Album Review: Sarah Jarosz Digs Deeper with Multi-Instrumentalist/Producer John Leventhal
At 29, Sarah Jarosz easily qualifies as a veteran musician. A mandolin wunderkind inspired, in particular, by the young bluegrass trailblazers Nickel Creek, Jarosz released her debut at 18, and went on to win three Grammys for her solo work and team up with Aoife O’Donovan and Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins in the supergroup I’m With Her—which added another Grammy to Jarosz’s shelf in 2020.
Along the way, Jarosz, a master of all things mando and adept at guitar and banjo as well, journeyed from her tiny hometown of Wimberley, Texas, to world touring and living in Brooklyn (and in Nashville during the pandemic shutdown). These transitions feed into the songs on her new Rounder Records album, World on the Ground, created with renowned producer/guitarist John Leventhal at his home studio in downtown Manhattan.
Leventhal played electric guitar on Jarosz’s 2011 album, Follow Me Down, and is a huge contributor to World on the Ground, as producer, co-writer of four songs, and player. In fact, Jarosz and Leventhal made nearly all the sounds on the record. Both play sundry guitars; Jarosz covered mandolin, octave mandolin, bouzouki, and banjo; and Leventhal added keyboards, bass, drums, and even a touch of autoharp and Marxophone. The only outside contributions were drums on two tracks, some additional harmony vocals, and strings.
What’s most striking on this rich, satisfying album is Jarosz’s growth as a songwriter, especially on the storytelling side. Encouraged by Leventhal to venture outside of her own literal experience, Jarosz delves into character-based songs like “Maggie” (inspired by a childhood friend she reconnected with at a high school reunion), “Eve,” and “Johnny,” who sits on the back porch drinking “blood red wine” while waiting for “a little luck, a little love, a little light.” In a Zoom conversation with journalists, Jarosz said these songs connect with the Texas songwriting tradition she grew up with—through artists like Shawn Colvin (a Texan by way of North Dakota and New York), Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, and James McMurtry.
Interestingly, though, imagining characters led Jarosz to tackle, for the first time, some topics that are more personal, especially relating to her Texas upbringing. Though she speaks nostalgically about her childhood home, the overriding theme of these songs is escape—and maybe winding up back where you started anyway.
In her solo projects and I’m With Her, Jarosz has explored the musical territory opened up by Nickel Creek and that group’s own mentor, Alison Krauss—a sound that is rooted in bluegrass and string-band tradition but also encompasses singer-songwriter folk, rock, and pop, with sophisticated harmonies and instrumental interplay. Leventhal is a perfect match for that sensibility. Anyone familiar with his collaborations with Rosanne Cash (his wife) and on back to Shawn Colvin’s Steady On will recognize Leventhal’s style: rootsy but with a pop sheen. In terms of playing and singing, World on the Ground is as polished as a Steely Dan record—a function, no doubt, of stellar musicianship rather than obsessive tuning and quantizing.
Only in the last track does Jarosz’s bluegrass side take the spotlight, with a sweet take on the traditional “Little Satchel” that pairs clawhammer banjo with beautifully understated flattop guitar. The song is a reminder, perhaps, that as with so many of the characters on World on the Ground, no matter how far you travel, you never quite leave home.