Looking at the career of Sarah Jarosz, one gets the impression that her world has never been bigger. Having broken into the Americana scene at a young age, Jarosz at 29 has four studio records under her belt. She’s toured the world both as a solo artist and as a member of the folk power trio I’m With Her, along with bandmates Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek, Watkins Family Hour) and Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still). She’s a regular guest on the national variety show Live From Here. Her last studio LP, 2016’s Undercurrent, earned two Grammy Awards, and she netted some additional hardware for I’m With Her’s 2019 tune “Call My Name”. It would be reasonable to think that, on the heels of such success, Jarosz might swing for the fences with her next album, especially given that in 2017 she was commissioned by the FreshGrass festival to write a lengthy composition that came to be called “The Blue Heron Suite”.
World on the Ground, though, is an act of looking inward, of keying into small details rather than grandiose ambitions. This is a smart idea. The album, Jarosz’s fifth, takes as its subject the space of central Texas, and the lives of the people there. (She hails from the Austin-orbit town of Wimberley, and currently resides in New York City.) In their unique ways, the ten songs that comprise World on the Ground feel like individual short stories, novelistic rather than journalistic in their detail. The perspective Jarosz takes in looking at her hometown the kind of view one gets of their home after spending many years away from it. Her mini-narratives reveal a deep love for her roots, a love that “burn[s] orange and blue” like a flame, as she puts it on second single “Orange and Blue”. These humane and sympathetic tales, like a good short story, paint a vivid picture from a small slice of life.
Jarosz’s lyrical reflections are met on World on the Ground with some of the strongest songwriting of her career. Two of the choruses here, on “Johnny” and “I’ll Be Gone”, are ripe for crossover potential, though the Americana fold in which Jarosz is most known hasn’t seen a major crossover event since the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack catapulted Alison Krauss and Union Station to mainstream prominence. Those two tunes, and indeed the record as a whole, deserve such recognition, particularly “Johnny”, whose chorus soars to a brilliant final lyric (“And an open heart looks / a lot like the wilderness”). It may not be what you expect to summit the pop charts, but it’s certainly ripe with an appeal for a broader audience. That has long been true of Jarosz’s music, admittedly; “Johnny”‘s echoey production recalls Undercurrents’ “Green Lights”, which similarly flirts with pop music.
Although World on the Ground as a whole takes a patient, meditative tone musically and lyrically, Jarosz maintains dynamic variation throughout. The folk-pop of “Johnny” and the twangy country of “I’ll Be Gone” are balanced by the jazzy, downtempo “Orange and Blue” and the mellow “Hometown”. Known primarily for her talents on the mandolin (and, in this critic’s estimation, for being the leading force in giving the lesser-appreciated octave mandolin its proper due), Jarosz also breaks out the banjo for the serene closer “Little Satchel”. It’s easy to imagine any of these tracks working as standalone solo pieces, a mode in which Jarosz regularly performs, but World on the Ground‘s biggest success comes in how Jarosz and producer John Leventhal arrange and sequence these tracks. The acoustic guitar fingerpicking and minimalist drum rhythm on the verses of “Hometown” are made all the more effective for how they segue into the electric guitar riff of “Johnny”.
On “Pay it No Mind”, Jarosz’s gentle sass in the chorus lyric (“We all have our notions, baby / We all laugh inside / And the when the world on the ground is gonna swallow you down / Sometimes you got to pay it no mind”) evokes an oft-overlooked great of the country and folk scenes, Mary Chapin Carpenter. It’s not hard to imagine the person who sang “I Feel Lucky” following that number up with “Pay It No Mind”. Just as Carpenter does on her best material, Jarosz imbues this music with assured confidence, the kind of confidence that’s easy for an artist to summon when she is in command of her voice. World on the Ground is a portrait of one such artist. It’s a record that reminds us that no matter how far we venture from our roots, they always linger in us. The worlds we grow up in are not so small as we often imagine them to be.