Olivia Smiley might have stood out in the beginning because she's one of few fiddlers in a skirt and lipstick - and she is pretty, blonde and both the frontwoman of her band Main Street and the only female member. But, in the end, it's her music that's far more remarkable. The Westport, Ind. native has risen to the top as a precocious talent, winning competitions, drawing media attention and scoring gigs with more established artists.
At first, being a woman in bluegrass presented unique challenges.
"When you are traveling, you have to think about things like booking an extra room, and I wasn't getting as many bookings as I wanted to," Smiley recalls. "So I thought that I might as well just start playing around on my own."
Not that Smiley labored under the yoke of patriarchy much beyond her teenage years - at 22, she's moved quickly from being a cute opening to the main event.
Of course, she wasn't truly going to play on her own, so she got on the horn to bluegrass musicians she knew.
"I would call up some friends and say, 'Hey would you come out and play this date for us?'"
These impromptu sessions bloomed into a full band, Main Street, with which Smiley's worked up a full-length album, Bright Lights and Avenues
In a 2006 interview with Bluegrass Now
, Smiley confessed to dreaming of fiddling with bluegrass legend Larry Sparks. Three years later, she realized it, opening several dates for Sparks in 2009, from Bean Blossom to Galax, Virginia.
Smiley comes to any gig with a bevy of awards and accolades: Ohio Old-time Fiddlers' Championships, Indiana and Kentucky State Fiddle Championships, and a Top 10 finish in the Grand Master Fiddler Championship, all since 2005.
But Smiley remains refreshingly unimpressed with herself.
"I can't even remember the years I won those," she laughs.
All Smiley cares about is playing honest, unpretentious bluegrass fiddle, a goal she's had since she discovered violin and fiddling at age four. And her focus is definitely on her fiddling, as she forgets to even talk about the fact that she sings on many of these songs.
As a purist and a fan of acoustic music, Smiley does without near ubiquitous pitch-correction on her vocals - nor does she need it. Her vocals are clean, soft, and expressive, blending well with the band. Even before she hooked up with Main Street, she had recorded a solo album, on which she penned 11 of the songs. The album received rave reviews in many bluegrass magazines and publications, elevating Smiley as a fiddling wunderkind.
Through the years, her music has become more complex in terms of arrangements and has also matured lyrically. Part of this growth has been encouraged by her cohorts in Main Street, the members of which are all at least four years older than Smiley, with some in their thirties and forties and beyond.
But neither bandleader nor bandmates can devote all their time to bluegrass. Though her bandmates have the chops to do the bluegrass scene full-time, family and work obligations place restrictions on their performance and practice time.
"Everyone in the band has a full-time job, or everyone has a family, and I have school," Smiley says.
Smiley is realistic about the future of the group: "We want to have as much fun as possible, meet some people, and maybe make a little money."
Though they play music of an earlier age, Smiley and Main Street aren't neglecting the Internet as a marketing and networking tool - to audition Bright Lights and Avenues
, look no further than iTunes.
Smiley often meets friends she didn't know she had during live gigs - her MySpace has registered over 30,000 hits and over 2,000 friends.
"There are so many people I've met just online, who I meet at festivals who say, 'Hey, you're Olivia Smiley! I met you on MySpace!'"
While the Westport Area Community Building doesn't rival the venues she played while supporting Sparks - or the Indiana State Fair, for that matter, which can't be beat for walk-up traffic - this weekend's gig is a return to home, a chance to play before friends and family in her native Decatur County.