There is an important detail missing from the narrative of the Boston Tea Party. A few of those feathered Sons of Liberty must not have gotten the memo, and instead of chucking the British drink of choice into the Boston Harbor, they threw sugar instead. Because there must be something in the water in the Cradle of Liberty that turns budding musical pupils into thriving bluegrass performers. Or maybe its the lure of clam chowder and Dunkin Donuts.
"Especially in the last 10 years, there's been a real surge of young folk musicians moving to Boston," explains Bridget Kearney. She's the bassist for Joy Kills Sorrow, a quintet of bright young things playing modernized bluegrass and folk music whose foundation was laid in the city. "I couldn't put my finger on exactly when that started, but these days it's kind of the place to be in the United States if you're a young musician wanting to study folk music. There's people moving there from all over the country."
The scene may have less to do with whiskey sippin' and game huntin' and more to do with the plethora of Yankee music schools. Kearney studied jazz bass at the New England Conservatory of Music, while other Joy Kills Sorrow members graduated from the Berklee College of Music. That school offers an American roots music program, giving scholarly musicians, no matter how bluegrass their blood, an in-depth education in folk, gospel, old-time, Cajun, and more. That's something you can't really do at other music schools in the country, Kearney assures us. Her bandmate, mandolinist Jake Jolliff, was Berklee's first scholarship student for that instrument, and banjoist Wesley Corbett teaches there now. Frontwoman Emma Beaton also studied cello at the school, but she's better known for the smooth, sensual voice that anchors Joy Kills Sorrow's songs. The group is rounded out with flatpicking champion guitarist Matthew Arcara.
This latest incarnation of Joy Kills Sorrow is not the original version. An initial band made a record in Boston some years ago, doing traditional tunes and covers but not touring very much. When they finally settled on the five current members, the group started focusing more on doing original songs for Darkness Sure Becomes This City (2010) and This Unknown Science (2011). While she's not a founding member, Kearney — who won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in 2006 — has played a big role in that shift.
As the band's main songwriter, Kearney's process is different for every song. "I wish I had a more reliable pattern," she laughs. "I guess I'm just always on the lookout for something that might be a good song, just little ideas that you can use as a seed to write lyrics." She usually starts on a guitar or with an idea that she's been humming in her head that she'll eventually flesh out. Sometimes she comes to the band with songs that are fully formed, and other times there's just a melody and some chords and "then everybody gets involved with writing their own parts, and that's something we spend a lot of time with, too — arranging the songs," she explains. "I think a big part of what gives the band its sound is that everyone has their own strengths as instrumentalists and a chance to put those into the arrangements as well ... It's nice because our band is flexible with what we do with the instruments, so we're not held back by a super strict definition of what bluegrass has to be, and we can play our instruments in any way that we choose to."
Kearney gushes about the talents of her bandmates, rattling off their various pedigrees. Jolliff has been performing bluegrass with his dad since he was a child. "He just got crazy about it and he's still crazy about it," she says. "The amount of time in a day he can spend holding his mandolin and playing it just amazes me." While Corbett didn't pick up his instrument until he was 16 or so — before then, his focus was on classical and African music — once he started, there was an immediate attraction. And then there's Beaton's voice at the front of it, equally precious and voluptuous and evocative. "We'll do a couple of the softer songs and she'll just sing really breathy and gentle and beautiful, and then we'll play 'New Shoes' or some of the more upbeat songs, and she will just belt," Kearney says. "And people are always coming up after shows pretty astounded by what she can do, especially on some of the louder stuff."
And for the sticklers out there, it's not like the band is playing a pure style of bluegrass. As easily as Kearney cites the fiddling bassist Edgar Meyer as one of her major influences, Joy Kills Sorrow also finds inspiration in more modern and experimental acts, like Bon Iver and Arthur Russell. "I remember our first tour through the South, being a little nervous about touring down there, because it is the home of traditional folk music, bluegrass music," Kearney says. "And so we weren't really sure how they were going to respond to the stuff that we were doing, which was very different sounding. But after doing a couple of tours in the South, I think good music is good music, and people will recognize when you're singing a song that means something and when you're just making their feet tap."