Sarah Jarosz wins two Grammys; a look back at her rise to stardom

Sarah Jarosz at the Old Settler's Music Festival in 2014. Tammy Perez/For American-Statesman

Sarah Jarosz at the Old Settler’s Music Festival in 2014. Tammy Perez for American-Statesman

Born in Austin and raised in Wimberley, 25-year-old Sarah Jarosz now lives in New York, but Central Texans shared in the joy when she won two Grammys on Sunday afternoon. “This is just such a thrill, a dream come true,” Jarosz said from the ceremony in Los Angeles as she accepted the award for best folk album for “Undercurrent,” shortly after winning best American roots performance for “House of Mercy.”

Here’s a look back at several Austin360/American-Statesman articles that documented her rise from Wimberley prodigy to national star. She’ll be at this year’s Old Settler’s Music Festival in April.

April 16, 2009
17-year-old troubadour graduates to the big time
By Michael Corcoran

The two producers had been hunkered down in a Nashville studio all weekend, tweaking an album that mixes bluegrass virtuosity with airy country pop vocals. “Let’s call it a day,” producer Gary Paczosa said one Sunday evening. “We’ll pick it up tomorrow.”

But producing partner Sarah Jarosz, whose debut album they were recording, reminded him that she had to fly back to Austin that night. “I’ve got classes tomorrow,” she said.

Paczosa, whose credits include seven albums with Alison Krauss, laughed when he thought about the year he spent on Jarosz’s “Song Up In Her Head” LP, which comes out June 16 on Sugar Hill Records. “That’s the first time I’ve made a record working around my co-producer’s school schedule,” he said. But Jarosz, a 17-year-old senior at Wimberley High School, has long juggled academics and a music career, with success in both fields. The mandolin picker with the angelic voice, who wrote 11 of the 13  songs on her album, is also a member of the National Honor Society.

“My parents are both schoolteachers, and they instilled a love of education in me at an early age,” said Jarosz, whose father, Gary, is her government teacher at Wimberley High. Teachers get summers off, which has given her parents time to take their only child to bluegrass camps and festivals across the country during the past few years.

“One of the most impressive things about Sarah  and her parents is the effort they’ve made to keep the balance in her life, with her schoolwork such a priority,” Wimberley High principal Greg Bonewald said.

Jarosz is a finalist in the “Miss WHS” pageant, with the winner to be announced at Saturday’s senior prom, but she has to miss it. Her trio has a gig at the Old Settler’s Music Festival on Saturday afternoon, with a lot of visiting and jamming after that. Jarosz has played the bluegrass-flavored fest, which runs today  through Sunday at the Salt Lick Pavilion in Driftwood, the past eight years. It’s where she got her taste for bluegrass and fell under the wings of masters such as David Grisman, Abigail Washburn and Tim O’Brien.

But first she was a fan. As a fourth-grader making her first visit to Old Settler’s in 2001, Jarosz told Chris Thile, then of Nickel Creek, that she hoped to one day be good enough to play with him. “Let’s jam sometime,” Thile wrote in her program.

“And now Chris is all over my first album!” said Jarosz, who also plays banjo, guitar and piano. “How unbelievable is that?”

Jarosz was signed to a record deal by Paczosa, a vice president at Sugar Hill Records,  after her performance at Colorado’s prestigious Telluride Festival in 2007. Recording sessions for the debut began during spring break 2008. Paczosa decided to give Jarosz a co-producer credit, rare for a 17-year-old singer, when it became clear she wanted to be involved in every aspect of the project. As multi-instrumentalist O’Brien wrote in the liner notes to the upcoming album by his protégé, “Sarah is that rare, self-possessed teenager … She knows what she’s about and is ready to get out there and make her mark.”

Jarosz said it was a goal to record her first album before graduating high school, to sum up this early chapter of her life. Some tracks on “Song Up In Her Head” – the meditative “Edge of a Dream” and a cover of the Decemberists’ “Shankill Butchers” – give a glimpse of the new singer-songwriter direction in which she is heading. But bluegrass is deep in her heart.

Mary Jarosz, who teaches pre-kindergarten at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Wimberley, said all the good things that have come to her daughter have come naturally, without any parental pushing. Even the career-changing set at Telluride smacked of kismet, as the promoter had one last slot to fill and remembered Sarah Jarosz belting out “Blue Moon of Kentucky” at a bluegrass camp a couple years earlier. “When she was 2 years old, she was singing ‘Grand Ole Flag’ (at her preschool) and drew the attention of a truly marvelous music teacher named Diana Riepe,” Mary Jarosz said. When Sarah Jarosz was a baby, Riepe raised her on the Kodaly Method, which stresses that instrumental training shouldn’t begin until a musical ear has been developed through singing.

Sarah Jarosz picked up the mandolin at age 10, when a fellow parishioner at St. Mary’s Catholic Church lent her one. “We ended up buying it and giving it to Sarah at Christmas,” Gary Jarosz said. But that meant the mandolin had to be returned, so it could be wrapped and put under the tree as a surprise. “It was so hard to do that,” Mary Jarosz said. “Sarah had really become attached to that mandolin.”

Paczosa credits Jarosz’s parents, who moved to Wimberley from Austin 15 years ago, with keeping their daughter grounded. “They’re not stage parents at all,” Paczosa said. “They’re there to support Sarah in whatever interests she has, and it just so happens that she’s really into music.”

The parents were faced with “probably the toughest decision we’ve ever had to make” when they allowed their daughter to travel to New York City by herself at age 15 to attend a Thile concert at Carnegie Hall. “It was my first trip anywhere by myself, and I could really feel a sense of independence, inspiration and growth,” said Sarah Jarosz, who instantly fell in love with the Big Apple.

“That trip to New York changed our lives, too,” Mary Jarosz said, “because we realized ‘she can do this on her own.'”

In September, she’ll move to Boston to attend either the Berklee College of Music or the New England Conservatory; she’s been accepted to both but has not picked one.

Jarosz said she’ll miss her parents as much as they’ll miss her. “Whenever I write a new song, they’re the first ones I play it for,” she said. “They’re always honest with me.”

One day she emerged from her bedroom with a tune-in-progress she wasn’t so sure of. She sat at the piano and sang “I have just begun/ A long journey that will run/ The length and width of summertime/ And the cool fall air will blow me home,” and her parents applauded. “The Long Journey” is a highlight of “Song Up In Her Head.”

The long journey just begun gets really interesting in the next few weeks as Jarosz graduates from high school, turns 18 and releases her first album. She might even trade her learner’s permit for a driver’s license.

May 2, 2010
Bluegrass prodigy makes mark on ‘Austin City Limits’
By Matthew Odam

Just as there are probably thousands of people who would swear up and down that they saw Loretta Lynn play at Tootsie’s back in Nashville before she got her big break, one day there will probably be thousands who say they remember little Sarah Jarosz from seeing her play at the Friday night bluegrass jams in Wimberley, where the young musician got her start.

The fact is most people will probably get their first glimpse of Jarosz when her episode of “Austin City Limits” airs, now scheduled for Oct. 30, though, the 18-year-old’s performance in front of friends, family, fellow Wimberley pickers and a packed studio of soon-to-be-fans indeed felt like a downhome affair.

All artists who get the opportunity to perform on the ACL stage make note of what a special experience it is, but there was something unique in the sincerity shown by the Grammy-nominated Jarosz when she said that being on the stage was a “dream come true.”

Only a year removed from high school, Jarosz already has an incredible command of her voice but does not attempt to hide her age, as she plaintively sings about tender pleadings for love and the wistful searching of a young poet in songs like “Tell Me True” and “Edge of a Dream.”

When she introduced a song that she wrote as a response to Hurricane Katrina – “Broussard’s Lament” – it took me a second to do the math. Katrina was in 2005. Jarosz was 14 at the time. The righteous, passionate lines from this devil-went-down-to-New Orleans tune are not the work of your typical high school student.

The jams in Wimberley obviously taught Jarosz to appreciate her playing partners, as she did an excellent job of letting her bandmates, Alex Hargreaves (fiddle) and Nathaniel Smith (cello) – both prodigies in their own rights at 18 and 16, respectively – shine. With Jarosz on mandolin, the dazzling interplay of the three was at its rhythmic best on “Mansinneedof,” as the effervescent strings bounced together beautifully. Jarosz and her bandmates made me feel like I had arrived at a bed-and-breakfast in the Smoky Mountains where after dinner the owners asked if the guests wouldn’t mind being entertained by their daughter and her friends. Then the kids get to playing and you wonder to what planet you’ve been transported.

Although she came to music via a bluegrass style, Jarosz’s style is expansive and seems to be moving toward the singer-songwriter direction as evidenced by the melancholy-tinged maturity of the observational “Gypsy” and the spiritual reverence of “My Muse,” both performed solo. The latter sounds like it could have been penned by a backpacking poet on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

With the guys back on stage, Jarosz woke up all the roosters in Ireland with Tim O’Brien’s “Land’s End/Chasin’ Talon.” She stayed in that neck of the woods – though in a much darker thicket – with her foreboding cover of the Decemberists’ “Shankill Butchers.”

Before closing with a cover of Tom Waits’ “Come on Up to the House,” the endearing young virtuoso asked the audience to help her out on the chorus and even pitch in with some harmonies if they felt up to it. With her bandmates slopping some slinky funk on it, Jarosz poured honey all over Waits’ gravel and had the newly converted aching to testify in the secular church of the Hill Country that for one night was rebuilt in the Austin City Limits studios.

The evening had special significance for me, as I was one of those people who saw the preteen Jarosz sitting in with her mother at the bluegrass jam in Wimberley that Mike Bond started 25 years ago. Thirty-five years ago, with mom, baby me and sister in tow, my father left his job at the attorney general’s office in Austin, heading back to the corporate law world in Houston, and, as my mother tells it, she cried when she had to leave this lovely town. It was touching to be able to walk down the Drag with my mom, almost 40 years after her graduation from the University of Texas, to attend her first “Austin City Limits” taping. In the time since our family left town, we returned often to Central Texas, visiting Austin for work and play and spending time each spring in idyllic Wimberley.

About 10 years ago, my folks finally bought a little place in the town that sits along the Blanco River. My mother (who herself has the voice of an angel) and my Elvis-impersonating father would go to the Friday night jams on the edge of town and a few times I tagged along. It was touching to see the young lady who was raised in a community and family bound by the unique bond created by the sharing of music come of age on the stage of “Austin City Limits.” It was a night of goosebumps – likely for Jarosz and definitely for the audience.

April 24, 2012
Jarosz comes home to Old Settler’s Festival in Driftwood
By Peter Mongillo

“Overwhelming and amazing” was how Sarah Jarosz described the crowd gathered for her performance Saturday night at the Old Settler’s Music Festival in Driftwood. Jarosz, a Wimberley native who won the fest’s youth talent competition 10 years ago at the age of 10, returned this year from school in Boston to play what she described last week as her “hometown” festival.

Like many other performers at the festival, Jarosz paid tribute to Levon Helm, who died Thursday. Fiddle player Darol Anger of Psychograss joined Jarosz and her band for an acoustic version of the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” which had many in the crowd on its feet.

“We’ve been very lucky this year,” festival organizer Jean Spivey said Saturday. “We’ve had beautiful weather; the crowds have been great, and of course the music has been awesome.”

Spivey estimated the total attendance for the weekend at 18,000. As Saturday night approached, people continued to stream into the grounds at the Salt Lick BBQ Pavilion in Driftwood to see headliners Iron and Wine, Bob Schneider and others.

As the festival, celebrating its 25th year, drew to a close on Saturday, acoustic gave way to electric when JJ Grey and Mofro took the large stage. Grey and his six-member band, which included a horn section, fired through a set of blues and soul-inspired rock.

Folk rock group Iron and Wine closed out the night, with frontman (and Austin resident) Sam Beam beginning the set with a solo acoustic number before the rest of the band joined in for “Tree By The River.” Unlike his appearance last year at ACL Fest, Beam appeared without a horn section, playing a set heavy on older songs including “Woman King” and “Jesus the Mexican Boy.”

Like Jarosz, Beam paid tribute to Helm with a cover of “Long Black Veil,” a song he performed at the tribute to Johnny Cash on Friday at ACL Live. “Goodbye Levon,” Beam said, explaining that although he had performed it the night before, his introduction to the song had been the Band’s version on “Music From Big Pink.”

The set ended with a solo acoustic cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” Beam then returned to the stage for a quiet rendition of Iron and Wine’s “The Trapeze Swinger.”

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