Cowgirl In A Bluegrass Band: Della Mae's Wyoming Connection

Jan 24, 2014

A bluegrass band with Wyoming connections will be holding its breath at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night. That’s because Della Mae’s recording ‘This World Oft Can Be’ is up for Best Bluegrass Album. Wyoming Public Radio’s Micah Schweizer reports.

MICAH SCHWEIZER: Late last year, late at night, the band was on the road in Tennessee when they heard the news. Shelby Means, who plays bass and sings harmony, says the band was packed into a van with their soundman at the wheel.

SHELBY MEANS: “And all of a sudden Jenny Lynn just started screaming, and she has the highest loudest scream out of all of us girls. And I was like, ‘What, what? Oh my god, what’s going on? Are you OK?’ And she said “I just got an email. Jim sent us an email and said we were nominated for a Grammy. ‘Congratulations on the Grammy nomination!’”

BILL MCKAY: “And the girls about ran off the road screaming in the van. Yeah, it was just amazing. And they’re still completely bowled over by that and still completely modest about it.”

SCHWEIZER: Laramie musician Bill McKay has known Shelby Means since she was a kid, and he wrote the song that closes the album. He says the Grammy nomination capped off a very good year for Della Mae in 2013.

MCKAY: “I mean, they were still giddy from the fact that they had [guitarist] Bryan Sutton produce their album and had a Rounder [Records] contract. That was enough joy for them for one year, and then before you know it, they won Emerging Artist of the Year at IBMA [International Bluegrass Music Association], and that was huge…”

SCHWEIZER: Della Mae was the idea of champion fiddler Kimber Ludiker. In 2009, she started gathering together some of her favorite players: mandolinist Jenny Lynn Gardner and guitarists Celia Woodsmith and Courtney Hartman. (Hartman’s from Colorado’s Front Range and is another of what McKay calls his musical nieces.)

[Song: Empire]

SCHWEIZER: Shelby Means is the most recent addition to the band. She joined about a year ago, right before ‘This World Oft Can Be’—the band’s second full-length album—was recorded. She was born in Lexington, Kentucky, which she says gives her some bluegrass cred. But she grew up in Laramie, in musical family, jamming with her dad and Bill McKay in the Big Hollow Bluegrass Band and playing in a band with her brother, Jacob. After graduating from the University of Wyoming, she made the plunge and moved to Nashville.

MCKAY: “I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous. She went off on this road trip with this kind of original quasi rock and roll band, playing some not very wholesome kind of joints. Her mother was pretty panicked. And I wasn’t sure, but boy, when I saw that she had toughed it out, it took a lot of gumption for that kid to be in that band and stick it out.”

SCHWEIZER: The members of Della Mae have diverse backgrounds in various roots music, like bluegrass, old-time and Texas fiddle, and blues-rock. Means says that’s a strength.

MEANS: “We’re proud of the fact that we have these different backgrounds and can mix them together to create a unique sound that’s fresh but also rooted in our tradition.”

[Song: Paper Prince]

SCHWEIZER: The making of ‘This World Oft Can Be’ was certainly a rooted experience. It was recorded at the atmospheric Cash Cabin Studios, built by Johnny Cash.

MEANS: “And so we knew we were going into that really special place and we felt the pressure to make something really cool.”

SCHWEIZER: The most intimate experience comes at the end of the album. The five women of Della Mae crowd around one microphone late at night to record a song written by Bill McKay, voices rising above the plucking of June Carter Cash’s guitar.

[Song: Some Roads Lead On]

MEANS: “The vibes in the cabin were so crazy. It felt like June Carter might have been there with us.”

SCHWEIZER: The band’s attention is already on a new album planned for release in 2015. But at the Grammy Awards on Sunday, Shelby Means and her colleagues from Della Mae will have a chance to reflect on how far they’ve already come. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Micah Schweizer.