Sarah Jarosz’s Bluegrass Style to Blend with Sounds of Amici New York at OK Mozart

GTR Newspapers – Sarah Jarosz, this year’s cross-over artist for the annual OK Mozart Festival in Bartlesville, June 7-14, is an American musician and singer-songwriter born in Austin and raised in Wimberley, Texas. In spite of her Texas upbringing, she says she’s Polish–at least her last name is Polish.

This rising young star has been called a “songwriter of uncommon wisdom” by the Austin Chronicle, and she was described by the New York Times as “one of acoustic music’s most promising young talents: a sing-songwriter and mandolin and banjo prodigy with taste and poise.”

Sarah began learning the mandolin at age 10 and later started learning to play the guitar, claw hammer banjo and octave mandolin. It was during her senior year of high school that she turned 18, and signed a recording contract with Sugar Hill Records. Her debut album, Song Up in Her Head, was released in June of 2009 and reviewed in Rolling Stone magazine, where she was dubbed “a contemporary-bluegrass prodigy.”

Graduating from high school, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music, the oldest free-standing music school in the country – not a place that not long ago one would be likely to find a blue-grass-trained artist. But, like the artist herself, the school is stretching.

As Sarah explains, “The program I was in was called Contemporary Improvisation, and was kind of [for] the development of your personal style.” For example, one year she was in a world music ensemble and a Jewish music ensemble, which, she says, “was really fun, like kiezmer and Yiddish folk music – and, as vocalist, [it] really pushed me to use my voice in a way I’d normally never use my singing voice.”

It was her moody, clear-toned voice that caught the attention of talent scout Gary Paczosa at a music festival in the Rocky Mountain canyon of Telluride. Paczosa, producer to Alison Krauss and other bluegrass-based musicians, signed Sarah to a record deal when she was just 16, and has worked in the studio with her ever since.

He was pleased that his young protégé opted for college rather than rush into a full-time stage career, although he did voice misgivings about her choice of a classical conservatory. He feared they would change what she naturally does. “Balancing a music career and college simultaneously was nothing short of challenging. But now that I’ve graduated, I’m incredibly glad I decided to go that route,” she says. “That being said, I managed to keep both going pretty full force. Obviously there were time when I had to say no to a gig in order to fulfill my school requirements…there wasn’t a lot of down time at all, but in retrospect, it was totally worth it.”

In fact, Sarah thinks the conservatory has made her feel more confident in her singing and versatile in her writing. The folk influences still shine through as she plays her banjo in pre-bluegrass style and channels Edgar Allen Poe. Interestingly, she also composes what some have referred to as “chamber-grass.” “I could see why people might use that term to describe my music, although it wouldn’t be my choice of terminology,” she says. “I think they’re referring to the use of bowed instruments. I play in a trio with Alex Hargreaves and Nathaniel Smith who play violin and cello, so naturally there are a lot of string-heavy arrangements. When you combine that with the instruments I play (mandolin, banjo, guitar) then you get a unique texture and sonic combo that draws from different genres. [That’s] why some might liken it to the sound of ‘bluegrass’ combined with [chamber music].

She also plays octave mandolin with bass, cello, violin and dobro star, Jerry Douglas, a pioneer of this hybrid American sound.

A subject of debate for some time is exactly what is and isn’t appropriate in bluegrass. “I would say my music fit into the Folk and Americana realm. I really don’t consider the songs I’m writing to fit into the Bluegrass genre in the traditional sense of the term… I’m often hesitant to refer to genres at all because I feel they can be so limiting to someone’s sound.”

Of those who depart from bluegrass orthodoxy, Sarah is part of a skilled generation of players in that as they emerge, more established fine-arts music communities such as the OK Mozart Festival are meeting them halfway.

In 2010 she recorded the album Follow Me Down, which was recorded in Nashville and features guest musicians Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Viktor Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Shawn Colvin, Darrell Scott and bandmates Alex Hargreaves and Nathaniel Smith. A session with the Punch Brothers in New York produced a cover of the Radiohead song, “The Tourist.”

Now, at age 22 and already a three-time Grammy nominee, Sarah Jarosz creates sonic atmospheres that shimmer with equal parts acoustic majesty and electrifying mystery. “That’s the wonderful thing about music – it’s a never-ending journey of discovery, and chances are, there always something out there that you haven’t heard,” she concludes.