For 40-plus years, Garrison Keillor hosted A Prairie Home Companion, the wildly successful radio variety show that pairs comedy skits, news from Lake Wobegon and spoof ads with top-notch roots music.
Recently, Keillor handed over the reigns of the show to mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers. There was a question among the show’s fans of whether Thile would be able to fill the void left by Keillor’s departure, and the first couple of shows felt like the new host was doing his best to imitate Keillor—an impossible job for anyone. But Thile has since found his hosting groove, and brings more music to the show than ever before, including a new, original tune he writes each week. Singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan, who has been a guest on the show many times, sees the new show as different, but equally inspiring.
“I’ve been especially lucky because I’ve gotten to work so much over the years with Garrison,” she says. “To be part of the new incarnation has been very special. I know a lot of people who didn’t necessarily love Garrison Keillor, but you can respect that he’s a total genius. I think the same is true of the new incarnation. It might not be your thing, but you can’t really knock it down.”
O’Donovan is no stranger to Thile’s musical brilliance, or the type of music he plays, which gets placed under the progressive bluegrass and folk umbrella—much like O’Donovan’s one-time group, Crooked Still. As frontwoman for the band, she helped establish it as a pioneering act of the progressive bluegrass movement, blending folk and roots with jazz, rock and a mission to forge new musical territory. She also emerged as one gifted roots singer with a clear, gorgeous voice.
In 2010, O’Donovan left Crooked Still to launch a solo career. Almost immediately, she established herself as one of the most innovative artists on the roots scene, with unexpected chord changes and nontraditional rhythmic structures in the spirit of trailblazing artists such as Joni Mitchell.
“I’ve always just seen music as something that doesn’t have to stay in one zone,” she says. “I’ve always been attracted to unusual chord changes. I think applying that to folk music is a natural progression.”
O’Donovan’s folk music roots run deep, and span the Atlantic. Her dad has an Irish music show on WGBH in Boston, and the artist spent her childhood summers in Ireland singing songs with her extended family.
“I spent my time getting immersed in the folk music of the ’60s and ’70s that my parents and aunts and uncles listened to,” she says. “It was a very formative time. We would sit around and sing songs pretty much every night.”
With her Irish roots, O’Donovan saw firsthand the connection between Celtic music and American roots music. She talks knowledgeably about how Celtic music traveled from Ireland and Scotland to the Appalachian Mountains to become old-time music, and into Kentucky, where it mixed with rock ’n’ roll, jazz and blues to become bluegrass.
O’Donovan didn’t pick up the guitar herself until 2010, when she struck out on her own—but to see her play now, you’d think she’d been doing it her whole life. She moves up and down the fretboard in unexpected patterns with an easy grace and rhythm. Her non-traditional melodic style has moved her beyond roots music into cross-genre experimentation, including collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, the Punch Brothers and bassist Edgar Meyer.
The next few months are a nonstop flurry of performances and projects for O’Donovan. (On April 21, she’ll play the Kuumbwa with guitarist Julian Lage, and Chris Eldridge from the Punch Brothers and the Infamous Stringdusters.) At the heart of all the hustle and bustle is O’Donovan’s humble reworkings of what constitutes American roots music.
“I try to not be bogged down by traditional song form,” she says. “Not every song has to have a verse and a bridge and a chorus. You can really get outside the box.”
Aoife O’Donovan will perform at 7 & 9 p.m. on Friday, April 21. Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $30/adv, $35/door. 427-2227.