• Jenni Lyn Lights Up with Burn Another Candle

    Jenni Lyn Gardner

    Nashville-based Jenni Lyn Gardner is best known as the mandolinist for Boston bluegrass queens Della Mae. But she's been playing since childhood and went pro in her teens. At age nine, precocious and pretty, she played a tune backstage with Bill Monroe, who pronounced, "Little girl, one day you are going to be a star."

    She joined Della Mae in 2009, relocating from South Carolina to Massachusetts. Her deeply rhythmic playing anchored an early e.p. and three full albums, but recently the band went on hiatus (while still performing the occasional show), leaving time for other pursuits. While Gardner—who, along with other band members, headed to Tennessee after too many Northeast winters—is still considering some type of future release with her Palmetto Bluegrass Band side project, she used this opportunity to craft a solo debut disc, Burn Another Candle, under the moniker Jenni Lyn.

    Backed by a Music City wrecking crew including bassist Mike Bub, guitarist Frank Rische and banjo man Kyle Tuttle (along with a visit from Della Mae), Candle is steeped in bluegrass, but not slavish to it. Yes, the instrumental "Runnin' from the Law" will get snatched up by festival pickers across the land, but the title track and "Are You OK Alone?" both have a jittery indie pop feel despite their traditional instrumentation. Old friend Jim Lauderdale's "Can We Find Forgiveness" takes it straight to church. And album opener "Stronger" pinches an urban acoustic groove from Carolina Chocolate Drops.

    Gardner wrote eight of the album's tracks, with Tuttle supplying "Don't Cry Little Girl."

    While she sang the odd number with Della Mae, Burn Another Candle reveals Jenni Lyn to be a triple threat as picker, singer and writer. It seems Mr. Monroe may have been right.

    Michael EckAbout the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter; a nationally exhibited painter; and an award-winning cultural critic and freelance writer. He is also a member of Ramblin Jug Stompers, Lost Radio Rounders, Berkshire Ramblers and Good Things.

    There's footage of you at age nine, in 1993, picking "Old Joe Clark" with Bill Monroe at the Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Bluegrass Festival. When exactly did you begin playing?

    My grandma was a banjo player, and she had this little guitar at her house. She gave it to me when I was five years old. My parent's had it painted for me and my name put on it for my seventh birthday. I played that first, and then when I was eight years old, my dad brought home a mandolin that he bought from a maker in our hometown. While he was at work, I would sneak into the music room and play with the mandolin while he was away. I fell in love with it from the very first note that I played on it. I remember that note, and I remember thinking to myself, I have to do this forever.

    There are some interesting aspects to this record, some strong-willed songs, some questioning songs and some relationship blues, too.

    When I began writing and gathering songs for this record, it was, honestly, like pulling on a thread. I was in a place where I felt very empowered. I'd been searching for a personal breakthrough in a sense. I wanted to feel, without sounding clichéd, stronger; I wanted to grow as an artist and as a human being. I did a lot of work to have that breakthrough, and it came to a head when I started making my record; it began to unfold when I dove into this album.

    Can you talk a little about making the record? It has a very forward, open sound.

    I recorded it here in Nashville at Sound Waves Studios, with Daniel Rice, from Gravity Boots Recording, engineering. It was a great, really inspired experience. We started recording in January 2016, and finished up in August. It took that long because I was still touring with Della Mae and on the road a ton, so we didn't cut the record all at once. I did a lot of writing in the studio, as well as on the road. Things came together very naturally and organically, as far as arrangements for the songs, while we were in the studio.

    Jenni Lyn - Burn Another Candle
    Album cover photo credit: Mick Leonardi

    Was the decision to produce the album yourself artistic, economic, or a little bit of both?

    That was an artistic choice. Because I've had the opportunity to work with some really great producers, with Della Mae and with other projects that I've been involved in, I've had the opportunity to learn so much. Going into this record, I thought, there's no one else that knows what I want this record to sound like better than me. It's kind of a statement, it's, "Hey guys, this is something that I do, and that I love! Check it out."

    Are You OK Alone?

    The official music video for "Are You OK Alone?" from Burn Another Candle.

    Starting out so young, who was in your ears as you first began playing; and what is it about bluegrass that still inspires you?

    When I was coming up, I listened to a lot of the Bluegrass Album Band, Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe & The New South, Larry Sparks, Blue Highway, and Alison Krauss & Union Station. I listened to a lot of newer, third-generation bluegrass, fourth even. It hasn't been until the last several years that I've really wanted to dive into the first-generation stuff. It's the language and the drive. I listen to all kinds of music, but I always come back to bluegrass. It's the only thing that I can listen to and just get that specific, excited feeling. I think most people who listen to bluegrass, and who love it, can understand that.

    Della Mae

    Members of Della Mae. L-R: Celia Woodsmith, vocals and guitar; Jenni Lyn Gardner, mandolin and vocals; Courtney Hartman, guitar, banjo and vocals;Kimber Ludiker, fiddle and vocals.

    Photo credit: Cracker Farm

    Can you point to a specific player who served as a role model?

    Sam Bush for sure, without question. His ability to build a solo and get a live audience excited is like no one else's—I'm a big Sam Bush fan. I think he paved the way for a lot of musicians to advance, to experiment and to branch out. I really respect that a whole lot. I appreciate someone who's got an instantly recognizable sound, and I think Sam has that. He does his own thing. He's an individual. It never feels like he's trying to sound like someone else.

    Anyone who didn't play mandolin?

    Definitely Tony Rice. I'm just as much a fan of Tony Rice and his rhythm playing as I am his lead playing, and his right hand just inspires me tremendously.

    Your right hand is something else, and you seem to be an absolutely sure rhythm player, as opposed to concentrating solely on lead picking. Do you think some mandolinists place too much emphasis on the hot licks before they have the rhythm down?

    Yeah, I think so. I've seen it time and time again, not with just mandolinists. People get so obsessed with executing a flawless solo, and when it comes back to the rhythm, everything bottoms out. To me, there's nothing more frustrating than that. I get it. But to me, I would rather have a solid rhythm with soloing that can be understood and sound original, than a flawless break at an unimaginable tempo. Absolutely, I think people, all the time, neglect the rhythm.

    2014 Grammy Awards

    Jenni Lyn at The Grammy Awards. Della Mae's album This World Oft Can Be was nominated for Best Bluegrass Album in 2014.

    Jenni Lyn Gardner at the 2014 Grammys

    Can you talk a little about the mandolin as a snare drum, the way its function is often described in a bluegrass context?

    Yeah, I definitely think of the mandolin as a percussion instrument, especially playing off the bass. To me, the upright bass in a bluegrass ensemble is the kick drum. And I'm playing snare and high hat. I think timing is the most important thing in the chop. It's noticeable if for one second I take my mind off the rhythm and what's happening. It derails the entire song.

    For me, I'm in it 150%, and I am so concerned with where in the time my chop or rhythm is falling. Timing is the number one thing, because even if I wasn't playing the chop chords, and I was just playing a muted chord, as long as the timing hits where it needs to, it's going to propel the song and be just what it needs.

    You describe mandolin and bass as a rhythm section. Are there situations where you're playing with out a bassist?

    I rarely, rarely play without a bass player. But recently I did a show at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and they asked that I do it with only one accompanist, so I did it with myself on mandolin and Kyle Tuttle on banjo. I found I was playing a lot more rhythm notes, a lot more open chords and doing more strumming than straight chopping.

    I definitely have to change my playing when there's not a bassist there to carry the rhythm, because if I don't, then there are too many holes to be filled.

    You've got some fast moments on the record, offering room for a little flash, but you also have some really beautiful playing with lots of air in it. What's your philosophy when soloing?

    I like to get my point across when I take a solo. I don't like to show off. I like to play what the song needs, and I like to keep it simple most of the time, so that it can be heard on the first time or two and people can comprehend what I'm trying to say.

    Jenni Lyn Gardner Meets Bill Monroe

    Nine year old Jenni Lyn Gardner meets Bill Monroe at the 1993 Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Bluegrass Festival for a quick tune and impromptu dance.

    Photo credit: Gene Lowinger

    Kyle Tuttle's a heckuva banjo picker, and he's all over this record.

    Well, the thing is, I love banjo​ and I love Kyle Tuttle's banjo playing. That's another liberty I took on this record, putting a lot of banjo on there. My grandma was a banjo player, my dad played banjo; I grew up hearing it and I love it. It brings a different feel and a different vibe to have the driving sound of the banjo. I feel the most in my happy place, the most in my comfort zone, playing with banjo, guitar, bass and me on mandolin. That's my sweet spot.

    “In this day and age it's refreshing to hear a new artist whose music comes straight from the heart. Jenni Lyn is undoubtedly such, with one foot planted deep in tradition and the other bound for uncharted territory.”

    — Sam Bush

    There are so many young people playing bluegrass, or at least bluegrass-tinged music these days. It seems to be expanding the definition, perhaps in the way that Newgrass did at an earlier time. Your record has elements of blues, funk, country and even a touch of hip hop in the way you sing "Stronger," the opening track.

    I grew up on bluegrass and that is where my roots are, but I listen to so much other music, too. I want to appeal to a broader audience than just the bluegrass crowd. I felt like I would be doing a disservice if I didn't represent the side of me that is a woman who grew up surrounded by bluegrass, but who is also living in current times and writing about my life and what I know about today. I wanted to capture the language of the bluegrass that I grew up listening to, and add a modern element to it.

    Della Mae

    Jenni Lyn with Della Mae
    Photo credit: Deborah Tracey

    I'm sure you learned a thing or two standing toe to toe with Bill Monroe. Do you have any words of advice for new players coming in your wake?

    Don't compare yourself to other people. I think learning from others is great, and I would highly suggest trying to learn as much as you can from other players. But I think it's a terrible place to be in to compare yourself to others all the time. There are so many great artists, and there's room for everybody. We need everyone. We're all individuals. There can't be two Jenni Lyn Gardners. There's only one. There can't be another Sam Bush. I will never be Sam Bush, unfortunately, but I can learn as much as I can from him and put that energy back out into the world, and hopefully let my light shine in a way that people can get excited about.​


    Jenni Lyn doesn't consider herself a gearhead, but does have definite preferences, favoring, for example, a Blue Chip pick on D'Addario EFW74 flatwound strings for her main axe, a 2014 Randy Wood F-5. It has a "game-changing" radiused fingerboard, which fits her smaller hands well and relieves tension in her left wrist. She finds the flatwounds—a new fascination—respond better with her live rig, which includes a K&K Mandolin Twin through a Baggs Venue DI. On the old-timey album track "Hickory Holler" she used the same Jennings Chestnut that she first started on in her dad's music room. And she still writes on her grandmother's Castilla guitar.

    Gussie A. Gardner

    Jenni Lyn Gardner's banjo playing grandmother, Gussie A​.​ Gardner.​

    Additional Information

    Comments 9 Comments
    1. MikeEdgerton's Avatar
      MikeEdgerton -
      There's no lack of talent there. Nice work on the mandolin.
    1. Andy B's Avatar
      Andy B -
      Nicely done Michael--great interview.
    1. JEStanek's Avatar
      JEStanek -
      Wonderful interview, Michael. Thanks for helping me learn more about this big talent.

    1. Michael Eck's Avatar
      Michael Eck -
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Our congratulations to Jenni Lyn and Kyle Tuttle who were married this past week, December 20.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this interview put together for us by Michael Eck.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting today's anniversary of this interview.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting today's anniversary of this interview.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature interview.