In just 24 short years, Sarah Jarosz has created a musical resume that most musicians could only dream of accomplishing in a lifetime.
There are moments like a record deal with Sugar Hill Records during her senior year at Wimberley High School in Texas, collaborations with some of the biggest names in bluegrass and Americana – musicians like Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers, Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas – and three Grammy nominations, including two for her latest album – the 2013 release, Build Me Up from Bones.
Jarosz continued her musical career while studying contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, graduating in 2013 with honors and going on to make her home in New York City. Since her graduation, Jarosz has been touring and creating almost non-stop, collaborating on a new musical project with musicians and friends Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) and Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still) and teaching songwriting and instrumentation at workshops across the country this summer.
On Sunday, Jarosz – recognized for her incredible abilities on mandolin, banjo and guitar – makes her way to Central PA for a special presentation of the touring company of A Prairie Home Companion at the American Music Theatre in Lancaster, which includes “Guy Noir” himself, Garrison Keillor. The longtime host of the classic NPR show recently made headlines by announcing his upcoming retirement after 41 years on the radio, handing over the reigns of Prairie Home next year to Chris Thile.
As an interesting twist of fate, it was Thile who helped to spark Jarosz’s pursuit of music by famously writing “Let’s jam sometime” in her program at a music festival in Texas when she was 10 years old. And just a few years later, Thile would appear on Jarosz’s debut album – the 2009 release, Song Up in Her Head.
I caught up with Jarosz last month, calling her at her home in New York as she was preparing to go on tour for six weeks – an amount of time, she says, “that seems like an eternity.”
Michael Yoder: Do you remember the first time you walked out on the stage to perform on A Prairie Home Companion?
Sara Jarosz: I think the first time that I did it was my freshman year of college, and I think it was the opening episode of the season in Minnesota, so it was an outdoor street festival. I grew up listening to the show, so to be there and be in Garrison’s presence – it’s a pretty unique presence that he has, and you can’t help but be totally engulfed by it when you’re around him [laughs] – that was a pretty powerful thing to experience. Even though I’ve done the show a lot of times now, it’s not going to change – that awe of being around him.
MY: Were you surprised by the recent announcement of Keillor’s retirement?
SJ: I had heard inklings of that being a possibility, but I think it’s pretty special – the news. Obviously he’s the kind of person I don’t think can ever be replaced, quote-unquote. That’s why I think the Chris Thile announcement is so cool. Chris has been one of my biggest heroes all along. He’s certainly more than qualified to sort of take over and potentially make it his own, which I think is going to need to happen. To me, it’s incredible that the show has gone on for so long and just continues to be new and fresh in so many ways. I feel honored to be part of the tour.
MY: If Chris was to offer you a full-time role on the show, would you take it?
SJ: [laughs] Wow, that’s a good question. I definitely would consider, for sure. That would be a hard thing to turn down.
MY: So that conversation hasn’t been discussed yet with him?
SJ: Oh, no. No – at least not now. [laughs] One thing that is happening that was just announced is that me and Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan are going to host the show on October 10, which will be very exciting.
MY: Do you have a favorite skit from A Prairie Home Companion?
SJ: Oh, there are so many. I mean, “The Lives of the Cowboys” is definitely one of my favorite skits. I just constantly find it hilarious. [laughs] I might have to say that’s my favorite.
MY: Have you been working on any new songs for a follow-up to Build Me Up from Bones?
SJ: I have. A large part of this year as a focus has been on that – writing a lot of new music. The plan right now is to go into the studio pretty much right after the Prairie Home tour ends sometime in September and start recording my own record. The goal is to hopefully have that come out sometime in the spring of next year. It’s exciting to have the time to be thinking about new songs and new material.
MY: You’ve done a lot of collaborative work with other musicians. Is there a musician – living or dead – who would be a dream collaborator?
SJ: Ooo, goodness. Paul Simon is certainly one of the first people who comes to mind. Even just the chance to meet Paul would be amazing, because he’s been one of my biggest heroes for a long time. But I’ve been really inspired also by a lot of my contemporary musicians that aren’t far from my age. I’ve listened to a lot of Blake Mills and Dawes. I look up to those guys a lot. That would definitely be a dream to get to do something with people like that. [laughs] I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing right now musically.
MY: You’re considered one of the young prodigies in the Americana scene. Are there other musicians you’ve encountered that you would put into that category?
SJ: Man, a prodigy. Definitely like The Milk Carton Kids. I think what they’re doing right now is really special. Obviously the Punch Brothers, and even though I’m in a band with Sara and Aoife, I think the music that they’re making on their own too is really, really special and needs to be paid attention to. It’s inspiring to see younger people doing so many cool things, because I feel like for a long time it was dead musicians that I would list off as my favorite. [laughs] It still is that for sure, but it’s nice to look around and see people doing things right now that are really exciting musically.
MY: Do you feel like there’s a renaissance happening right now in Americana music?
SJ: Absolutely. For me, it started a little more leaning on the bluegrass side when I was a young teenager, but now I identify a little more with the Americana world – just in terms of the kind of music that I’m writing. It definitely seems like there’s a wealth of really great new things happening that are also making a nod towards the past, and it’s really a special time.
MY: If you could only play the mandolin, banjo or guitar for the rest of your life, which one would you choose?
SJ: That’s so hard. [laughs] Oh, goodness. If I absolutely had to, which I hope that day never comes, I guess I would choose mandolin – but only if that meant I could also play the octave mandolin. I love the variation of the two, and mandolin was what I started on. It still kind of feels like my primary instrument, and that would be tough to give up. I hope I never have to choose, though. [laughs]
See Sarah Jarosz live on stage on Sunday, August 2, when Garrison Keiller’s A Prairie Home Companion “America The Beautiful Tour” comes to American Music Theatre (2425 Lincoln Hwy East, Lancaster). 7pm. $48-$98. Click here for tickets.