Bourbon & Bluegrass 2024 Performer Bios

Letitia VanSant (Saturday, May 18)

Letitia VanSant’s lyrics are as personal as they are political, tracing questions of power into the human heart. With sparse indie folk arrangements fortifying a distinctly intimate vocal style, her stage presence is down-to-earth and immediate. Paste Magazine named her among 10 Artists to Watch in 2020, BBC Radio says she is “a fascinating new artist,” and PopMatters called her “a consummate reflection of a rising Americana star.” Her songwriting has earned several awards, including the Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Competition. VanSant’s debut album Gut It to the Studs established her as an emerging talent on the Americana scene and propelled her on her first UK/European tour. Its follow-up Circadian was released February 21, 2020.

Hubby Jenkins (Saturday, May 18)

Hubby Jenkins is a talented multi-instrumentalist who endeavors to share his love and knowledge of old-time American music. Born and raised in Brooklyn he delved into his southern roots, following the thread of African American history that wove itself through America’s traditional music forms. As an integral member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and later Rhiannon Giddens band, Hubby has performed at festivals and venues around the world, earning himself both Grammy and Americana award nominations. Today he spreads his knowledge and love of old-time American music through his dynamic solo performances and engaging workshops.

Adeem the Artist (Saturday, May 18)

From their earliest self-released EPs to 2021’s Cast-Iron Pansexual—the album that earned praise from Rolling Stone and American Songwriter for its examination of faith, sexual identity, and self-acceptance—Adeem the Artist has continued to build a following by blending Appalachian musical influences and poetic flair with a healthy dose of comedic instinct.

“Humor has always been a part of my life,” explains the Eastern Tennessee-based songwriter, citing comedians Andy Kaufman and Sarah Silverman as artistic influences in addition to musicians like John Prine and Blind Boy Fuller. Growing up, first in North Carolina and later in Syracuse, New York, Adeem quickly realized that with the right delivery, dark jokes could offer a socially acceptable way to open up about the tough stuff. “My parents are both from a lot of generational trauma, and I was born right at the heart of it,” they say. “Humor is just how we survived.”

Adeem’s twang-studded gospel represents a worldview too often excluded from modern country music, one that converts shame into celebration. It turns out, folks like the sound of embracing the parts of ourselves we’re told to bury—so much so that when Adeem turned to fans to support the follow-up album to Cast-Iron Pansexual, thousands obliged. Dubbing it a “redneck fundraiser,” the seventh-generation Carolinian raised the money to release White Trash Revelry by asking for one dollar at a time through social media. “With four quarters and a Venmo,” they joked, “baby, you can make this dream come true.” Adeem emerged from the fundraiser $15,000 later with a name for their new record label—Four Quarters Records—and the resolve to write an unapologetic next chapter. 

White Trash Revelry delivers, tempering Adeem’s beloved comedic sensibilities with vulnerable moments and highly specific personal details. Tender strings and clear vocals on “Middle of a Heart” give way to nuanced storytelling about small-town rites of passage and mixed messages about love, violence, and honor. And “Heritage of Arrogance” tackles larger societal issues, struggling to reconcile open-minded intentions with the deeply flawed and historical narratives too often peddled by white Southerners. But the album’s namesake revelry is around every corner, too. 

“They play country songs in heaven, but in hell we play ‘em loud,” they sing on the standout single “Going to Hell.” Regardless of your thoughts on the afterlife, Adeem sings with an easy-going charisma that makes it easy to want to follow them—to heaven, to hell, or to some raucous, welcoming party in between. 

Jake Blount (Sunday, May 19)

Jake Blount (pronounced: blunt) is an award-winning musician and scholar based in Providence, RI. He is half of the internationally touring duo Tui, a 2020 recipient of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize, and a two-time winner of the Appalachian String Band Music Festival (better known as Clifftop). A specialist in the early folk music of Black Americans, Blount is a skilled performer of spirituals, blues and string band repertoire. Blount has performed at the Kennedy Center, the Newport Folk Festival, NPR’s Tiny Desk, and numerous other venues across and beyond the United States. He has presented his scholarly work at museums and universities including the Smithsonian Institution, Berklee College of Music and Yale University. His writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Paste Magazine, No Depression, and NPR. His most recent album, The New Faith, is the latest installment of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings’ African American Legacy Series.

Blount enrolled at Hamilton College in 2013. He received his first banjo lessons from Dr. Lydia Hamessley the same fall, and started to structure a course of study around the early traditional music of Black communities in the United States. An electric guitarist since age twelve, Blount shifted his focus to string band music after taking up the banjo and fiddle. In the years that followed, Blount studied under modern masters of old-time music: Bruce Molsky, Judy Hyman (of the Horse Flies), and Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins (of the GRAMMY-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops).

Blount first achieved widespread recognition within the old-time scene when his band, The Moose Whisperers, claimed first place in the traditional band contest at Clifftop. Blount was the first Black person to make the finals in any category, and he has repeated the feat multiple times since. He launched his career in earnest in the summer of 2017: he received his B.A. in ethnomusicology and released his debut EP, Reparations, with Tatiana Hargreaves. The next three years saw the release of Tui’s Pretty Little Mister, Blount’s victory in the Clifftop banjo competition, and his selection both as a 2020 Strathmore Artist in Residence, and as a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Leadership Bluegrass Class of 2020.

Blount released his debut solo album, Spider Tales, on May 29, 2020 through Free Dirt Records. Produced by Jeff Claus and Judy Hyman (of the Horse Flies) and featuring Tatiana Hargreaves, Nic Gareiss, Rachel Eddy and Haselden Ciaccio, the album debuted at #2 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart and received widespread critical praise. The Guardian declared it an “instant classic” and awarded it five out of five stars. Bandcamp selected it as Album of the Day, and it received positive coverage in NPR, Rolling Stone Country, Billboard Pride and AV Club. Spider Tales later appeared on “Best of 2020” lists from NPR, Bandcamp, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and elsewhere. It was nominated for Album of the Year at the 2021 International Folk Music Awards, and received “Best of the Americas” at the Songlines Music Awards in the same year.

Blount’s latest record, The New Faith, was released on September 23, 2022 as part of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings’ African American Legacy Series, in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. An Afrofuturist concept album, The New Faith explores traditional Black religious music as it might exist post-climate crisis. The album represents a significant progression in Blount’s sound, utilizing his formidable skills as an acoustic musician as well as newfound affinities for electric guitar, looping, and digital processing. The album received widespread critical acclaim, garnering five-star reviews from The Telegraph, Songlines and Financial Times and receiving positive coverage from outlets including NPR, Bandcamp, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times and more. It appeared on “Best of 2022” lists from Rolling Stone, NPR, PopMatters, Songlines, Folk Alley, The Guardian and more. He also released an NPR Tiny Desk Concert in January of 2023.

Most recently, Blount has been nominated for Artist of the Year at the 2023 International Folk Music Awards.

Blount has appeared on podcasts including Radiolab and Soundcheck. He regularly teaches fiddle and banjo at camps like the Augusta Heritage Center’s Old-Time Week, the Ashokan Center’s Old-Time Rollick, and Earful of Fiddle Music and Dance Camp.

Jake Blount plays a five-string Nathaniel Rowan fiddle and banjos made by Seeders Instruments and Renan Banjos.

David Wax Museum (Sunday, May 19)

In the presence of the strange digital drone of hospital machines, David Wax’s thoughts turned to 13 songs and the changes they give voice to.
After suddenly and inexplicably collapsing, Wax—half of David Wax Museum alongside wife and bandmate Suz Slezak—was headed for a heart catheterization in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri, his doctors suspecting a heart attack. At a moment with more questions than answers, he hurriedly signed his name to a waiver—and was struck by a revelation.

“Lying there on that stretcher the thing that kept running through my mind was: at least we made You Must Change Your Life,” Wax recalls. “Whatever else happened, I felt at peace because this record exists.”

The album, out May 5 on Nine Mile Records, is an openhearted manifesto – a collection that embodies, then transcends bedrock elements of the band’s 15-year recording career.
For Wax, music has guided every step he holds sacred; he’s followed its palpable power, abiding by its requisite unpredictability. After graduating at the top of his class at Harvard, he wandered off an academic path to southern Mexico, finding what he calls “a clear before/after moment in my life.” There, he studied folk music “at the feet of the masters” and internalized structures and rhythms that continue to drive the band today. He and Slezak fell in love on their first national tour, setting in motion a future full of vivid waking dreams. Together (now with their two children in tow) they’ve logged 1,500 shows in every corner of the globe. From the back of a pick-up truck in Nome, Alaska at a solstice parade, to a surreal moment in a tent filled with a thousand Czechs hollering along to their iconic song “Harder Before It Gets Easier,” these dreams continue to unfold for Wax and Slezak.

Their latest effort encapsulates this wildly winding spirit and delivers the past-, present- and future-tense promises Wax and Slezak consider their shared purpose as musicians. To borrow lyrics from early highlight “Luanne,” the duo’s life—just like the album—is a shape-shifter, fate-twister, truth-sifter, dream-drifter, seam-ripper.

In this way, the album is fit for a world tilted off its axis, colored by a collective resistance to old norms. Wax and Slezak give listeners permission to answer the whispers around and within them—Be patient / Don’t tell me that you’re unworthy—affirming and exhorting the pursuit of new ways of living.

During this season of oddly borrowed time, Slezak crafted her NPR-praised solo debut, Our Wings May Be Featherless, and initiated what she calls a “rebalancing” of her own creativity. The result—her power—is undiluted. On You Must Change Your Life, Slezak is a choir, a conscience, an instrumental trailblazer. And when she takes the lead on “Go Break Some Hearts,” she delivers a dazzling, dreamy innocence, evoking a kinder, gentler likeness of David Lynch’s iconic Twin Peaks soundtrack.

David Wax Museum blends the ancient and ever-relevant rhythms of traditional Mexican music with amber pop hues, their unabashed rock riffs emanating an air of AM radio circa 1975, all tethered together by seductive harmonies. It’s a seamless tapestry of boundless curiosity, an artful display of what Wax frames as “the lines blurring and dissolving between musical cultures and eras.” As it humbly beckons listeners to fulfill its title, You Must Change Your Life sounds out a thousand minor- and major-key ways one can do just that.

Producer Dan Molad (of Lucius, Coco, JD McPherson) brings a particular brilliance to David Wax Museum’s makeshift orchestra, an array of instruments bewildering on paper but perfectly intuitive to the ears. The album features everything from electric guitar and bass clarinet duets to the large-bodied Mexican huapanguera; tubular bells a la Pet Sounds to Jagger-esque heavy breathing; fiddles and marimbas adventuring through effects; and a saxophone “pitch-shifted several octaves into a helium state of excitement,” as Wax puts it. He credits Molad’s instinct with making the songs “3-D,” each tune inching toward pop glory.

You Must Change Your Life refracts the light of a band whose vibrancy has been globally recognized by the highest tier of tastemakers. Since their early breakout as a buzz band at the revered Newport Folk Festival, Wax and Slezak have transmitted their kinetic energy in platforms including CBS This Morning: Saturday, Tiny Desk Concert, and NPR’s World
Cafe. They have soundtracked love stories on and off screens, from the Netflix #1 show Firefly Lane to the wedding of US Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg.

Throughout You Must Change Your Life, Wax and Slezak convey how a single response to the heart’s cry—returning a stolen glance, ripping off a bandage, stepping out in faith—can make our world over. Pain and peace attend every shift. After all, Changing your life ain’t like changing clothes, Wax sings on “Your Heart’s a Pinata.” The band has held tightly to this truth, attending to Wax’s ongoing health journey and reshaping their career with intention. The album boldly testifies: Your life will change with deliberation, but also in the mere act of living.
The album is a celebration and an invocation, pure and infallible: It’s never too late. What are you waiting for? You must change your life.

Senora May, (May 19)

by Silas House

Just like the wild, sweet place where she was raised, Senora May’s music is complex and eclectic.  She describes it this way:  “My sound is organic. It’s country because I have an accent when I talk and sing, it’s folk because I’m telling stories about my home and people around town, it’s Americana because I’m inspired by so many different genres.”

You can hear that diversity on every track of her debut album, Lainhart.  It’s certainly there on a song like “Country” with the drums of rock ‘n’ roll, the folk-flavored vocals, and Senora’s flute-playing that brings in another compelling layer. There’s the honkytonk piano on “By My Lonesome” and the ironic joy found in the walking beat of the defiant “Female”.  The lyrics of “Gone From the Mountain” read like a Gothic Appalachian novel but the whole song is driven by an electric guitar while stripped down acoustics create the mood on a paean to simple living like “Don’t Need A Lot”. Her seductive vocals prowl through the slow boil of “Milk and Honey” and the completely original “Only Want You” is played over a soundtrack of animal sounds recorded by Senora herself.

“I think it’s really important as an artist to be open minded and to listen to every type of music,” she says.  She counts among her influences artists as varied as Emmylou Harris, Nina Simone, and Feist, as well as Bobby Bare, Jr. and Beyoncé. “I just try to incorporate all the sounds that have inspired me, and of course, that spans beyond genre or message, it’s whatever invokes feeling and passion in the moment or place you’re experiencing.”

Although Senora loves to experiment with different sounds and genres, everything always comes back to her native Eastern Kentucky in the end.  One of six children, she grew up playing in the woods, going hunting or fishing with her four brothers, identifying wildflowers and their uses, and says she always felt “comforted by the hills, calmed by being outside.”  In fact, Senora says she feels sorry for people who are disconnected from nature. “We need it,” she says.

Her music has also been influenced by the sounds of the outdoors.  “The auditory boundaries are endless.  You’ll hear frequencies in the hills right before the sun goes down that you can’t make up on your own with a synthesizer,” she says.  “Certain birds and little yipping foxes, bobcats, pitches of bugs, there’s just so much to be inspired by.”

Senora feels a duty as someone from rural Appalachia to honor the culture’s musical tradition while also expanding notions of what it must be. “The thing about being from a place that you’re so proud of, you want to make everyone there proud too. Everyone feels connected by the music and what’s been given to us by shared hardships and the strength our people have to power through. I feel a certain obligation to remain true to my raising, which inspires my music greatly.”

In the short time she’s been in the public eye Senora May has emerged as one of the most exciting new voices out of a region rich with musical heritage.  She’s also become a role model for young rural women and possesses a keen understanding of that responsibility. “I want to keep putting out music that makes me feel good and demonstrates that I can voice my feelings, emotions I know other women growing up in similar settings feel. There are so many women that don’t have a voice, stifled by misogyny, their husbands, their culture, their own selves, our political climate,” she says.  “Besides just making it, I’d like to create positive change through my music for people who need it. I don’t think anyone should be held back, treated differently or stifled creatively, based on their gender, or anything else they can’t help.”

Senora May is an engaging singer-songwriter and compelling onstage performer.  She’s an artist whose talent will only grow because she knows so well who she is.  Like the best songs, hers become more intricate and remarkable once they’re listened to more often and more closely. She’s like the countryside itself:  not easy to define, impossible to tame, and always interesting.

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