Q&A: The Youth-Led Renaissance of Bluegrass Music

Q&A: The Youth-Led Renaissance of Bluegrass Music

The cover for “Rhododendron,” one of White’s recent singles. (Photo by Halle March)

By Daily Yonder

June 14, 2023

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Bella White is a musician from Calgary, Alberta, whose sophomore album “Among Other Things” released on Friday, April 21st, on Rounder Records. Her 2020 bluegrass-inspired album “Just Like Leaving” is one of my favorites ever, so I was thrilled to talk with White about her new songs. 

Enjoy our conversation about the youthful “roots renaissance” we’re both enjoying living through, leaving and coming back to traditional country music as a teen, and a tragic encounter in a wine bar, below. 

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: I’ve read that your connection to the folk music scene is through your dad. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about growing up with a musician for a parent and how that got you interested in the music you make now.

Bella White: Yeah, my dad is kind of my biggest teacher when it comes to music, and he’s from Virginia. In my childhood I was just constantly around music and I felt like it was a given that I would eventually play it myself. I really wanted to get in on the fun. It just seemed like such a beautiful way to connect with people and express yourself. And so I feel like constantly growing up, sharing that with him and also my mom too, it was just very natural to get into it. I was just so so exposed to it that it was hard not to find my way there.

DY: What exactly did that exposure look like? How did it manifest materially?

BW: I mean, my dad was always playing music around the house, like playing his banjo, playing his guitar, singing songs or having records on. We would also go to a lot of bluegrass festivals and shows. And one of my close friends, our dads were in a band together. So me and her and our sisters were just these little toddlers running around all these music festivals. Just a lot of playing music and being around music at a young age.

DY: Have you always thought that you would play bluegrass or bluegrass-adjacent music? Or did you ever have a period of rebelling and being like “I’m gonna try out a different sound?”

BW: I wouldn’t necessarily say I was rebelling against it. But I found bluegrass again, in some ways, on my own when I was in my late teens. Like, I grew up not that familiar with it as a small child until I was like eight or nine. And then I think when I was in my preteen years, I was like “this is for old people.” And I was listening to the radio a lot, just what all my peers listened to, pop music and whatever else. And then when I was like 15 or 16 I sort of rediscovered it on my own. That felt really special because then I felt like this new inspiration to make that kind of music and do it as Bella, not just as a kid who grew up in a bluegrass family.

DY: Did you rediscover it through playing or were you listening to anybody in particular that got you back into the genre?

BW: I was going to a festival called Nimble Fingers in Sorrento, British Columbia, and a festival workshop that happens every summer and I remember being there and being like “bluegrass, shmuegrass,” like this is something that I’m really used to but I’m not dying for it. And then I remember seeing, I guess it’s probably like, they had people like Molly Tuttle and the Slocan Ramblers, just younger people that were at the time in their early or mid 20s. And I was maybe 16 watching them play this music and I was like, “Oh, damn, that’s cool.”

Q&A: The Youth-Led Renaissance of Bluegrass Music
Photo courtesy of Bree Fish

Before that I didn’t really understand that it was something that young people were interested in. And then I realized that there was this amazing blossoming community of young people playing this kind of music and it was very much reignited for me. I felt like I had peers at that point that I share this interest with, which was really special. So that was kind of what brought me back into it was just like finding my own community. And not just my dad’s friends.

DY: It seems like on a broader scale there’s a real youth interest in very folky, country-adjacent music. For instance, I read that you worked with Buck Meek on this new album, and I’m curious if it feels to you like there’s a youthful scene emerging in that space that you could put words to.

BW: I definitely feel like there’s like a renaissance of the kind of roots music I play – I guess that’s the biggest umbrella that I could put it all under. I remember when I was in high school, and I was into country music and people were kind of like “Cool, like, do your thing but like we don’t like that.” And now those same people love country and everyone wants to wear cowboy hats and cowboy boots. It’s a very trendy aesthetic thing to like, which is really fascinating to me. I think more people are just recognizing it for what it is too, just really honest, good music. And then I also think that because of the resurgence of young people playing this music it’s getting exposed to a wider audience. It’s more accessible to young people now that there’s just so many amazing young artists making music. 

DY: I wanna talk about the process of writing your first album because you’ve said elsewhere that that one emerged really naturally. How does that contrast with how it felt to write the record that’s releasing this week?

BW: When I was writing the first album, I wasn’t really intending to write an album. I was writing a song. I started writing some of the songs when I was 17 or 18, literally just journaling almost, writing my feelings for myself. And I had no expectation that it would become a record. So I felt like there was this raw quality to me sharing my heart. And then with the second album, it was much more crafted. I knew that I was gonna be making another album so I had a little bit more pressure. But I also felt more pull to really craft the songs and to try and be broader in my subject matter. The first album has a lot of heartbreak and first love kind of stuff, which I still think is really important because everyone can relate to it. I think it’s a beautiful thing that we can all share those pains, those feelings, but I think it’s also cool when you can kind of like step out of writing about just that one thing and like, maybe write about your feelings on other topics that aren’t even necessarily involving you. There’s heartbreak on this album, definitely, but I feel like my perspective is perhaps a little bit wider.

DY: What’s the song on this record that you think is the furthest outside of yourself?

BW: I would say it’s the song “Marilyn.” That one is not about me at all. It’s about my feelings in a situation that didn’t involve me. “Marilyn” is definitely the first time I really wrote a song that was telling someone else’s story.

DY: Just for readers who haven’t heard yet, can you expand on what that story is about?

BW: I was on tour and I was sitting in a bar somewhere having a glass of wine before my soundcheck, and I overheard this man talking down in a really horrible way on his partner and just saying these really degrading misogynistic things. I was feeling so upset and so fired up and wanted to confront him and my whole body was shaking. I was angry and so it was kind of like me writing about what I heard, and how it made me feel. I just wanted to try and send some love to the woman he was talking about.

DY: I think we’re about the same age, I’m 23, and I’m just wondering about what it’s like to be a touring musician at this age and whether it’s the kind of lifestyle you imagined yourself having when you were young.

BW: Yeah, I mean, it’s really fascinating. I feel like I’m getting to live a unique life in my early 20s. I’ve always wanted to do music as a career. So I think, because I grew up pretty exposed to what the music industry looked like, I knew that this was like part of the package. I always wanted to tour and everything, but I didn’t expect things to pick up as quickly as they did. I love it, and it’s really wonderful. It’s also really tiring and there’s two sides to every coin. And I think when I was younger, I kind of glamorized it in some ways, and that is part of it. It can be glamorous, it’s fun, and you feel very special. But it’s also different than expected in the sense that it’s a lot of work, that it’s tiring and you’re away from home a lot. But I think being where I’m at, because I’m young, I have a lot of resilience. I’m trying to play the long game in some sense and not burn myself out completely. But I also recognize that I am 22 and in some of my probably peak years to be doing this sort of thing.

DY: Right, a lot fewer ties to one place than you might have later on. 

BW: Yeah, and just energy levels, too, I feel like I can go pretty hard if I need to.

DY: Totally. What’s your favorite thing about touring or maybe a favorite place that you visited?

BW: I guess they’re kind of tied together. But my favorite thing about touring is when you do end up in a city and love it there and you feel like you can really see yourself there. I feel that way every time I go through New Orleans. I hadn’t been there before playing a show there when I was opening for Sierra Ferrell. It’s just amazing when you wind up in a place and you just really feel that energy. I think that’s my favorite part of touring. Or when you find yourself after a show at some local bar and you’re getting to look at what it’s like to live somewhere that you’re super disconnected from in your day to day life. I think that’s always a really special part of it that I try not to take for granted.

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