Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz was only nineteen the first time she appeared on Austin City Limits in 2010, but we – staff and viewers – knew she was a major talent, and not just because she hailed from our neck of the woods. Time, critical acclaim and a shelf full of Grammys and Americana Music Awards have proven us correct. So we’re always thrilled to host her again, and especially so for a taping that got delayed from last year due to the pandemic. The pent-up energy was on full display in a performance that included every song from 2020’s Grammy Award-winning World on the Ground, and was live streamed around the world.
“This is incredibly exciting,” noted Jarosz as she took the stage with her four-piece band (which included renowned World producer John Leventhal). The conservatory-trained songwriter started with World opener “Eve,” a song that sounds like it could be a century old, while still sounding like it had to have been written in the now. Jarosz exchanged her guitar for a mandolin and went into “Pay It No Mind,” another memorable, melodic World folker. “It’s a dream to do it once, let alone three times,” she noted about her third Austin City Limits appearance as she donned her signature octave mandolin. “This is a good way to re-emerge after the last year.” She then reached back to her 2016 album Undercurrent for the brooding “House of Mercy,” the Grammy-winning song ornamented by Leventhal’s supremely subtle Telecaster. Jarosz talked about how growing up in Austin and Wimberley inspired the songs on World, which capped a rough year by winning a Grammy. Leventhal then took to the piano as Jarosz sang the beautiful “Orange and Blue,” which the two of them wrote together.
Jarosz introduced guitarist Mike Robinson, whose ringing guitar introduced “Green Lights,” another luminous folk rock tune from Undercurrent. Clearly by this point it was time for a ballad, and Jarosz obliged with the bittersweet “Hometown” a tune that led her to note how much of an emotional experience it was to sing these Texas-based songs in her home state. The next tune “Johnny” essayed more folk rock, anchored by the memorable line “An open heart looks a lot like the wilderness.” The hopeful “Maggie” was inspired by Jarosz attending her high school reunion – “I had a blast and I got some songs out of it.” No word on whether or not “What Do I Do” was one of those, but it still made an impression with its melancholy melody and steel guitar frosting. The energy kicked up a notch on the mock-apocalyptic “I’ll Be Gone,” a jolt of gallows humor surrounded by three acoustic guitars. The band then quit the stage, as Jarosz reached into her deep well of cover songs recorded and streamed over the course of the pandemic, and a special one it was: a gentle, soulful take on U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” that turned the rock anthem into the folk song it always threatened to become.
“The only way to follow U2 is with the banjo,” chuckled Jarosz as she strapped on said instrument for “Little Satchel,” a traditional folk tune that was one of the first songs she ever learned, back when she was participating in the Wimberly bluegrass jams at the age of nine. “This song was written about Kendall,” Jarosze said about “Empty Square,” in a nod to Succession fans – perhaps a bit cryptic for anyone who hasn’t seen that HBO show, but the song was strong regardless. She closed the main set with “one of my greatest Texas songwriting influences,” ACL two-timer James McMurtry and his stirring tune “Childish Things.” That earned the exiting Jarosz and the band wild applause, but it wasn’t over yet. She and the band encored with another key influence on the star’s writing: frequent ACL visitor Nanci Griffith and
her lovely tune “You Can’t Go Home Again,” which fit in perfectly with the evening’s themes of coming home and was a perfect way to send the crowd gently out into the night. It was a truly special performance, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall as part of our Season 47 on your local PBS station.