With a descending circular flourish of acoustic guitar notes, the bluegrass influence on Follow Me Down is evident, but the almost weightlessness suggests something else, something perhaps more. By the time the husky alto voice comes in, inviting us to “Follow me down through the cotton fields/ Moon shadow shine by the well/ Lead us down a road, where no one goes, we can run away…,” the bewitchment is complete.
Sarah Jarosz, now 19, made quite a mark two years ago with Song Up In Her Head, but rather than hone the traditional Appalachian discipline, the sensualist singer explores the possibilities of acoustic/roots music — conjuring songscapes, erotic tableau and enough tension to hold listeners transfixed throughout Follow Me Down.
Largely self-penned — save for a shimmering rendition of Bon Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” featuring vocals from Vince Gill and a lean, brooding meander through Radiohead’s minor-keyed gem “The Tourist” with the Punch Brothers, plus a banjo-and-fiddle-strewn haunter based on Edgar Allan Poe’s elegiac poem “Annabel Lee” made all the more haunting by Dan Tyminski’s counterpoint vocals — these songs could serve as a map to the bohemian gypsy heart of a young woman coming into her own. They’re rife with desire, hope, the hunger to see what the world holds, a little uncertainty and always the exultant joy that can be found in the playing.
The percolating rhythms of “Come To Me” — all bursts of cello, banjo notes and down-stroked guitar — move under the songwriter’s sense of unmooring in the vastness and the anchor of another. There is the doubt of how to move through the world and the questioning of the solidity of another answered, as the emergence of self-reliance provides the ultimate liberation.
Again relying on her core players — Alex Hargreaves and Nathaniel Smith — Jarosz expands her songs by enlisting the Punch Brothers, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Viktor Krauss and Edgar Meyers for an album where the playing is as engaging as the tales she sings. An accomplished musician who moves from clawhammer banjo to Wurlitzer, electric guitar to octave mandolin to — yes — toy piano, what falls from her fingerstips is as evocative as the words she offers to explain the world around her.
From Wimberly, Texas, where the countryside rolls endlessly and vastness invites a certain dreaminess, as well as a need to be present, Jarosz has synthesized opposing realities into a textured whole. She matches a reeling instrumental like “Old Smitty” with the classic singer/songwriter stylings of “My Muse,” an etherlike intoxication that draws the listener by the ear, then the heart and finally the brain. Somewhere in between those aesthetics is the folk/Appalachian “Here Nor There,” a dobro-defined examination of elusiveness heightened by Darrell Scott’s back-holler harmonies pressing against her feathery alto.
With so much ground covered without the usual jarring disconnect, Jarosz closes Follow Me Down with an instrumental meditation of mandolin, cello, wood flute and violin called “Peace.” A settling coda for the journey, it suggests quiet places to consider all that has been revealed — and offers her fans a sense that the dream has only just begun.