Forming a supergroup is a risky proposition. When several masters of a genre come together to form something new, there is a spectrum of possible end results. It could fail to live up to the hype and expectations, falling short of the talent of any of the individual members. More rarely, it can far exceed anyone’s loftiest expectations, creating something new and exciting and memorable. Most often, it falls somewhere in the middle.
In 2014, three of the biggest names in progressive bluegrass, Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Aiofe O’Donovan, started playing together under the name I’m With Her. Earlier this year, the trio released its first album, called “See You Around.” I’m not sure if anyone is throwing around the “supergroup” label for this trio, but I strongly believe that’s how we should consider them, because all three members are great. And this album falls so far on the great end of the spectrum described above that I’m just awestruck. This is one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long, long time.
Without question, they are masters of bluegrass/Americana/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, but I’ll admit to having disparate levels of affection for their solo work. Sarah Jarosz has always been exceptional, but her 2016 album, “Undercurrent,” is one of my favorites ever. I love Sara Watkins’s work as a member of Nickel Creek–their songs that showcase her, like “Anthony” from 2005’s seminal “Why Should the Fire Die”–are sneakily among the band’s best. But neither her solo work nor the Watkins Family Hour drew me in quite like that most famous venture. And Aiofe O’Donovan is the only one of the three whom I’ve seen play live. It was just an incredible performance that showcased her songwriting and storytelling prowess, but for me, her most recent album, “In the Magic Hour,” did not live up to the power of that concert experience or the quality of its predecessor, 2013’s “Fossils.”
On “See You Around,” the end result is so much greater than the sum of its parts. By bringing together the ever-so-slightly different strengths and styles of these three masters, they’ve created something new and exciting and original and referential and, simply, wonderful.
There are songs that are reminiscent of Watkins’s work with Nickel Creek, like Ain’t That Fine, and others that showcase O’Donovan’s soulfulness, and yet others that come full-throttle with Jarosz’s virtuosity and intensity.
And then there are songs like Overland, which bring to mind the absolute best of bluegrass. This is an old-feeling song that is still new and fresh, telling a classic bluegrass story that feels alive and new because of the clarity of the three women’s voices and the quality of their musicianship.
My favorite song, though, is I-89. It’s the sort of song that you dream of when imagining three greats coming together like this. It is, again, reminiscent of the best of Nickel Creek’s work on the 2005 album I’ve already referred to above. On that album, Nickel Creek was creating something entirely new, using the chemistry developed over 16 years together combined with the three members’ incredible talent to experiment with arrangement, orchestration, melody, and harmony. I’m With Her does that here with maybe even more impressive results. “See You Around” is the sort of album I expect to keep coming back to for decades after my first listening, and I-89 is the song I expect to transport me right back to the stretch of Bay Area sidewalk where I first listened to it on my walk to the train station. (Just like how the opening bars of When in Rome take me back to Baltimore’s North Calvert Street in 2005.) But whereas Nickel Creek came out guns-ablazing on that album, putting When in Rome front and center as the opening track, I-89 is folded into the flow of the album. Both the song and the album are stronger for it.
If I keep referring to that Nickel Creek album, it’s because it was the first one in this genre I ever fell in love with and so, for me, it will always occupy the most privileged spot in my music-loving heart. Many great albums have come out since then, but “See You Around” is the first that struck me like that first, great love. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.