Grammy-nominated Texas twangsmith Sarah Jarosz resists being pigeonholed on her great new third effort, "Build Me Up From Bones," in diverse tracks such as the bluesy "Over the Edge"; the Gothic folk ballad "Dark Road"; the exercise in classic country "Rearrange the Art"; the tinny Appalachian dirge "Fuel the Fire"; and a skeletal take on Bob Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate."
"That's something that's important to me -- to have a lot of different feels throughout a record, but have it still be me," she explains. She can trace this eclecticism back to her unusual childhood.
It all started at age 10, says Jarosz, now 22, who plays San Francisco this week. "That's when I first picked up mandolin and got obsessed with it, and I just didn't want to stop playing," she says. "And then I picked up the banjo and the guitar, and that's when I started writing songs."
Her music-loving parents didn't want to leave their only child with a baby-sitter when they attended concerts, so they dragged her along to every last show. "So by the time I was 12, I'd grown up seeing live music, and I just knew that that's what I wanted to do," she adds.
Jarosz was still a high school senior when she signed with rustic imprint Sugar Hill Records and issued her debut "Song Up in Her Head," featuring stellar musicians such as Chris Thile, Darrell Scott and Jerry Douglas.
It appeared as though her career in folk and bluegrass was all set. But she shocked her family with a four-year detour through the New England Conservatory of Music, where she performed in jazz, klezmer and even world-music ensembles.
"I wanted to stretch outside of my musical comfort zone and try some different stuff," the artist says. "And also, having started in music so early, it was really important just for my life path to not go straight out onto the road and have four years of a somewhat college experience."
The running joke on campus, she adds, was that NEC stood for "not exactly college."
One of her favorite moments was working with third-stream pioneer Ran Blake, who helped her rearrange Abbey Lincoln's "Tender as a Rose" for her senior recital, where she also stunned classmates with a 45-minute set of acoustic originals. "Nobody in my school had seen that side of me," she says.
For the second recital set, Jarosz experimented with duos, trios, even some vintage Ornette Coleman, cementing her genre-straddling approach. "I was all over the place," she says. "And I wasn't wearing anything that special. But I was wearing my cowboy boots, for sure. I wear those boots on a regular basis!"