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Senior Correspondent

Finding Music Beyond ‘the Shelter of My Mind’

Finding Music Beyond ‘the Shelter of My Mind’

Sarah Jarosz

People who grew up with great new music in the air tend to get stuck in a particular set of sounds, sometimes forever.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

That comes clear during a listen to Texas singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz' new version of the Simon and Garfunkel number "Kathy's Song." It's the sad one from the 1966 "Sounds of Silence" album, with plaintive fingerpicking and the sentiment:

"I stand alone without beliefs/The only truth I know is you."

A little gooey, perhaps? At least, the tune seems redolent of sophomore year, poignant breakups, lonesome walks on leaf-strewn sidewalks. That sort of thing.

But Jarosz, 22, a brilliant player and singer who graduated in May from the New England Conservatory, puts spring in the old song's step. She retains Paul Simon's Dylan-esque guitar approach, but presents it with an intensity that marries Lilith Fair lilt with Hazel Dickens' hill-country up-singing. There's a bit of bluegrass twang, along with some vocal darkness to relieve lightweight lines.

Aha. Perhaps, divorced from Art Garfunkel's too-familiar vocal, "Kathy's Tune" is a cool song after all. Even better, its appearance on the five-song "Live at the Troubadour" CD leads you to more of Jarosz' music, to some unfamiliar places.

"Tell Me True," her contemporary love song, features old-timey banjo and the sliding, stirring backup of virtuosic band members Alex Hargreaves on fiddle and Nathaniel Smith on cello. Keep listening for the slinky, Celtic saunter of "Shankill Butchers," with characters who drink "whiskey by the pint."

In case you haven’t heard it, "Shankill Butchers" is a song by the Decemberists, a Portland-based band that’s been around since the early 2000s, when Jarosz was tiny.  And check it out, the Decemberists are also fascinating, and hugely popular, in their small way. Branching out from both these acts is a universe of acoustically charged players who all grew up in their own golden eras of music.

Today’s Web-fueled music climate makes it easy. Whether fans of this folky style, or pop, or rap, listeners can pursue the same excitement of discovery that once came with first hearings of the Beatles, of Motown, of bluegrass, of any music that raced by as youth played.

Emily Kirsch

Closer to home, I encountered Emily Kirsch, a powerful bluegrass singer from Johnston County, N.C., who's also busy encountering and mastering a broad range of styles. She sings, along with noted bluegrasser Russell Johnson, in the traditional band Diamond Creek, nailing songs such as the venerable ballad, "Little Willie."

At 17, Kirsch convinces as the song's tragic heroine, singing lines like "Little Willie, Little Willie, I'm scared of your ways," fiercely enough to raise hackles. And her drive to absorb music is equally intense.

"I love country, alternative, singer-songwriter, bluegrass, pop, Christian worship songs — pretty much if I hear a song I like I'm probably going to try singing it," Kirsch said in an email exchange. "When I sing a song whether it's bluegrass, gospel, pop, etc., I really just try to make the song mine and put every bit of emotion I can behind it, really get the feeling and meaning behind the song out."

So, the passion that baby boomers felt for the now well-worn music of the day? It's still around. It may take some wandering from YouTube to Amazon to CD Baby or ReverbNation, but there are chest-filling musical treasures to be found.

Listen out for Sarah Jarosz, and follow her trail. Keep your ears open for Emily Kirsch and her solo disc “Just Another Memory.” You can find a new stack of favorite discs and fill your player with them.

Music transcends all sorts of boundaries, and finding new music to love often means transcending generations as well. 

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