If Sarah Jarosz is unfamiliar to you, the support she has on her second album, released just shy of her 20th birthday, will ring lots of bells: Bela Fleck, Edgar Myers, Dan Tyminski, Shawn Colvin, Darrell Scott, Mark Shatz, Jerry Douglas, Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, and the list of guest artists just keeps going. By any measure, she’s gathered an all-star line up and then some and in so doing she has placed herself in a league of heavy hitters. Given her playing, writing and interpretive skills, that’s exactly where she deserves to be. This a young musician who seems to know who she is and where she wants to go, and who has the level of musicianship that she needs to get there.
There are only two covers on the latest album, Follow Me Down, but both are prime examples of what Jarosz is up to, which is to bring something new to something old. On her beautiful take of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells,” she arguably creates the song entirely. By presenting it in such a different way—gently, lyrically—she separates the sentiment of the piece from the peronsa of Dylan himself. There’s a lot of brilliance there, and Jarosz lets us see it. On “The Tourist”—a Radiohead song and the other cover on the release—she matches the drive, confidence, and musicianship of Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, who are featured on the track
Of course, all of that is really saying something. In the world of acoustic music, the Punch Brothers are the crest of a wave of young musicians who, with spectacular chops and equal confidence, are putting the grit and energy back into acoustic and bluegrass-based music. These are young people—Chris Thile and Michael Daves, Crooked Still, Darrell Scott, Abigail Washburn, the sadly disbanded Cadillac Sky—who not only are willing to update the tradition but are able to do it with astonishing credibility, bringing in pop elements, new instrumentation, and references from urban culture.
So too does Sarah Jarosz. Her music is challenging, layered, complex, and beautiful, and based in a broad, rich swath of American music. In Jarosz’s world the Louvin Brothers and Bill Monroe sit comfortably next to Radiohead and Tom Waits. It’s a world where old-time songs, as in the case on the haunting “Annabelle Lee,” can have a drum kit; one where she can play clawhamer banjo one moment, and a masterful mandolin duet with Mike Marshall the next.
Her writing is fresh and bold, and sparkles most when delivered in the first person as on songs like “Run Away” and “Here Nor There” (a track which, incidentally, pairs her vocal wonderfully with that of another brilliant singer and songwriter, Darrell Scott). It’s a testament to her writing that it’s hard to tell the new from the old, the originals from the covers.
In the end Jarosz reminds us that, in many ways, youth, energy, and experimentation is perhaps the only truly abiding hallmark of American music. Bill Monroe didn’t sit back and play the music from the past, rather he took those traditions and made something new. And that’s exactly what Sarah Jarosz is doing, too. It’s safe to say that, if her name is unfamiliar now, it certainly won’t be for long.