Review: Della Mae – Headlight

Della Mae’s recent album, Headlight, their first full-length release in over five years (though they did release the highly regarded EP Butcher Shoppe last year), finds the band breaking bluegrass tradition and exploring new areas both lyrically and musically in a departure from their traditional roots. Mixing decidedly non-bluegrass instruments such as electric guitar, keyboards and drums with more conventional bluegrass instrumentation, the band’s genre-busting sound supports the emotional and politically tinged lyrics of the record. Songs such as the title track, “Headlight,” about Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing and Christine Blasey Ford’s courage in standing up to abuse offer a bold statement about today’s political climate and the determination and strength of the women of the #metoo movement. Other songs are much more personal, including the somber “Change” about the loss of a loved one, and “Waiting For You” which details Woodsmith’s struggle with infertility.

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“I Like It When You’re Home”

Della Mae found their roots in the Boston bluegrass scene in 2009. Founded by two-time national fiddle champion Kimber Ludiker, Amanda Kowalski, Grace van’t Hof, and Avril Smith, the band has seen several personnel changes through the past several years. Today, Della Mae includes Ludiker, lead vocalist and guitarist Celia Woodsmith and mandolinist Jenny Lyn Gardner. They are joined on Headlight by guest musicians including a number of people that joined the band at a December, 2018 writing retreat at MOXE, a women-owned creative space in Nashville. Jen Gunderman (Shery Crow) adds keyboards to several tracks, and Gospel legends the McCrary sisters sing harmony on many of the songs.

Produced by Dan Knobler (Lake Street Dive, Caroline Spence), Headlight does not sound like a bluegrass record. Layered effects and rock and roll textures push Della Mae more towards being a rock band than a bluegrass band; not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just not what I was expecting when I gave Headlight a first listen. That being said, Headlight is a very good album. Bluegrass traditionalists, like me, may need an open mind when listening to this record, but it’s well worth exploring outside your comfort zone.

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