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In the thoroughly collaborative bluegrass world, where musicians continually embark on new lineups and side projects with kindred pickers in their circles, it's hardly a given that a band would last a decade — especially one with a beginning as facetious as Della Mae's. Early on in the tenure of what was once the only string band on the circuit made up entirely of women, fiddle-playing founder Kimber Ludiker was often called upon to recount the group's origin story. In once such telling, she wrote, "When I started this band, I started it actually as a joke. Late at night with a group of friends at a music camp in California, we were joking around about how fun it would be to start an all-female bluegrass band that played high-testosterone, really fast bluegrass music — what we called 'mangrass.'"
The hook wasn't merely that the women in the band would be playing instruments people were accustomed to seeing in the hands of men. It was also the chosen musical approach: They would perform with a virtuosic, hard-driving vigor presumed to be a masculine domain. (Recall that Alison Krauss, by far the biggest female star to emerge from a contemporary bluegrass background, has received far more recognition for applying ethereal refinement to her interpretations of sophisticated ballads than for displaying hearty mastery on fiddle.)
When it came to actually hashing out the musical identity of Della Mae, Ludiker and founding mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner took a cue from what helped the foundational progressive bluegrass outfit New Grass Revival broaden its audience in the '80s: putting a blue-eyed soul singer out front, as opposed to a vocalist with a high-and-lonesome, rawboned attack. Celia Woodsmith, who'd cut her teeth in blues-rock, became Della Mae's lead singer, bringing with her sensual, theatrical grit.
Those three and a revolving cast of additional members — who until fairly recently included guitarist Courtney Hartman — released three albums that blended bluegrass sensibilities with the stylistic permissiveness of Americana. The most recent, an accomplished self-titled 2015 set produced by alt-rock specialist Jacquire King, expanded on Appalachian hardiness with chamber-folk arrangements, singer-songwriter introspection, gently atmospheric studio effects and hopped-up blues melodies and rhythms.
On The Butcher Shoppe EP, its return to recording after a hiatus, Della Mae seems to have narrowed its priorities to one: showcasing its combination of playfulness and muscle as a performing unit. Producing themselves, Woodsmith, Gardner, Ludiker and current bassist Zoe Guigueno rolled through six songs in a little more than a day, two of them live favorites culled from the classic-rock and folk canons.
From the opening lines of "Sixteen Tons," the coal miner's lament traditionally delivered with a touch of wearied stoicism, Woodsmith's jazzy phrasing saunters behind the airily swinging time-keeping of touring guitarist Avril Smith. After a string of sly soloing on mandolin, guitar and banjo — banjo courtesy of esteemed guest Alison Brown — Woodsmith summons worldly-wise note bending and a guttural growl for the song's most tough-talking lines: "I've got one fist of iron, and the next fist of steel / If the right one don't get you, then the left one will." "Whipping Post," the Allman Brothers tune that laid out the template for blues-rock's epic, escalating spectacles of emotional suffering — a virile form of melodrama — is a chance for the group to build tension with a roiling groove and vamp with feverish precision, while Woodsmith attacks the familiar words lustily.
"Bourbon Hound" is one of her compositions, a frolicsome ode to liquor with the zip of a western swing/rockabilly hybrid, while "No-See-Um Stomp," a fiddle-led instrumental by Ludiker, hurtles from one shrewd, brisk solo to the next, eventually arriving at an inventive twin guitar passage, played by Avril and another guest, Molly Tuttle. The group dares to tackle "Sleep With One Eye Open," a bluegrass standard from the Flatt & Scruggs catalog, with an energetic performance, through which Ludiker's improvised fiddle break slices through with a bracing, unexpected counterpoint to the melody. It may be a short recording, but the sort of musical wit and showmanship that can stir up crowds isn't in short supply.