Sarah Jarosz's unbroken circle
The Charlie Daniels Band headlined Old Settler's Music Festival that year. Any Texas kid would've known "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," but Sarah Jarosz set her sights beyond that Southern standard. On her first trip to OSMF in 2001, staged at Dripping Spring's now-closed Stone Mountain Event Center, she watched picking/singing super duo Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott – playing the Bluebonnet stage this weekend, in fact. Jarosz also recalls Nickel Creek, but no Daniels Band. Sorry, Charlie.
Discerning taste for a 9-year-old, but such was the precocious music fan already. As far back as she can remember, this only child was toted to shows by her parents. Falling asleep at the Cactus Cafe listening to Bill Staines was the norm.
Her field study left a mighty impression, however, because in the next year she picked up a mandolin, found a temporary backing band, and auditioned for the inaugural OSMF Youth Talent Competition, a tradition ever since. She won. That secured Jarosz and her group of Wimberley locals, Spurs of the Moment, a spot on the 2003 lineup. At 11, she took to the Salt Lick stage for the first time, following it up with seven more appearances there over the subsequent years. Even after leaving Central Texas for the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, she returned to celebrate the festival's 25th anniversary in 2012.
"It's my home festival," Jarosz says simply, the onetime mandolin prodigy now a college graduate, two-time Grammy nominee, and newly minted New Yorker. "When I go there, I see all the musicians that were the first people I played with. I get to see my parents. It feels like a homecoming."
Build Me Up From Bones
Judging by the cover artwork from the most recent of her three LPs, Build Me Up From Bones (revisit "Texas Platters," Oct. 4, 2013), Sarah Jarosz has all the makings of a modern Victorian. Like predecessor Follow Me Down two years earlier, it frames up an austere-looking individual: composed, classic, and polished with crimson lipstick and a piercing stare. On a frigid February morning in the marbled lobby of the Sheraton in downtown Kansas City, Mo., she strikes a less Dickensian pose.
Finishing her coffee and pastry, the 22-year-old with no makeup is fresh off of a three-set run at the Folk Alliance Conference here the night before (see Earache! missive "Folk Traumatic Stress Disorder," Feb. 25). Dressed comfortably in a jean jacket for a flight to Boulder in a few hours, she smiles at her inquisitor, who's bundled up into three layers of ill-equipped winter wardrobe. Tex-pat to Tex-pat: can a Lone Star stater ever get used to the cold?
"Boston definitely kicked me into shape as far as that's concerned," she laughs. "But it still gets to me, mainly at this time of year, February, when it's been dragging on forever. I'm like, 'OK, I'm ready for my Texas sunshine.'"
Jarosz hasn't been freezing long. She's just flown in from Los Angeles, where she attended her second Grammy awards show as a nominee, the first coming her freshman year in college when a track from 2009 debut Song Up in Her Head got a nod for Best Country Instrumental Performance. This time she was nominated for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Song for her latest oeuvre's title track.
Song Up in Her Head glimpsed the mind of a prodigious, but still green, songwriter, who was just 17 at the time and already signed to respected Nashville indie Sugar Hill, where she worked with label A&R champion and producer Gary Paczosa. The album's strongest track, "Mansinneedof," has no lyrics at all, harnessing the fire-ready mandolin chops of Jarosz that were recognized by the Grammy nomination. Sophomore disc Follow Me Down extended the mando picking prowess, while two years at the prestigious New England Conservatory strengthened the singer's voice.
Build Me Up From Bones arrives with Jarosz and Paczosa's most refined arrangements and coaching from jazz vocalist Dominique Eade. It's not lost on Jarosz that studying 16th century counterpoint and Jewish music pushed the LP outside the confines of contemporary folk. Songs such as the title track and "1,000 Things" bring the genre into an urban landscape. In this case, that might be the seat of the music industry, where she presented 10 awards, mostly in the jazz category, during the Grammys' pre-telecast.
"It's the best people watching," she enthuses. "Our seat this year was right on the floor. Quincy Jones went by. Yoko Ono. It was amazing. By the end of that day you're a little shell-shocked."
Recounting the experience, she's as nonchalant as when she rattles off highlights from her whirlwind 2013: graduating, moving, touring. Jarosz reels off her life changes much like she talks about freezing temperatures with an air of adaptation. And an understanding far beyond her years.
"The Grammys are a great learning experience, just to see all the different directions that you can go in," she says. "I'm happy and honored to get to experience something like it, but it also makes me really thankful for the world I come from."
Wimberley to Carnegie
For someone raised in Wimberley's idyllic hills, Jarosz doesn't dwell on the down-home sensibilities you might expect from a virtuoso modern folker. The log cabin's become an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side and long walks in the woods are now jogs around Central Park. As it turns out, she set her sights on the big city at 15. That's when cellist Ben Sollee invited her to see the Tensions Mountain Boys, led by Nickel Creek mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, premiere a work at Carnegie's chamber music venue, Zankel Hall.
"I knew from that point on that I had to move to New York, because I just fell in love with the place," she nods.
Jarosz returned to Zankel in December, seven years after seeing Thile there. This time, she took the stage alongside him, Edgar Meyer, and Michael Daves. Texans "abroad" like to reminisce and plot their escapes back home, but not this one, who doubts a long-term return to Austin at this point in her life.
"That's not to say that I wouldn't want to go and spend a certain amount of time there, because every time I go back I'm reminded of just how much I love it and I think I never want to leave," she clarifies.
Yet, it's exactly that kind of familiarity that Jarosz hopes to avoid.
"If I get too comfortable in one place for too long, the inspiration and the drive to keep pushing starts to fade away a little bit. Not everybody is like that. Some people can have their cushy little scenario wherever they love and they can always create, but I feel like I thrive on changing it up, for better or for worse."
From a kid in the crowd to festival headliner, Jarosz keeps penning new chapters to her Austin-centric Cinderella story. To hear her tell it, said arc unfolded as naturally as if she had chosen to be an accountant. Yet that path was blazed by an unwavering dedication to craft, one that began when an eager 10-year old picked up a mandolin and a band, then found her way to the Old Settler's stage.
"I'm just happy they keep asking me back," smiles Sarah Jarosz.
Sarah Jarosz performs Saturday at Old Settler's Music Festival on the Hill Country stage, 7:05pm.