I was visiting my family’s home over Thanksgiving some years ago, and the house was alive with the sound of young people. My son and many nieces and nephews were there, with friends in tow, all congregated in the large kitchen eating leftovers and conversing at full volume. I was in another room playing my banjo, when a young girl in her teens came in, sat down, and started watching me play. She was an extra – a friend that had been dragged along – and when she went back in to the kitchen, I heard her say, “I have got to learn to play the banjo. All the cool kids are doing it!”
In this time of musical mixing, we see bluegrass artists reaching into the Americana world where they hope to find a larger audience, and performers from outside our realm reaching in for some grassy goodness. Many’s the folk, country, or pop singer who has decided that their career wasn’t complete without a bluegrass record, a sentiment we heartily endorse. Everybody into the pool – the water’s fine!
The latest we have seen is successful folk artist Mara Levine, who has felt called to the bluegrass tradition for her upcoming Facets of Folk album, due early in 2018. A debut single, You Reap What You Sow, has just been released to radio. Mara says that soon as she heard the song, which she found within a pair of CDs she received from songwriter Sue Shann, she knew that she wanted to record it, and that it needed a bluegrass treatment.
So she set out to find the best musicians to suit the song, and ended up recording it with a batch of Nashville super pickers. Scott Vestal is on banjo, with Rob Ickes on reso-guitar, Andy Leftwich on mandolin, Mark Schatz on bass, and Bob Harris on guitar. To help with vocal harmonies, she enlisted Mollie O’Brien and Greg Blake, and the result is a lovely arrangement with Mara’s clear, folk-style voice atop a bluegrass place setting.
When we spoke not long ago, Levine admitted that the bluegrass world was new to her, and that she was a bit apprehensive initially about approaching it, but that everyone had been welcoming and helpful, and she was now eager to gauge the reaction to the single.
“I loved the melody, especially on the bridge. I love to invite audience participation and the chorus was catchy, singable and the entire song resonated with me as a positive message about doing your best at whatever you do and reaping the rewards or fruits of your labors. One could also interpret the song to mean caring for others and nurturing relationships, in particular, keeping your word and your commitments and that this will be returned to you in kind.”