15-year old Mei Lin Heirendt is in many ways, a typical teen: She’s a huge Star Wars fan, goes shopping for scrunchies, and Instagrams her avocado toast. But typical, she is not. Lin is a gigging fiddle player and singer who’s part of an elite squad of young Northern California bluegrass musicians. Like Heirendt, many got their start playing in the kids’ camp and amateur jams at Grass Valley’s annual Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival. The list of virtuosic children who came out of the fest is long, and includes now-pro pickers Molly Tuttle and AJ Lee. Heirendt is one of the latest major talents to emerge.
Her fiddle chops are impressive, but it’s Heirendt’s arrestingly honest, vulnerable singing voice that makes beer gardens suddenly go quiet. Playing with her trio, Boston Ravine, and 18-year old Kyle Ledson’s band, she’s got gigs booked up and down the state this summer and new album out called Ragged Road. We sat down to find out more about her burgeoning career.
This interview has been edited for clarity
How did you become a musician?
My dad’s a music therapist and plays multiple instruments. We’ve been going to Father’s Day [Bluegrass Festival in Grass Valley] since I was a baby. I started playing classical violin when I was seven, and started focusing on bluegrass about four years ago. We started Boston Ravine together in 2018. At first it was just my father [Robert Hierendt, guitar] and me, and then we added Karl Chelette on upright bass.
Is it challenging being a gigging musician when you’re in high school?
Yes and no. I go to Ghidotti. Definitely with homework and whatnot, I have so many different passions, and it’s hard to reach the level I’d like to be at. But I also think that people tend to pay more attention to younger people, especially in the music world.
If you go to bluegrass festivals, the scene seems to be dominated by mostly older white dudes. Has that been weird for you?
Thank you for asking that question. It’s definitely me playing with a bunch of people who are WAY older than me. But the reason that I gravitated towards bluegrass wasn’t just the music, it was the community. It’s so casual – there are top notch players who come to festivals, pick a tune and hang out with you.
Do you still take music lessons?
I take virtual lessons from some of my musical heroes. I take theory lessons from Patrick M’Gonigle of The Lonely Heartstring Band. He’s up in Canada. I’ve been doing fiddle lessons with Adam Haynes and vocal lessons with John Bryan, both [of whom are] from the Grascals who are based in Nashville.
The famous bluegrass artist Vern Williams was once quoted as saying that to really sing bluegrass, “You’ve got to spill your guts on stage. And then walk in them.” Do you relate to this gory quote?
I think that’s really, really true. You can be a trained vocalist, but if you can’t convey the emotion in the song, you’re not going to engage with the audience. I definitely think that emotion comes first – that’s WHY these songs were written in the first place.
You play in a lot of pick-up bands with other teen players. Do bluegrass kids share any personality traits that attracted them to such an old-fashioned hobby?
There’s a huge generation of young people who want to play bluegrass. If you look at players from states like Tennessee and Kentucky, they’re obviously going to be super different from players from California. But I think that’s one of the things that’s special about bluegrass: It connects people from different religions and socio-economic backgrounds. You all know the same songs and can jump in and play together.
What’s your favorite song on the new album?
The last song, My Momma’s Heaven. My mom and I co-wrote it. She wrote the lyrics, and I wrote the melody. She specifically wrote that for me to sing, because it’s about her mother and going camping and things they used to do together. It’s very meaningful to both of us.
Are you planning on being a musician as your adult career?
It’s a hard question, because music is my life’s passion, and I would absolutely love to do that. But unfortunately it’s very hard to make an income being a musician.
Where will you be performing next?
I’ll be playing with Kyle Ledson and Django Ruckrich at the Miners Foundry Cultural Center at 4pm on July16.
Featured image by Juli Marks.