Playing the Long Game: Bold moves from Della Mae

headlight

Della Mae’s “Headlight” is at least the second noteworthy song to be inspired by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s historic Senate testimony. Last year, Sleater-Kinney’s “Broken” articulated Dr. Ford’s account (and what felt like its dismissal) as an inflection point; a beacon of hope, abruptly extinguished. The Della Mae song registers momentary defeat but considers it in light of long-term gains: By their telling, Dr. Ford’s public courage offered a spark; a solitary candle lit in darkness, and an invitation for others to follow.

That’s just what the band does on their fourth album, also called Headlight, which opens with their song to Dr. Ford but is by no means confined to topical songwriting. Rather, it’s an album that encourages big-picture thinking. The fight for justice and dignity is a marathon and not a sprint; if it’s won it will be through incremental acts of courage, and sustained by people who live with joy, hope, and tenacity. It’s not for nothing that Headlight has a song about playing “The Long Game.” These songs encourage building on previous generations of advocates and freedom fighters (“walking in the footsteps of a woman I don’t know”), providing the scaffolding for the next generation to build something even better (“don’t let them ask you why you didn’t speak up”).

The subtext is that Della Mae has been playing something of a long game themselves. Their first record came out less than a decade ago, hardly the distant past, yet it was cause for comment and commendation that an all-female bluegrass band would display such a high level of virtuosity. They’ve pared down from a quintet to a trio but planted plenty of seeds along the way, both representationally and creatively; they are not only one of the most technically accomplished bluegrass groups but also one of the most interesting, and they’ve been so consistent for so long that they’re earned some leeway to expand their sound. There’s no question that they know how to play, even if all you’ve heard is last year’s skillful Butcher Shoppe EP; what Headlight proves is that they also know how to cast a vision, to experiment and explore.

To that end, Headlight is a broader, more eclectic album than any they’ve made in the past. They recorded it in Nashville with producer Dan Knobler (who helmed a lovely Caroline Spence album last year), and he captures the interplay of their voices, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar with clarity and warmth. He also helps them flesh out their sound with pianos, thumping percussion, and, on three songs, Pentecostal fervor from the McCrary Sisters. But Knobler’s greatest contribution may be how he helps streamline these compositions, measuring out what feels like a perfect dose of pure bluegrass without getting too lost in virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s-sake: Several songs erupt into breakdowns, hoedowns, and throwdowns, solos that work up a full head of stream but never overstay their welcome.

“We are bolder than ever,” the band boasted in a recent Instagram post, and Headlight bears that out in colorful arrangements, soulful performances, and assertive songwriting. Though Dr. Ford provides the album with its north star, these are not songs with revolutionary intentions; rather, they’re about the value in mundane acts of valor; about speaking truth and facing darkness with courage, not just at Senate testimonies and Women’s Marches but on all the ordinary days, too. It can’t be a coincidence that the three songs baptized in the McCrary Sisters’ gospel harmonies are the ones that ennoble everyday, vocational integrity: “It’s About Time” advocates for plainspoken truth-telling, while “Change” rewrites the most famous of Sam Cooke songs, daring to believe the arc of the universe is bending closer and closer toward justice. “Working,” a Stax groove stretched rope-taut, makes a case for setting nose to grindstone and trusting in the nobility of work itself.

Together, these songs form a mosaic of women living their lives unflinchingly, sometimes in big moments but more often in little ones. They are enriched by the presence of “Wild One,” a raucous and hard-stomping celebration of feminine nonconformity, and by “I Like it When You’re Home,” a rapturous zydeco that delights in domestic pleasures. But in the end, Headlight is defined not just by the sainted presence of Dr. Ford but also by the unnamed woman in “First Song Dancer,” who may as well be the album’s mascot. It’s a song that celebrates the nerve required to bound onto the dancefloor as soon as the music starts to play, as everyone else sits timid and inhibited. Perhaps the first step in any long game is just being willing to get up and get moving.

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