Aoife O’Donovan grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, an affluent suburb of Boston, far from the Appalachians and Kentucky where bluegrass originated. But she found it, and a lot of that credit can be given to her father’s passion for music. Well, that and the film that quietly resurrected the genre for an entire generation.
“I grew up around roots music,” she said. “My father is a radio host on WGBH and I grew up around a lot of folk music and traditional Irish music. I came into the bluegrass scene when I was a college student. That was around 2000 or 2001. O Brother, Where Art Thou? had just come out — it was around my freshman year of college. That was a time when everyone got excited about folk music — so I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time and around other people that wanted to start a band.”
She met up with Gregory Liszt, Rushad Eggleston and Corey DiMario while attending the New England Conservatory of Music and formed Crooked Still, which was sort of the Northeastern cousin to California’s Nickel Creek. Crooked Still didn’t really tour bluegrass festivals the way many of today’s emerging Americana talent is wont to do; it found its own way in a part of the country not necessarily known for producing that type of sound.
“Crooked Still made a name for ourselves by playing a lot of shows around Boston,” she said. “Then we went to Folk Alliance and got hired at Newport Folk Festival and that’s when we decided to make the record. We made a record to sell at these festivals. That’s really what got us started. We got a booking agent and we hit the road in a very grassroots way.”
Alison Krauss was always a big influence on O’Donovan. The former recorded the latter’s “Lay My Burden Down” on her 2011 record Paper Airplane. And she’s worked quite a bit with Chris Thile, notably through their work on A Prairie Home Companion. In 2016, Krauss and Thile have sort of become the de facto godmother and godfather of the scene — mentors to bluegrass and roots musicians everywhere.
“While I don’t think Alison’s that much older than [myself and Chris Thile], she’s just been doing it for so long,” she said. “She and Bryan Sutton and Barry Bales and Tim O’Brien and Jerry Douglas — they really paved the way for younger musicians, including Chris and Sara and Nickel Creek and even bands like Crooked Still. When we started, I was 18 years old, but Nickel Creek had been doing it for seven years before that. While everyone was very young, I think people get on the train at a younger age in bluegrass and old-time music — I guess what’s now called Americana. Chris is an unbelievable encourager of younger artists and of his peers. I think Punch Brothers is one of the greatest bands playing music on the planet right now. It’s a very special community to be a part of and I’m very happy that we are all so supportive of each other.”
Her latest effort is Man in a Neon Coat, a live record from the Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts which includes a cover of Emmylou Harris’s “From Boulder to Birmingham.” It’s the second live record she has done in her career, the first being with Crooked Still. It’s a format she loves because of its energy and connectivity.
“I’m a huge fan of live albums,” O’Donovan said. “I’m actually driving around in my car now and I’ve discovered this incredible live album of Bonnie Raitt’s from 1972 at the Ultra Sonic Studios in Long Island, and I don’t think it was intended to be an album in any way. She did this session with her band and she had a live audience and there’s just something about hearing a musician go for it, live, that’s basically impossible to capture in the studio because there’s no audience.”
O’Donovan also recently collaborated with Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins on I’m With Her, a band that she says had the same name as Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan by mere coincidence.
“Sara Watkins came up with it long before it was Hillary’s campaign slogan,” she said. “I can only speak for myself when I say that I proud to be with her — in all meanings of the phrase.”
It’s a special collaboration, one that O’Donovan finds inspiration from, one that makes her a better musician and one that will blossom into more.
“I could write a book about how they continue to make me a better musician,” she said. “The three of us are have always been good friends, but we decided to start a band after a chance gig at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2014. It was incredible, fortuitous event; we got to open for Punch Brothers at the Sheraton Opera House, very randomly, at the last minute. We put together 25 minutes of music backstage. We had a really great time and we all followed up with each other and got together in New York three months later and recorded two songs — then we did a tour of the U.K. that was three or four weeks. Then we just did American festivals. We haven’t really toured the U.S. That will come in the coming years, for sure.”
A full length I’m With Her record will come, she assures, and she hopes a Crooked Still reunion can happen one day, too.
“I would love to at some point,” she said. “Schedules are crazy at the moment. But I would definitely never say never to that.”
She’s working on special things for Birmingham, and she hopes she’ll collaborate with her co-headliner, Willie Watson, on something. On the morning of this conversation, she is transfixed on one piece that she has already begun practicing in hopes of bringing it along on this tour.
“[The show will] be similar to the live album, and we’re always working up new covers,” she said. “Like I said, I just got this Bonnie Raitt live record, so I may do a cover of a cover. She does an epic cover of a Steve Winwood song — ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ — and I want to work up a cover of that cover. It’s the best song ever.”
Aoife O’Donovan comes to the WorkPlay Theatre with Willie Watson on Tuesday, October 18. The show begins at 8 p.m. and tickets are $20. Each night of the co-headlining tour, the final act will be different, but in Birmingham, O’Donovan expects to take the stage first. For more information, visit workplay.com.