It used to be that once you'd weeded out purely instrumental virtuosos and purely pop sensations, there weren't many serious musicians left among the ranks of the seriously young. Yet no matter how exclusive you might want to get, the number is growing, and not one of them is standing taller — at least metaphorically — than Sarah Jarosz. She's not yet 21 — that happens this spring — but she's looking back on the kind of year most any musician of most any age would love to have.
Highlights? Almost too many to list, Jarosz says with a bemused laugh. "Well, let's see. The whole record-release week was really exciting — that was in May — and then I did my first extended, three-month tour, and that was a great learning experience. I went to Europe three times — the first was for the Transatlantic Sessions, which was pretty awesome — and then I went back twice after that. Oh, and making my first music video was pretty fun, too."
That's abbreviated, but you get the point. Especially if you add in some stuff that the Texas native was either too modest or too forgetful to mention, like the appearance of that May release — Follow Me Down via Sugar Hill Records — on a bunch of year-end "best of" lists. And though Billboard counts Follow Me Down's sales on its bluegrass chart, only a few of those best lists carry that tag, suggesting her acclaim is coming not (or at least not only) as a rootsy multi-instrumentalist who also sings and writes, but also as a singer and songwriter, period — albeit one who has far more to offer in the instrumental realm than most of her peers.
Indeed, it's arguable that what does the most to make Follow Me Down such a distinctive piece of work is its self-assured balance. Though Jarosz hardly focuses on the kind of playing that elicits terms like "fleet-fingered" from enthusiastic (but lazy) writers, the playing is anything but an afterthought. It's essential to each song, and Jarosz's careful selection of what instruments she plays — and the selection she and producer Gary Paczosa made of who to play with her — pays off every time. And whether it's on the album, with her regular backers — violinist Alex Hargreaves and cello player Nathaniel Smith, who will be with her at 3rd & Lindsley — in a one-off setting like those Transatlantic Sessions performances or even as a pure solo, what's unmistakable is the sensitivity with which she adapts to the character of the instruments involved.
That's an unusual trait, but it's also one that furnishes evidence — for those who care to notice — of how an artist can negotiate a transition from playing traditional music to playing what is, in the end, completely her own. The music Sarah Jarosz makes on her own doesn't really sound anything like the fiddle tunes and old songs she learned as an up-and-coming mandolin player, but at the same time, it's hard to see how she could have come to it without having passed through that school and learning its lessons. What's more, the same is true for most of the musicians making appearances on Follow Me Down — acknowledged masters who for the most part began to find their own unique voices at roughly the same age Jarosz is now.
It's instructive in several ways to spend a bit of time poking around YouTube to find different versions of "Run Away," the album-opener that's now been made into that music video. You can find the video — it's a good one — and you can also find her singing the song with just her own guitar for accompaniment, or with her trio, or with the trio plus Nick Forster and the eTones on a recent "eTown" appearance — or, perhaps most interestingly, with Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas and a handful of U.K. musicians at a Transatlantic Sessions taping. But whichever version you pause to hear, there are certain constants — Jarosz's careful inflections and confident guitar picking, or the unmistakable bond between her and her fellow musicians, whether longtime partners or more recent friends — that spring from having spent time laboring in the traditional vineyards.
In short, if the future looks bright for Sarah Jarosz, as it surely does, it's in part because it's illuminated by a steady beam from the past. And, of course, there's also the fact that she's hardly through with even her formal education yet. In her third year at the New England Conservatory, Jarosz says she's just now figuring out how to change gears on a regular basis between the life of a music student and the life of a touring musician. In fact, she says, she appreciates a break now and then. "This semester has been especially awesome," she laughs, "because I had time to not be touring, to just focus on one thing. Plus which," she adds, "I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel."