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In the world of 'mangrass,' all-girl band Della Mae is a winning exception

Chris Bieri
Courtesy of the band

Della Mae started out as a joke, a subtle jab at bluegrass music's male-dominated "mangrass" tradition.

Later this month, the five women of the Boston-based band will be laughing all the way to the 2014 Grammys.

But before arriving in Los Angeles as nominees in the Best Bluegrass Album category, Della Mae will headline the opening weekend of the Anchorage Folk Festival, Jan. 17-19.

"Kimber (Ludiker), the fiddler, had the idea of putting together an all-girl band," said Della Mae bassist Shelby Means. "At first, it started as a bit of a joke. We didn't realize it could be a full-time gig."

The project went from frivolous to formidable when Ludiker started recruiting female musicians of various backgrounds from all over the U.S. After initially calling themselves Big Spike Hammer, after an Osbourne Brothers song, the group chose a name from the song's lyric, "hey, hey, Della Mae, why do you treat me this way?"

Mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner, guitarist Courtney Hartman, lead singer Celia Woodsmith and bassist Amanda Jean Kowalski joined Ludiker to record the group's debut, "I Built This Heart," in 2011.

Means joined the band early in 2012 as preparations were underway for "This World Oft Can Be," the album that earned the fledgling group a Grammy nomination only three years after forming.

"It's a huge honor," Means said. "We're a young band. I'm pretty surprised and amazed we were nominated."

While their success was early, it's backed up by the band's formidable musical chops. Ludiker is a two-time Grand National Fiddle Champion.Hartman studied at Boston's Berklee College of Music and Woodsmith brings a forceful, bluesy voice to the group.

That ensemble of talent opened doors to Della Mae, even before last month's nomination.

In late 2012, the band played the role of cultural ambassador on a U.S. State Department tour through Central Asia, playing concerts with local musicians and heading a musical education program.

Means said it was an experience that changed the way the group thought about its status as an all-female band.

"They chose us to go to Pakistan specifically because we're an all-girl band and the way women are viewed in that country is different," Means said. "In the past, we tried to downplay the fact we are women. That made us realize how important it can be to be good role models for women, even in America. It definitely changed the way we feel about it."

Della Mae hadn't yet been nominated for a Grammy, but Anchorage Folk Festival organizers knew when they secured the band for 2014 that they'd landed a hot commodity.

"We 100 percent recognized we were getting a band that was on a steep climb in terms of national recognition and talent," said longtime festival board member Kenny Powers. "We feel extraordinarily lucky to have a band of that caliber."

Despite touring much of the spring, Della Mae will spend part of 2014 focusing on a follow-up to "This World Oft Can Be," writing and arranging a new group of songs.

"We've always been rooted in tradition, but on the edge," Means said. "We're working on new material for an album that will probably come out in 2015. We have some really cool festivals lined up for this summer. I'm looking forward to seeing where we go in Della Mae."


By Chris Bieri