World of Bluegrass

World of Bluegrass conference: Through Saturday, Sep. 28, $100–$140

Wide Open Bluegrass festival: Friday, Sep. 27 & Saturday, Sep. 28, free

Various venues, Raleigh

Sara Watkins grew up in the bluegrass world: the fiddler, singer, and songwriter began her career with the band Nickel Creek at the tender age of eight. Those formative years included plenty of time at International Bluegrass Music Association conferences in Kentucky. 

“We were this pack of kids, and we would play air hockey and eat cookies and jam and stalk around our favorite bluegrass musicians in the halls,” she remembers.

Thirty song-stuffed years later, she’s now part of a rootsy power trio with singer-songwriters Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz, who join forces as I’m With Her. The three combine their overlapping expertise in the worlds of folk, bluegrass, and Americana-adjacent music; their debut album, 2018’s See You Around, showcases their tremendous vocal harmonies in songs that are poignant and playful. (Their name pre-dated Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan by more than a year, by the way.) 

Ahead of the band’s Friday night show at Red Hat Amphitheater, which is a part of the IBMA conference’s free Wide Open Bluegrass festival in Raleigh this weekend (see our picks)—Watkins caught us up on her supergroup’s inner workings and bringing babies on the road.

INDY: You’ve all known each other for a long time—what made you finally decide to formalize as a band?

SARA WATKINS: It was this workshop at a festival. We found ourselves in a list of people who were songwriters who were doing a vocal workshop. There was an invitation for anyone to get together and sing through a song or two. The three of us ended up being the only ones who showed up. When we were running through a few songs that we had in common or that we knew we could easily pick up, it was a really sweet, special thing. Later that night, we got to do a little twenty-minute late-night set. To me, it was kind of like a first date, where you just kind of run into someone and you’re like, “That was really fun, right? We should do that more.”

You and Aoife both toured through your pregnancies and now bring your young children on tour. Why was it important to you to bring them along, rather than choosing to take a break?

It’s been incredible to be able to bring the kids out. Our little girls are similar ages, we were able to take out a nanny on the tour bus, and we were able to share childcare and treat them like siblings. Aoife and I were able to be a team in this respect and be there for each other. Motherhood can be incredibly isolating in the best of circumstances, and the fact that we had each other was invaluable. It couldn’t have been a more ideal situation. We both feel incredibly lucky to have had that experience. We wanted to tour because this is what we do. 

Jarosz was on board from the minute we mentioned the possibility of it, and our crew was incredibly supportive. Nobody ever complained about, like, breast pumps being out in the front lounge and diapers being everywhere. It was an incredible environment, and we were so lucky to have the support that we did to do it. More and more musicians are bringing their kids out on the road, and there’s a good community of resources for people to tap into.

How do you feel like what you’ve done with I’m With Her has challenged you as a musician?

This is definitely the most co-writing I’ve ever done. I’m much more open to and excited about that kind of collaboration with other musicians. I was talking with my brother and a friend the other day about how being a musician is seventy to seventy-five percent psychology. You’re working with people, and you’re working with yourself. A lot of it is your skills and what you can execute, but so much of it is just how you process life and how you process people. 

That’s something you can really get a lot better at, always. Jarosz has a very Zen way of processing things, and Aoife has an incredible way of dealing with logistics and problem solving and is very efficient. Those are two things that I can definitely get better at, all the time. I think that that kind of stuff definitely comes into play with every creative project.

You’ve had such a long relationship with bluegrass music. How has your relationship with it changed over the years?

I don’t think it’s changed all that much. I grew up listening to probably seventy percent bluegrass. When something takes up that much space in your picture, in your view, you’re so enveloped in it. It’s such a beautiful way to grow up—going to bluegrass festivals, going to IBMAs. 

We were able to go to IBMA last year, and it was my first time back in a long time. It was incredibly touching and heartwarming to see so many familiar faces and friends and people who hold this near-and-dear place in my heart. It was really beautiful to me, to get to dip my toes back into this community that’s been flourishing for so long while I’ve been not really putting out bluegrass records, per se. It was a special thing for each of us—Jarosz, Aoife, and I—and we’re really excited to get to come back.

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