in bluegrass songs, and they liked the idea of getting it back – as Ludiker puts it, “stand up and tell the man, you know what It’s probably your fault.
Their feminism has been a defining trait of their music – they often have audience members approach them after shows to thank them for the title track to Headlight, an anthem to women who have experienced domestic violence. On a touring circuit dominated by boy bands, playing the genre of music often referred to as “macho” and “high testosterone,” Della Mae was seen as a novelty in her early years on the road. Although, that’s nothing new for Ludiker, a fifth-generation fiddler who spent her youth competing in Texas-style fiddle competitions just like her father Tony had done before her. (His mother JayDean still teaches and competes; thanks to his parents’ efforts, Spokane, Washington is now recognized as a fiddle mecca.)
“We weren’t the first all-female bluegrass band, but we were the only ones touring at the time,” says Ludiker. This brought them welcome opportunities. It also attracted a lot of unwanted attention. Their sound engineer was constantly asked which of them he slept with; there were wandering hands and pictures of dicks, and enough attempts to follow them or enter their green room for them all to take a self-defense class.
As cultural ambassadors for the US State Department, the band has also taken bluegrass to some pretty unlikely places, including Guyana, Barbados, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. “I’m still in touch with a woman I met in Pakistan in 2012,” Woodsmith says. “She taught me to sing some of her songs. That’s the kind of connection we want, isn’t it? Friendships that can last more than a decade with very different people. Maybe when you have that, you can have a world that feels a little safer.
And yet, as she admits, there are places where Della Mae no longer feels comfortable traveling. With the return of Smith – the band’s founding guitarist left in 2011 to have his daughter – and with the arrival of mandolinist Maddie Witler, who is trans and bisexual, the band now has a large queer contingent. (Although Witler is not joining their upcoming UK dates.) “It’s sad,” Woodsmith says, “but there are places where it’s really, really unsafe for LGBTQ+ people and we’re a little more aware of the repercussions of what could happen.”
Although they are encouraged by the number of female instrumentalists they see more in bluegrass now than when they first started, their sense of mission remains. “It’s really important to us,” says Ludiker, “because without it, touring isn’t as fulfilling.”
His next plan is to form a non-profit organization that subsidizes female musicians on tour and removes one of the main excuses used by more traditional bluegrass bands for not hiring women. “A lot of people have told me the reason is that they are on a budget and having a female means an extra hotel room and not sharing with the males,” Ludiker says. “Well, we’re going to buy them this hotel room, so what’s your reason?” Because it is obviously not the lack of talent.