Della Mae- Headlight review

Della Mae Headlight Rounder Records

Walking in the footsteps of a woman I don’t know
And though we’ve been moving slow we’ve gotten somewhere
Walking in the footsteps of a woman I haven’t met
But I’ve seen her on the internet a-crying.

These words open the latest album from Della Mae. It is a powerful initial statement, one that becomes stronger with the chorus:

And if it hasn’t happened to you, it will happen to your sister,
And if it hasn’t happened to her, it will happen to another
So be a Headlight in this dark night
They might not believe you, but I do.
You are a Headlight in this dark night
They might not believe you, but I do.

And with that we have the strongest Americana statement we thought we would never hear, at least until The Dixie Chicks decided to record again. (Imagine my surprise when “Gaslighter” hit this last week.)

Della Mae, while retaining more bluegrass elements within their music than The Dixie Chicks, have certainly moved along on the ‘big tent’ bluegrass spectrum. Not a criticism, just a descriptor. The bluegrass instruments are present, with Celia Woodsmith (acoustic guitar) singing the leads alongside Kimber Ludiker (fiddle and guitar) and Jenni Lyn Gardner (mandolins). Zoe Guigueno (URB) also remains from last year’s The Butcher Shoppe as does Avril Smith (electric and acoustic guitars). Jen Gunderman adds piano, organ, synths, vibraphone, and more, while Jamie Dick drums. Producer Dan Knobler also contributes guitars.

Obviously, these additions are going to change the sound if not the heart. Straight-ahead Americana perhaps, Headlight has sonic elements one wouldn’t be surprised to hear coming from Kacey Musgraves, Ashley McBryde, and Maren Morris. Or The Dixie Chicks.

“The Long Game” benefits from the expanded palate Della Mae utilizes throughout the set; the percussive effects (vibraphone, maybe) and Ludiker’s sweeping fiddle add a great deal to the number. “The Long Game” (co-written by Ludiker, Mark Erelli, and Jon Weisberger) and “Working (co-written by Woodsmith and Erelli) are about perseverance and the musician’s road: from what I am led to understand, “I’m nine years in to a five year plan” sums up almost every working songwriter’s experience, while “It took a while to learn just to have faith, takes as long as it takes” captures the intense passion that separates the performers who pack it in from those who endure. Why do they do it? Because they have to.

Further separating Headlight from previous Della Mae releases is the presence of the always welcome McCrary Sisters on three tracks, “Working,” “It’s About Time,” and “Change.” The McCrarys have long elevated every song on which they appear, and that holds true here.

Woodsworth contributes additional highlights. Several of the songs are testament to the power these ladies possess, while also revealing their vulnerable sides. “I Like It When You’re Home” is fierce and fun, a lively romp that realizes two are better than one, but “Waiting For You” is pure anguish, revealing the hidden emotional scars of her infertility. The album’s closing number, “I Can’t Pretend,” takes a long view at society, family, and relationships: moving from the first person to the universal, Woodsworth challenges, “We can’t pretend, saints we’ve always been; But those who hold the power should listen and amend.”

Not everything is heavy. Woodsmith’s “Wild One” and her co-write with Ludiker “First Song Dancer” are lighter, “Wild One” featuring a funky rock ‘n’ roll stomp amplified by mandolin. Suzi Quatro would be proud of it: “If you hit us, we’ll hit back!” The cadence and mood of “First Song Dancer” is sassy and sultry: “Though she’s a bit overzealous, you’re secretly jealous.”

Gardner has a single co-write. Written with Melody Walker (Front Country) “It’s About Time” is a gem hidden mid-set: bluesy and soulful. Ludiker’s “Peg Monster” is a lively instrumental, and reminds us that Della Mae is first and foremost a bluegrass band.

The album’s two non-originals, “The Odds of Getting Even” and “Change” sit comfortably with the bulk of the album. The former was written by Maya de Vitry (The Stray Birds) and Caitlin Canty, the latter by Tony Kamel (Wood & Wire). Good choices.

I’ve long advocated for Della Mae. Through their ongoing mission “to showcase top female musicians, and to improve opportunities for women and girls through advocacy, mentorship, programming, and performance,” they have positively impacted bluegrass music as I understand it. With their fourth long player they broaden their repertoire even further afield, and do a damn fine job doing so. A highlight of 2020’s Americana and bluegrass-adjacent offerings.

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