Not very merry? Judith Edelman puts the blue in bluegrass 

Bluegrass is arguably the perfect holiday music. Lyrically it rarely, if ever, has anything to do with Christmas or Thanksgiving, but there’s something about the “high lonesome” that captures the strange and mysterious loneliness that you can only feel in the presence of your family. That, I think, is the profound heartache of bluegrass; the bittersweet despair of feeling most alone, and wanting to be alone, when surrounded by love.

Judith Edelman has a voice that taps that strange human mystery, and being a bluegrass artist, has an inroad to the timeless ironies about longing for sadness in the face of happiness. On her latest record she sings about wanting to “find me a northern city/dark streets where I can hide/find a shade tree I can sleep by/he’s keeping me up nights/my days have come undone/there’s only sun.”

Edelman told New Country magazine that that song, “Only Sun”, was the “most personal song on the record, because I could imagine myself in a situation where I might sabotage things just to get a little gloom back.”

Edelman’s road to being a bluegrass sensation wasn’t a straight one by any means. She was raised in a Manhattan family of high achievement and expectation (her father shared the 1972 Nobel Prize for medicine for research on antibodies), so music was part of the landscape. But it wasn’t until she was doing social work and field research in Africa that she picked up a guitar. Actually, as she told it to Billboard, she was sick “from a bad case of salmonella in a place in Nairobi called the Hotel Terminal. I called a perfect stranger who was my contact in that country and said, ‘I’m really sick and wondering if you have a spare room.’ He nursed me, and while I was there, he had an old guitar that I started to fool around with to take my mind off how bad I felt.”

Edelman moved to San Francisco and specifically sought out bluegrass lessons, drawn to the rhythmic intensity of the music. Already a classical pianist, she was a quick study and in April of ’96 released her first record, Perfect World. A confessional solo debut, it was mainly a test for Edelman to see how professionally and personally committed she was to following through with the music.

Now on tour supporting her second album, “Only Sun,” Edelman and her band are garnering good reviews for their virtuosity as much as for Edelman’s penetrating gaze at the darker aspects of the human heart. “It’s in the emotion that you dig to get to the soul of a story and sometimes find a surprise. ...The thread that links my two albums is that they both lean a bit towards the dark side. I guess it’s the dark side of my imagination that drives my stories.”

So as Christmas nears and the Yuletide mirth begins to wear thin, a little bluegrass is just the thing to wash down the treacly carols emanating from shopping center loudspeakers. And besides, don’t you wonder what’s really over the hill and through the woods? I’m sure Edelman would agree; it ain’t just grandma’s house over yonder.

The Judith Edelman Band plays the UM Masquer Theatre Friday, Dec. 17 at 7:30 PM with special guest Frank O’Brien. Tickets $10 advance, $12 at the door. Call 243-4999.

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