‘I couldn’t even find enough women to form a band’: Della Mae’s battle for a bluegrass breakthrough

Show caption ‘You want people to listen with an open mind’ … Della Mae (L-R) Kimber Ludiker, Maddie Witler, Celia Woodsmith, Avril Smith, Vickie Vaughn. Photograph: Amanda Kowalski Music ‘I couldn’t even find enough women to form a band’: Della Mae’s battle for a bluegrass breakthrough Known for their riotous shows, the Grammy-nominated US group have also been kicking up dust by singing about subjects from domestic abuse to mass shootings and the BLM movement Emma John Wed 24 Aug 2022 15.00 BST Share on Facebook

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When fiddle player Kimber Ludiker visited Colorado last month, she had just spent 10 days in bed with Covid. “The altitude was really hard on my poor recovering lungs,” says Ludiker, one of the founding members of bluegrass band Della Mae. But the trip was too special to miss: she and Avril Smith, her bandmate and partner, were taking Smith’s 11-year-old daughter to see the Chicks. “And honestly,” says Ludiker, “there would be no Della Mae without the Chicks.”

In the same way that the Dallas trio broke new ground to dominate country music, Della Mae have become the most influential all-women band in bluegrass. And as a majority queer, fiercely feminist five-piece acoustic outfit, they also sing fearlessly on topics that might rile the genre’s traditionally conservative audiences. Recent albums have covered everything from domestic violence and fertility issues to the separation of families at the US border with Mexico. They also play barnstorming numbers about motorbikes and bourbon.

Their live shows are foot-stomping, crowd-pleasing riots, full of the kind of high-octane instrumental skills that the band – now in its twelfth year and its third incarnation – was always intended to showcase. Ludiker has always been frustrated at the lack of female representation in music, where women are still most usually seen in the guise of lead singers or backing vocalists. “It was hard for me to even think about being involved in music when across most genres you don’t see women who are sidemen,” she says, before catching herself. “And that’s the word we use! Side musicians.”

Family reunion … Della Mae performing earlier this year. Photograph: Rich Baum Photography 2021

In 2009, Ludiker booked a gig at a dive bar in Boston with the purpose of exhibiting the talent of bluegrass-playing women: “I couldn’t even find enough women to form a band on that particular day, so we got our friend Dominick Leslie, who had really long hair at the time, to play too.” As the project got more serious, Ludiker reached out to Celia Woodsmith, who was on the point of quitting her rock band to return to college. “I was really interested in farming and local food systems,” says Woodsmith, the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter. “I’m sure in a parallel universe another Celia’s working for a women’s NGO and just as happy, but I’m still glad I’m in this one.”

After Della Mae signed with Rounder, their very first album with the label – This World Oft Can Be – was nominated for a Grammy. Two years ago, they released Headlight, a soul-stirring collection of songs about being a woman in modern America that took their acoustic sound further into Americana territory with its mix of gospel, rock and funk. Their fifth and most recent album includes swing, waltz and honky tonk alongside its bluegrass vibe; it’s called Family Reunion for the joy they felt at being reunited in the studio after the pandemic.

One track that has become a radio favourite in the US is Ride Away, loosely inspired by Richard Thompson’s classic 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. It’s Woodsmith’s attempt to write her own motorcycle tale of tragedy, although in classic Della Mae style there’s a very emphatic commentary hidden within it on how parents pass down their wounds to their children. Meanwhile, The Way It Was Before covers modern slavery, mass shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement. “There’s a lot of flashpoints in America and we managed to choose all of them,” says Woodsmith. Among the true stories it tells is that of Kevin Mahoney, who had just found out he was going to become a grandfather when he was killed alongside nine others in a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado.

Woodsmith says writing the song was a “very tender” process, but its first performance was even more poignant, at a festival just one town along from where Mahoney was murdered. “There were people in the audience who had been personally affected by that tragedy,” says Ludiker. “Performing it in that context was really intense.” Sometimes, especially when they are performing in more conservative regions, they will strategise how they introduce their more political songs to ensure they’re heard in the right spirit. “You want people to listen with an open mind, not just get up and walk out. Most of the discourse we have with people in real life is positive – even if they disagree with us, people who want their guns aren’t fans of them being used to kill people.”

The band’s name comes from the chorus of Big Spike Hammer, by the Osborne Brothers. Della Mae is an archetype of the woman who does her man wrong in bluegrass songs, and they liked the idea of reclaiming it – as Ludiker says, “standing up and saying to the man, you know what? It’s probably your fault.”

Their feminism has been a defining character of their music – they often have audience members approach them after shows to thank them for the title track of Headlight, an anthem to women who have suffered domestic abuse. On a touring circuit dominated by male bands, playing the kind of music frequently referred to as “macho” and “high-testosterone”, Della Mae were considered a novelty in their early years on the road. Although this wasn’t new to Ludiker, a fifth-generation fiddler who spent her youth competing in Texas-style fiddle contests, just as her father Tony had before her. (Her mother JayDean still teaches and competes; thanks to her parents’ efforts, Spokane, Washington is now renowned as a fiddling mecca.)

“We weren’t the first all-female bluegrass band, but we were the only one touring at the time” says Ludiker. It brought them welcome opportunities. It also brought plenty of unwanted attention. Their sound engineer was constantly asked which of them he was sleeping with; there were wandering hands and dick pics, and enough attempts to follow them or get into their green room that they all took a self-defence course.

As cultural ambassadors for the US state department, the band have also taken bluegrass to some pretty unlikely places, including Guyana, Barbados, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. “I’m still in touch with a woman I met in Pakistan in 2012,” says Woodsmith. “She’s been teaching me how to sing some of her songs. That’s the type of connection we want, isn’t it? Friendships that can last over a decade with people who are vastly different. Maybe when you have that you can have a world that feels a little safer.”

And yet, as she acknowledges, there are places that Della Mae no longer feel comfortable travelling. With the return of Smith – the band’s founding guitarist left in 2011 to have her daughter – and with the arrival of mandolinist Maddie Witler, who identifies as queer and is bisexual, the band now has a major queer contingent. (Though Witler isn’t joining their upcoming UK dates.) “It’s sad,” says Woodsmith, “but there are places where it is really and truly not safe for LGBTQ+ people and we’re a bit more aware of the repercussions of what could happen.”

While they are encouraged by how many more female instrumentalists they see in bluegrass now compared to when they started, their sense of mission remains. “It’s really important to us,” says Ludiker, “because without that touring doesn’t feel as fulfilling.”

Her next plan is to form a non-profit organisation that subsidises female touring musicians and take away one of the main excuses used by the more traditional bluegrass bands for not hiring women. “A lot of people have told me the reason is because they’re on a budget and having a woman means an extra hotel room and not sharing with the men,” says Ludiker. “Well, we’ll buy that hotel room for them, so now what’s your reason? Because obviously it’s not the lack of talent.”

• Della Mae’s UK tour begins at Caroline Street Social Club in Shipley on 25 August.

• This article was amended on 25 August 2022 to reflect that Maddie Wither prefers to identify as queer and bisexual.

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