by Mike Thiessen
“You’re all so attentive!” Bella White exclaimed to her quietly captivated audience halfway through her Sunday afternoon concert at Folk Fest’s Spruce Hollow stage. It’s hard not to be – White’s viscerally relatable lyricism and sweet and powerful vocals doused in a healthy amount of classic old-time country twang get at listeners in a way that not much else does.
White was born and raised in Calgary, and it was there that she got her start in the bluegrass music scene. Throughout her teenage years, she would play around the city, both on her own and in other bands. “When I was in high school, I had a fake ID that I would use to go around and play in bars – I feel like they eventually learned that I was lying when I turned eighteen,” she recalls with a laugh. Presumably, being deceived about White’s age was a small price for the bars to pay for the delight of watching her come up as an artist.
All through her formative years, White was exposed to old-time country through her bluegrass-playing Virginian father, and she latched onto this tradition without thinking twice. For her, there’s just something innately appealing about the genre that simply calls out to her. “I always did really like the music,” says White. “I don’t think I ever went through a phase where I thought it was stupid or anything … I always thought it was cool, and it looked really fun to play.” As a preteen, she began attending NimbleFingers, a workshop-oriented bluegrass festival near Kamloops. To see droves of artists in their twenties playing music she’d only known to be appreciated by older people was revolutionary for White. “I saw these young people doing this thing I already thought was pretty cool, and I realized I had peers! From that moment on, it was kind of end game.”
This has proved, it would seem, to be the right decision for her. Over the past couple of years, White has really taken off in both senses of the term. Her most recent album, Among Other Things, released in April of this year, has been received to great acclaim, and she has been touring across North America and Europe. White channeled a sense of empowerment in the creation of the album. “All my songs are sad – that’s something I’m working on,” she laughs. “But I’ve tried to take those hard and sad feelings and package them up in this way that makes you feel good after you listen to them. It’s about taking control of the story.”
Feeling good while listening to the music of White and her band is not a hard task. During her Saturday workshop at Bur Oak, children were spun around in circles by their parents, audience members cheerfully tapped their toes and rocked back and forth, and an older gentleman danced with vigour unseen at any other stage over the course of the weekend. Bluegrass-adjacent music tends to be favoured by a pretty widespread group. The reason for this, White believes, is that it’s a generally relatable, accessible, and fun genre, and a good bluegrass or old-time group knows how to tap into that energy.
Since its conception, one of bluegrass’ common themes has been leaving – getting out, seeking greener pastures, going back to old Kentucky, what have you. White’s music follows in this tradition with pleasure. On the first track of the new album, “The Way I Oughta Go,” White sings, “Well, dreaming never met me in Alberta/ So I packed my things, Tennessee I did go.” She’s not simply singing words here – the concept of abandoning all familiarity and seeing what the world has to offer is one with which White is well acquainted. At 22 years old, she has already lived in multiple provinces and states and has seen even more. As for her relationship with the idea of getting out and going someplace new, it’s very much on the line between two internal senses. “There are definitely elements of escapism – being like, ‘If I go away, I don’t have to face this, and I don’t have to deal with this – goodbye.’ But there’s also this yearning for what’s out there. I love what I don’t know … I’m aware of the fact that there are a billion things I don’t know and will never know, but you can find them along the way.”
Given her touring schedule, White seems likely to find these things she doesn’t know at quite a pace. She stopped at Winnipeg Folk Festival between a stint in the UK a couple of weeks before and a trip to Montana one week after and has since continued on the bluegrass festival circuit across the continent. This lifestyle aligns nicely with White’s desire to see what’s out there. “Touring can be this interesting dichotomy between getting that itch scratched, being out in the world and seeing what’s going on, but you’re also only getting these tiny glimpses. In some ways,” she reflects. “Touring feeds the urge to know more.”
White remarked at the end of her set (at which point the crowd remained just as attentive, if not more so) that this was her first time in Winnipeg, a fact that felt strange to her given her relative proximity growing up in Calgary. The weekend she spent here, however, gave her a good impression. “Doing these kinds of festivals embodies that sense of community,” she says, referring back to the welcoming environment that bluegrass and old-time country creates. “Coming to Folk Fest feels really good to me. I feel hugged by it. There’s this sense of intimacy that you get at these festivals – you get familiar with it, you meet people, you get to play with people. It feels so good to do that.” With its community-minded approach, she says, festivals like Winnipeg Folk Fest are the ultimate setting for bluegrass and country music. Due to this fact, with any luck, Winnipeg has hopefully not seen the last of Bella White.