Della Mae formed as a joke, a lark, a fun way for a bunch of friends to make music together.
After a few gigs, though, National Fiddle Champion and founder Kimber Ludiker and her bandmates realized they had tapped into a musical wellspring. That’s when they became Della Mae, named after lyrics to an Osborne Brothers song, and got serious about their sound. Little did they know how seriously the world would take them.
“I think more than anything I am really proud of the band, how far we have come in such a short time,” says Ludiker of the Boston-born, Nashville-based quartet. “When we started, we were thinking we were a bluegrass band. But now when we’re writing, we’re putting everyone’s influences into the music. We have done so much traveling and experienced so much that most people don’t get to experience in their lifetimes we’ve become a true family.”
That’s not hyperbole. In the last few years, Della Mae has traveled to 18 countries on four continents as part of the American Music Abroad program created by the U.S. Department of State—a collaborative community outreach that put the members at music workshops and performances at schools, orphanages and other gathering places for women and children.
“Every city has us do one show and in each show a local band collaborates with us,” she says. “It’s all about sharing our lives and their lives.”
Although Della Mae sounds as if they have played together forever, the group just formed in 2009 as Big Spike Hammer (from the same Osborne Brothers song). The members dressed in power suits and told everyone they played the completely self-defined “Mangrass.”
Staying together and morphing into Della Mae was perhaps the best way for the young musicians to realize their individual artistry. In many ways their reward is their recently released self-titled third album, which Ludiker calls its most collaborative work.
Although she cautions fans that it is a bit of a departure from the band’s previous bluegrass roots, the recording has enough catchy hooks, soaring harmonies and twang to satisfy longtime fans.
And, yes, tracks such as “Boston Town” and “Good Blood” tilt toward straight Americana, but the funky fiddle and mandolin lead straight back to the group’s bluegrass roots.
Perhaps the best part of the album, though, is the heavy-duty infusion of blues in several tracks including “Rude Awakening” and “Shambles,” in which lead singer Celia Woodsmith channels the vocal power of Bonnie Raitt with the haunting melancholy of Joan Osborne.
“We’re not trying to fit into a certain genre,” Ludiker says. “We’re just writing music and using everyone’s influences to make it the best possible.”
“Long Shadow,” a slow-burning late album track on Della Mae, serves as a prime example. Guitarist Courtney Hartman wrote the song while reflecting on Natasha, a young woman they met in Pakistan during a State Department trip.
“The image of a long shadow came from me envisioning trees at the end of the day. That was the original picture I had,” Hartman says, noting Natasha had taught Della Mae a powerful prayer song. “But the more I wrote, the more I thought of Natasha…as a tree that is standing tall and casting long shadows on each of us.”
Fully immersing themselves in the music program has allowed Della Mae’s members both musical and personal growth.
“I think the most important thing we have come to realize is that whatever negative associations you think people in other countries have toward Americans, Americans have an equal amount of [misinformation and negativity] toward them,” Ludiker says. “There is always this element of fear until you travel and experience those cultures for yourself.”
And that, clearly, is no joke.