Album review: Della Mae’s ‘Headlight’ illuminates, inspires

Della Mae follows the release of its breakout album “Headlight” with an appearance this spring at the WinterWonderGrass festival at Squaw Valley.

“Headlight” radiates 12 vivid signs of the incredible drive behind Della Mae. Enthralling by way of their exquisite, arresting voices and fleet-fingered string movements, these ladies also very clearly stand for women with zero tolerance zeal.

Della Mae comprises Celia Woodsmith on guitars, Kimber Ludiker on fiddles and guitars, and Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolins. They’re joined by several auxiliary players and guest singers on what is absolutely their breakthrough album. Hot on the heels of last year’s excellent “Butcher Shoppe” EP, Della Mae upended the bluegrass groundwork they built themselves upon, and shook it all around.

What fell perfectly into place is a unique and engaging palette of colors and song structures at once delicate and gritty and time-honored and daring. Woodsmith’s “Headlight” sets it in play just that way. Inspired by her rage at the injustice she felt watching the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings, she turns a harrowing situation into a plea for bravery and leadership. Bluegrass, folk and rock ‘n’ roll mix with ease in it, and Woodsmith practically bursts with passion at the climax.

 “Change” then settles down in the bottoms, a backwater blues as if played in a dilapidated church. Gospel harmonies by the McCrary Sisters, and Ludiker emulating a crying spirit with her peals of fiddle, complete the picture. “The Long Game” could be about the band, or a mate. Either way, commitment to self and team plays out elegantly, the lush melodies calling to mind California’s Laurel Canyon circa 1965.

The textures are smooth and contemporary for the cleverly-titled and incredibly gorgeous “The Odds of Getting Even,” and in “It’s about Time,” the melody and harmonies are at once tied to classic soul, and not tied to it. “Peg Monster” hammers Cajun and Celtic shapes into a square dance bluegrass stomper, and “First Song Dancer” honky-tonks down Nashville’s main drag.

There’s not a wasted second throughout these 42 minutes of something for everyone. Della Mae flat-out thrills with chops, rock-solid songs, and strength in purpose.

— Tom Clarke 

Della Mae
‘Headlight’
Label:
Rounder
Release: Jan. 17, 2020
Live performance: WinterWonderGrass 2020, Squaw Valley - March 26-29

ABOUT Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke
From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 23 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, and the 45-year timelines and ever-growing family trees of The Allman Brothers Band and Los Lobos. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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