Smile Politely

Talking bluegrass with Bella White

Photo of Bree White. A thin, white woman with long, wavy reddish hair is standing in a field of tall grass. She is wearing all black, including a black jacket, and chartreuse gloves that match the color of the grass behind her. Her left arm is raised to the side of her head and he rright arm holds a yellow flower. Photo by Bree Fish.
Bella White by Bree Fish

Bluegrass singer-songwriter Bella White doesn’t have any ties to Champaign-Urbana, but there is a fellow musician in her genre who hails from these parts that she’s highly aware of.

“Alison Krauss is an icon!” White wrote via email. “She’s very inspiring as a woman in a male-dominated industry and scene. Seeing her on stages and records shredding just as hard, if not harder, than the guys was very validating as a young girl. It’s easy to get discouraged or feel less valuable when you’re little. There’s no one like her.”

The 22-year-old White grew up in Calgary and comes from an artistic, musical family. Her father, who’s from Virginia, played bluegrass and old-time music at home, inviting friends and bandmates over to jam. White got sucked into this musical fun at an early age, playing the instruments around her and eventually learning how to fingerpick on the guitar, mandolin, and banjo. As a child, White sang with a passion that she still recalls with fondness today. She spent her weekends playing in jam sessions and participating in competitions.

Nowadays, White strives to keep the tradition of bluegrass music alive. Fans of the genre can watch her sparse, from-the-heart songs played live on February 12th at the Rose Bowl Tavern in Urbana. In White’s words, it will be a “simple string-band instrumentation” of acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and an upright bass.

Prior to the show, check out White’s 2020 album, Just Like Leaving, as well as a few singles released more recently that showcase her evolving work. In the meantime, read our interview below.

Smile Politely: How did you hook up with and eventually form your current band?

Bella White: I met the guys on my album and touring band through festivals and house parties. In the bluegrass world, it’s very common to have house parties where you get into a lot of jamming, and friendships and musical relationships form quickly. Some of the people from my 2022 singles I met the same way and have been collaborators for a long time.

SP: What have you learned while being out on tour and visiting places like Champaign-Urbana?

White: Traveling so much and being in so many places forces you to figure out who you are in more than just one environment. You also get to meet so many different people with such different upbringings and ways of living their lives. I feel like the biggest learning and gift has been how to have a wider perspective.

SP: Who is harmonizing with you vocally on Just Like Leaving, and why did you choose that style for the songs on that album?

White: There is harmony on every track. It felt very important to me since we were making that album in a bluegrass way. One of my all-time favorite qualities of bluegrass is the three-part harmony, especially on the old stuff like the Stanley Brothers. Singing the harmonies on my record are Julian Pinelli, who played fiddle, and Reed Stutz, who played mandolin.

SP: Your singles from 2022 have percussion on them and a bit more atmosphere than the songs on your album. How might your music evolve going forward, and are there plans for a new album?

White: There is definitely going to be more atmosphere in the future. I have a new album coming out in 2023 and there will be lots of new flavors — electric guitars, drums, and keys. I don’t like feeling like I’m confined to one genre of music. It’s so exciting to explore and see where you end up.

Bella White
Rose Bowl Tavern
106 N Race St
Su Feb 12th, 7 p.m.
Tickets available online, $12-$15

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