Traditionally, bluegrass has been a male-dominated musical field. But as the genre that began in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1940s grew and developed, female musicians have increasingly made their mark. And in 2009, the all-woman Boston-based group Della Mae came on the scene. Founded by fiddler Kimber Ludiker, Della Mae has released six albums plus a pandemic-era on-demand concert film. With the group’s enthusiastic return to live-and-in-person performance, I spoke to Ludiker ahead of Della Mae’s performance at this year’s Earl Scruggs Festival.
You had the original idea for Della Mae nearly 15 years ago. How has the group changed musically since those days?
We were a pretty traditional bluegrass band at the beginning. Our lineup evolved and solidified, and now we have a lot of people in the band who love to write, so we started to build a large repertoire of original music.
Just a few years after forming, Della Mae scored a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album (2014). How did that high-profile recognition affect the group’s career direction?
We were very proud Grammy losers! A nomination is such an honor. It gives validity to what you’re doing. So at that point in our career, it was like, “Oh! People are paying attention; what we’re doing is important.” It definitely changed our outlook on our purpose. Because we’re not only a band, we’re a band with a mission statement. It’s very important for us to be encouraging girls and young women to play music and have a career in the creative arts. And the Grammy nomination added fuel to the fire for us to keep doing what we were doing.
Tell me more about the band’s mission and advocacy.
One of our goals is to make music more accessible to people. We’re always advocating for women; hopefully we’ll inspire young girls to pick up an instrument. We’re also involved in running camps. I personally run two, plus I’m the co-director of Kids on Bluegrass for the IBMA.
We like to branch out into different areas, too. We’re always advocating for more diversity – more women, more people of color – onstage. Any time we can get a seat at the table to help people understand the importance of diversity, we take that opportunity.
In 2013, the group embarked upon a 43-day international tour, sponsored by the U.S. State Department; you visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. What was it like being cultural ambassadors?
Traveling to the Middle East and Central Asia with the State Department has been some of the most meaningful work Della Mae has done. It meant a lot to have the opportunity to connect with young women and girls in these countries: to listen to them, and to play music for them and with them. These experiences led us to realize just how much music is a universal language and a great healer. In some places we’ve been, women standing on a stage isn’t something seen often or at all. We hoped that us simply being there would offer hope and represent opportunity and possibility.
And we’re about to go on another tour in June; we’re doing a program in the Netherlands. We’ll be working with kids and teaching them bluegrass. That should be really fun.
You have a busy schedule in the coming months: shows in the U.S. the State Department tour, and a high-profile festival date in Europe. What else is in the future for Della Mae?
We have been in the [recording] studio, and our plan is to release music in conjunction with the Earl Scruggs Fest; we’ll be releasing four singles throughout the summer. We’ve been doing a lot of writing, so hopefully, we’ll be able to get in the studio again this coming winter and have a full-length album for next year.