Sarah Jarosz is like a lot of her bluegrass heroes and contemporaries — busy. She spent much of 2015 on the road with I’m With Her, a collaboration with Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins and Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan. Jarosz also frequents A Prairie Home Companion, and in June, she released a new solo record, Undercurrent.
When Jarosz was just 20 years old, bluegrass legends like Chris Thile, Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan were lined up to assist with the recording of Follow Me Down, her sophomore release.
“I was recently doing an interview alongside Béla Fleck and Noam Pikelny and we were talking about this thing specifically,” she said, “about bluegrass and how it’s passed down through different generations of musician. A lot of it comes from the bluegrass festival community aspect. From the time that I was 11, every summer, I went to different festivals around — initially it was just Texas, but eventually it was Colorado and California. When you travel all over the place and run into the same people, eventually you start running into your heroes.
“I talk to someone like Sara Watkins — who I’m now in a band with — and she says that’s what they did. They’d go backstage and someone would hear that there was a little kid that could play really well. I think the old guard wants to pass along this tradition — and they don’t always want to be nice and friendly about it, but also to present it as a challenge. It creates a breeding ground for a higher level of musicianship.”
Jarosz, now 25, has shifted from those traditions a bit, but the multi-instrumentalist is still well-respected within that community — and she’s growing into a gifted lyricist.
“I don’t feel like I’m making bluegrass music anymore,” she said. “I feel like the songs I’m writing aren’t bluegrass and the traditions of Bill Monroe and five-piece bluegrass bands. Maybe I fall quicker into Americana, but even then, you start thinking about what that encompasses [and] it’s hard to really know. At the end of the day, I tend to think a lot of these things are just words. Good music is good music.”
The I’m With Her tour helped shape that direction. The time that she has spent with Watkins and O’Donovan allowed her to hone her craft alongside heroes as peers.
“I think I’ve learned how to be a better singer,” she said. “For as long as I’ve been doing this music thing, I’ve always been at the forefront of my own project, and being in the band with them was the first time that I was able to step back from it and be a team member, switch off the lead roles throughout a concert. It’s made me a better listener and a better supporter of the music, and those things will hopefully continue to grow over a lifetime. They are two people that have been musical heroes for as long as I’ve been doing this and I’ve learned a lot from both of them.”
She also plans to remain a part of the revamped Prairie Home Companion when it’s taken over by Watkins’ Nickel Creek bandmate Chris Thile later this year.
“I’m going to be a part of his first two shows, and then I’ll be back on the road for my own thing,” she said. “But I’ll definitely be more involved come January. It’s an interesting spot to be in right now, because I was fortunate enough to have spent so much time with Garrison [Keillor, longtime host of Prairie Home Companion] and there are a lot of feelings involved. [I’m] feeling very nostalgic about seeing the end of one thing while also being excited about the beginning of another thing.”
Before she begins that other thing, though, Jarosz will visit Birmingham in support of her new record on a co-headlining bill with Parker Millsap, whose album The Very Last Day was nominated for Americana Album of the Year (an award that went to Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free earlier this week). Jarosz and Millsap’s detour to the Magic City comes at the end of the weeklong Americana Fest in Nashville.
“We met through Gary Paczosa, who produced Parker’s latest record, and he was producing mine,” she said of her friendship with Millsap. “And when we were in the studio making my record, I was trying to do some cowrites. Gary suggested that I meet up with Parker in Nashville, and we ended up writing the song ‘Coming Undone,’ which is on my new record. That same week, me and Sara and Aoife sang some of the harmonies on his record. We became buddies pretty quickly and thought it would be fun to go on the road together and maybe get to sing a little together, too.”
Sarah Jarosz and Parker Millsap come to Saturn on Sunday, September 25. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.