Time and again Della Mae demonstrates that of their indisputable strengths as a dynamic, powerhouse string band, a conglomeration of some of the most talented musicians and writers in bluegrass and roots music, their most impressive trait must surely be their unrelenting taunting of every convention handed down to them by those genres. Even now, as they make what some would call “the pivot to Americana,” they laugh off that very idea on Headlight, the record tasked with the brunt of that rebrand. The subtle, crooked smile of self awareness makes appearances throughout this collection of songs, but is flaunted outright on “Peg Monster,” the record’s sole instrumental.
Written by fiddler Kimber Ludiker, “Peg Monster” is an impressively ancient-sounding tune, drawing on Ludiker’s deep fiddling pedigree and the expansive musical vocabularies that have won her two Grand Master Fiddle Championships. The melody strikes listeners as haunting, as if emanating from a shady holler or a decades-old campsite at a fiddle convention. It builds like a campsite jam, too, with a dash of Jenni Lyn on mandolin and a ripple of Avril Smith’s flatpicking. Then, as seamless as the rest, through the crack left in tradition’s door by that haunting vibe — and beckoned through by the Dellas’ virtuosic irreverence — organic, campfire percussion and low rumbling organ pads fill in the spaces artfully left by each instrumentalist.
Pigeonholing and “recommended if you like” habits will always attempt to relegate Della Mae to countless ones versus others, but, as they consistently and artfully remind us, this band refuses to give up their autonomy and self-expression for the sake of tidiness and clean labels. “Peg Monster” shows it — hell, their entire catalog does; Della Mae loves living in the spaces in the middle, and with Headlight that’s exactly where they’ve made their home.