What a difference a decade can make. When Celia Woodsmith arrived in Burlington as a University of Vermont freshman in 2003, she brought along a Taylor acoustic guitar. She intended to use it for simple recreation. This week, Woodsmith returns to the Queen City as lead singer, songwriter and rhythm guitar player for Della Mae. The all-woman bluegrass band is hot off a Grammy nomination and will open for the Steep Canyon Rangers at the Higher Ground Ballroom on Thursday, March 27. What happened in between these two arrivals is every musician's dream.
Speaking from her home near Portsmouth, N.H., where she's resting up between gigs in Florida and the South Burlington show, Woodsmith points out that her entry into music was a reluctant one.
"I was not in any way, shape or form planning on becoming a professional musician," she says. "It happened because I kept bumping into Avi [Salloway] on the UVM quad, and he decided he wanted to play music with me."
Launched at UVM, Avi & Celia went on to bring their rootsy, groove-based Americana to venues all across the country. After moving to Boston, the duo morphed into rock quartet Hey Mama, which found an enthusiastic local audience. Still, Woodsmith was reluctant to fully dive in. She decided to give Hey Mama five years and then take stock of her position. She ended up doing so sooner.
"My father passed away from cancer," Woodsmith says. "That caused me to reevaluate: What is important in my life? Should I be pursuing a career that keeps me away from my friends and family for 200 days a year? Or should I be pursuing kind of a more sedentary lifestyle and invest more in my family and friends?"
After serious thought, Woodsmith decided to give up music and pursue a career in nursing, the profession of both of her parents. Hey Mama disbanded in 2010. Salloway stayed in the business. He now plays with folk-rock outfit Billy Wylder and works with Heartbeat, a group that uses music to forge connections between Israeli and Palestinian youth.
As for Woodsmith's musical retirement?
"It lasted about three months," she says with a sheepish chuckle.
For a second time, Woodsmith was lured in by a musician who recognized her talent: fiddler Kimber Ludiker. She had been recruiting female musicians for Della Mae for more than a year. Ludiker reached out to Woodsmith, using a Della Mae gig at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, which Woodsmith adores, as bait. The would-be nurse accepted the offer to join the band, on one condition: that Della Mae would only be "a hobby." Ludiker solemnly — or perhaps not so solemnly — swore that it would.
Woodsmith joined Della Mae in 2011. Right away, she had to make some adjustments. She had spent her career playing blues-based music, and bluegrass was a different animal. The biggest change involved her guitar style.
"When you're playing rhythm guitar in a rock band like Hey Mama," Woodsmith says, "you are thrashing as hard as you can. In bluegrass, it's more nuanced. Since we have two guitars in the band, I have to be especially careful to not step on [Courtney Hartman's] toes. I want to support her rather than create a wall of sound."
Some things, however, didn't need adjustment at all. Woodsmith found that a number of tunes she'd written during the days of Avi & Celia and Hey Mama would fit right in. For the first Della Mae record, the self-produced Acoustic, Woodsmith relied on what she calls "orphans," songs that she and Salloway had performed infrequently or not at all.
That record, along with Della Mae's energetic live shows, caught the attention of Rounder Records, which produced the band's latest album, The World Oft Can Be. For that record, Woodsmith found herself in a somewhat uncomfortable position.
"My writing process went from years and years of stacking up tunes to, 'Oh, my God, we have to have songs for this album,'" she says.
Fortunately, she found a willing collaborator in Hartman, who, in addition to shaping Woodsmith's tunes, contributed some fine songs of her own to the record.
"Once I get the bare bones of a song, I bring it to Courtney," Woodsmith explains. "We have that more intimate moment where two people can parse it out a little bit more. Then we bring it to the band to flesh it out with more melodic ideas and themes."
So far, that process has worked well enough to earn Della Mae a 2014 Grammy nomination for best bluegrass album. The band learned about the nomination via a phone message on a late-night drive home from Johnson City, Tenn. At first, they thought it was a prank. After quick internet searches via smartphone confirmed the truth, "We probably screamed for five minutes," says Woodsmith.
And what about the Grammys? Did Della Mae party with Kanye? Did Celia and Miley swap makeup tips?
"Not exactly, but it was really fun, and more than a little bit surreal," Woodsmith says. The bandmates spent hours getting prepped. They walked down the red carpet. They waited for that big announcement. And ... well, they lost. But Woodsmith didn't mind, given who won: bluegrass legend Del McCoury.
"Seeing him run down the aisle so happy ... I would've given it to him," she says. "He's been playing bluegrass for over 50 years. He's one of the people who have shaped this music."
Their brush with Grammy fame behind them, Della Mae are preparing to enter the studio this fall with Rounder, and they're looking to change things up a bit.
"We are totally indebted to the bluegrass community and will always keep that tradition alive," says Woodsmith. "But I am really excited about doing a little bit of experimenting,"
Before the experiments begin, though, the band has some touring to do, including the Higher Ground stop. And to Woodsmith, that particular gig is special.
"This is a homecoming," she says. "Burlington is where it all started for me, and I am totally ecstatic."