Background, a funny story of the time we met, and eventually a review of Sarah Jarosz’s gorgeous new album World on the Ground

With prodigious talent, enchanting songs, and relentless hard work, Sarah Jarosz has cemented herself as one of the premiere names in contemporary Folk, Bluegrass, and Americana. For all the Indie Folk heads out there, Ms. Jarosz is a household name. Nonetheless, this site is dedicated to crossing over and connecting people across diverse currents to discover new things they may love. (The thinking is simple, I love music, movies, and hoops and in my insular community I know 5-6 people who do too. So if I personally know 5-6, how many of us are out there?)

If you have yet to be introduced to the great Sarah Jarosz, let’s do a “computer in Her” paced catch up. Rolling Stone calls her “a contemporary bluegrass prodigy.” At the age of 26 her 2016 release Undercurrent won two grammy awards. In 2018, she kept the good times rolling by winning the Grammy for “Best American Roots Song” for “Call My Name” – a song from her band I’m With Her. And, she does this (which she released yesterday):

She’s 1/3rd of the aforementioned supergroup I’m With Her alongside Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) and Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still). When they unite their powers in very Captain Planet style, you get this paragon:

And she was inducted into Folk-Americana-Bluegrass royalty as a regular participant on—what I would argue is the Mount Olympus of the genre for last decade—Chris Thile’s playground, Live From Here:

Alright are we all on the same page? Sarah Jarosz is really f**king good.

This piece is supposed to be a review of her gorgeous new album World on the Ground, which I am clearly taking the scenic route in getting to because I am going to delay even further.

I have just a little bit of shared experience with Ms. Jarosz. First of all, she is from Wimberley, TX, which is about 40 minutes South of Austin where I live. Sarah is a legend around here. I’ve talked with a number of radio folk, festival promoters, venue owners, and fans that tell delightful stories about when she was 13 and outplaying all the veteran pickers at song circles and late night festival jams. Additionally, one of my dearest Austin friends and closest musical collaborators, Chris Peterson, who performed and recorded with her when she was growing up and has wonderful insight into her breakneck musical growth. Here’s Chris and I’s thing:

So I have met Ms. Jarosz once. My band American Dreamer and Sarah were both the Old Settler’s Music Festival in 2017. After her set I hung around and hung around and waited for the crowd to die down to talk to her. I told her that my band was also playing the festival to which she responded, “oh I’ve heard of you guys,” which remains one of the highlights of my career to this day. She was incredibly generous to give me 5 or so minutes of her time and shared remarkable advice about the industry and expanding beyond Texas.

Then two women who had also lingered to the end of the crowd interjected to ask her about I’m With Her. She said they were getting ready to record their album, which would go on to be 2018’s Grammy winning See You Around. She turned to me as if to offer something to the conversation. I was a ball of nerves talking to her and our conversation had already gone on for 4 minutes longer than I prepared for and I had fired every bullet from the gun that was my ability to be articulate. I meant to say, “I can’t wait to hear more music from you talented women!” What came out, “I can’t wait to hear more music from you beautiful women.” (Sasha buries head in sand.)

That was the end of my conversation with Sarah Jarosz.

Okay at long last, fast forward to the Summer of 2020 and Sarah has released her 5th album (which is damn prolific for an artist who is sub-30) World on the Ground. (Btw, here is a dope video of her performing most of the album.) Its a beautiful (no pun intended), gentle album that wraps you up like a sweater in Fall and keeps you warm. I wouldn’t say it is a stark departure from 2016’s Undercurrent (another album I adore), but rather a continuation on her journey as an elite songwriter and Folk mastermind.

Jarosz and producer John Leventhal have a firm grasp on one of the most important tenets in music: don’t get in the way. Jarosz is a uniquely gifted songwriter and has a voice that was crafted by the Roots Music Gods to sing this style of music. Just get out the way and let it happen! The production reminds of James Harden and the Houston Rockets. You don’t need crazy plays or wild formations when you have James Harden, just clear out and let the Beard cook! In Jarosz and Leventhal’s capable hands, the album is filled with tasteful, understated arrangements that allow Sarah’s songs and voice to shine.

My favorite song is the current single “Johnny.” It is a hypnotic song with a seductive mandolin intro and mesmerizing vocal melody. I love it so much, it is prominently featured on my new Indie Folk Spotify playlist! It also includes my favorite lyric from the album, “an open heart looks a lot like the wilderness.” Mmmm that’s my s**t right there!

Another standout, buried towards the back of the album, track 8 “What Do I Do.” Even as one of the songs with the fewest lyrics, it paints one of the clearest visual pictures for me. I love lyrics where I can see the story and when Jarosz longingly sings, “Come tomorrow I’ll be gone, 1,000 miles away from home / How I wish I could just stay here sit beside you, whisper in your ear,” I see the scene exactly. I imagine she has a lover in San Francisco (for example) who she only sees when she’s on tour or coming through for press. Or the opposite, she lives in the same place as her partner, but tomorrow she’s leaving for tour. Whatever the situation, the lamenting chorus and guitar accompaniment support the message perfectly. Also this song has a sublime, brooding string outro that reminds me of some of the send offs on Beck’s Sea Change.

This album reminds me of an album from another one of my favorite songwriters and musicians, the great Ms. Norah Jones 2004’s masterpiece Feels Like Home. Both albums pair less popular genres with Pop sensibilities and top-end production. In Norah Jones case, the blend is Jazz and Pop. In Sarah Jarosz’s case, it is Folk-Pop. World on the Ground includes enough catchy choruses you could get a middle schooler singing along, but also enough deeply ingrained Roots traditions, it can serve as a survey course on the history of American Folk music.

Since 2004, Norah Jones, 12 years Jarosz’s senior, has gone on to collaborate with everyone from Outkast, to Jeff Tweedy, to Dolly Parton, and explored an incredibly rich and diverse collection of genres and sounds. I hope Sarah will follow a similar path. She’s already has her band and a plethora of fantastic collaborations under her belt, and has me at peak curiosity and excitement for the journey ahead. But for now I am going to sit back, enjoy World on the Ground and try and remember:

She says, we all have our notions, baby
We all laugh and sigh
And when the world on the ground
Is gonna swallow you down
Sometimes you’ve got to pay it no mind
Sometimes you’ve got to pay it no mind