Van't Hardly Wait
by Stephen Pitalo
A person’s name rarely looks like a contraction, but Michigan fiddler Grace van’t Hof says her rare name should reflect her unique background she has as well as the journey she’s taken.
“My family is from the Netherlands and van’t Hof is a Dutch last name that means ‘from the court/garden,’” van’t Hof said. “Now, my ancestors weren’t fancy, so I’m pretty sure they chose this name for themselves as sort of a joke. The van’t part is a contraction of the words ‘van’ and ‘het’ which mean ‘from the’. Some Americans van’t Hofs capitalize the V but in the Netherlands, it is not capitalized. I prefer to use the Dutch spelling.”
Having grown up in Holland, her family moved to the west coast of Michigan. With an accomplished pianist mother who is also a professor of dance and dance history, van’t Hof was introduced to the piano as a young kid. A few years later she started violin in the school orchestra as well, with her earliest ‘performances’ being small piano recitals and “some very cute but very squeaky orchestra concerts.” She also built a five-string prototype that won second place in a statewide science Olympiad.
Inspired by her classical music background and artists from Charlie Poole to Puccini, her banjo, ukulele, and accordion playing combine to offer equal parts rhythm and ornamentation to projects of varied musical genres, though she has never strayed far from the blood harmonies of groups like the Louvin Brothers and the Boswell Sisters.
A founding member of both the Grammy-nominated group Della Mae, and the internationally known old-time group Bill and the Belles, van’t Hof’s career has taken her around the world. In addition to performances with Sinner Friends, she also tours the U.S. and beyond with the bluegrass group Chris Jones & the Night Drivers.
Now allied as Sinner Friends with fellow country-duet fanatic Conner Steven Vlietstra, Grace seeks to explore, map, and poke holes in the varied and complicated roles of men and women in early country, bluegrass gospel, and old-time music.
Of her time with Bill and the Belles, Rolling Stone Magazine said, “[the band] is committed to helping early country music remain appreciated – not just replicated.”
“Starting out, the classical composers that influenced me were the ones that my parents and grandparents loved,” van’t Hof said, citing Handel and Mendelssohn as major contributors to her early years. “My dad was a huge fan of Wendy Carlos’ iconoclastic record Switched on Bach and those tunes turned me on to more of Bach’s work. As I grew older and became more interested in classical voice, I consumed a whole lot of opera. Puccini’s ‘La Traviata’ is my favorite.”
Currently, van’t Hof gravitates towards the composers who came to the fore at the turn of the last century, with names like Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Boulanger, and Sibelius. This wave of early globalism and the dawn of popular music feeds her interest in early jazz and classic banjo music as well, with her first exposure to bluegrass being a Newport Folk Festival live recording of Jim and Jesse McReynolds.
“Later, in my teens, when I started playing bluegrass myself, I gravitated towards artists like Union Station, the Lonesome River Band, and Blue Highway, you know, all that awesome 90’s stuff. In addition to still loving those records, these days I spend most of my time listening to earlier artists. I love Reno and Smiley, the Monroe Brothers, and the Stanley Brothers. I’m really interested in the edges of bluegrass where it overlaps with country music and Old-time.”
Some non-bluegrass/non-classical artist influences include Jimmie Rodgers, Roger Miller, the Louvin Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, and Ma Rainey. As for new artists, she mentioned Brandi Carlile, The Everybodyfields, and Amanda Platt and the Honeycutters, citing their songwriting as the strength of these artists’ appeal.
Van’t Hof formed Della Mae because of a strange interlude in Music City.
“I was living in Asheville NC and had traveled to Nashville for the 2010 (I think) IBMA conference,” van’t Hof recalled. “On my last night there I met Kimber Ludiker and we played tunes together and had an awesome time. The next morning, I found she had left a note in my banjo case that said, ‘Come to Boston and play a gig?’ Della Mae at the time was called Big Spike Hammer and was supposed to be a one-time show at the now-closed Cantab Lounge. The show was such a big hit, though, that we got really motivated and began talking about forming a real band. Once I realized the potential, I got serious, moved to Boston, and the band took off.”
She then moved from Boston to the East Tennessee area to be closer to her ex-husband (fiancé at the time) and landed a gig at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum playing classic country.
“I needed a band and the pickup group we formed was myself, my ex-husband Kris Truelsen, superbly talented bassist Karl Zerfas, and the amazing fiddler, vocalist, and arranger Kalia Yeagle. I don’t remember too much about the gig except that afterward, we left knowing we really had something. Our repertoire quickly time-traveled backward from the era of classic country to early country, 20’s popular music, and sentimental song, and we formed Bill and the Belles. I was really proud of that group and I’m grateful for everything I learned from those folks.”
Unfortunately, Grace said, her marriage dissolved, and the end of that relationship made her remaining in the band impossible. “I still miss that music very much and wish them all success.”
The end of a marriage also opened the door to her stint with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers.
“I was out of Bill and the Belles, but we had the Bluegrass Jamboree, a one-month tour through Germany, booked with the original lineup, so I was on the hook for one more tour. On that last tour with the band, I got to know some of the other musicians on the bill pretty well. One of them was Tristan Scroggins, a dear friend, who was working for Megan Lynch-Chowning at the time. As far as I know, Tristan told Megan about my uncomfortable situation (Fired person touring), so she was aware that I was a free agent again, despite the fact that the band was keeping that fact relatively quiet.”
A month or so after I got back to the U.S. and moved back to Michigan, I got a message from Chris Jones asking if I was available and interested in auditioning for his group. He had mentioned needing a new banjo player to Megan and she told Chris that I was unattached and suggested he go out on a limb with really more of an old-time player. I’ve been a fan of Chris’ music since the first time I heard him and we’d had a handful of very nice conversations at IBMA and the Down Home (where I bartended), so I was very excited, but with the band’s banjo alumni being who they were, I was incredibly intimidated. Not to mention that I hadn’t played anything but Bill and the Belles’ repertoire for years, so my bluegrass chops were rusty, to say the least. Those facts didn’t seem to bother Chris though and neither did my totally bombed audition (I froze/choked). He offered me the job and I’m so grateful. I love this group and I’m so proud to be a member.”
Night Drivers had the opportunity to record safely this past fall, having previously been steadily releasing singles on the Mountain Home label.
“The new sound is different than before, with the addition of me on banjo and baritone uke, and Marshall Wilborn on bass, but is still the high level of quality that fans of Chris’ band have come to expect,” she said of the project. “We are creating some really cool new music together.”
Her latest venture is Sinner Friends, an old-time country duo with Conner Steven Vlietstra. The two met at the Down Home in Johnson City and later got the chance to play some tunes together at the open mic nights at Willow Tree — another long-gone place to play.
“We were both interested in a lot of the same early country music and noticed right away that our voices blended in a very cool way. When it became clear that Bill and the Belles and I were parting ways I asked Conner if he wanted to work something up, record a little, and try to get some gigs. He agreed and we have been exploring our sound ever since.”
Van’t Hof said what makes Sinner Friends so special is the low pressure, low stakes position of the project, since each has great gigs in other groups, with Vletstra serving as guitarist for the Price Sisters. “We don’t feel pressured to record or perform anything other than what we find amusing or compelling,” she explained. “We both really enjoy singing covers of country duets and it’s also an opportunity to showcase my original songs. Conner has a great ear for new material, and he is constantly introducing me to incredible new music. We have a mutual interest in sacred music, both the profound and profoundly silly, and we use this project as an outlet for that interest as well.”
She said of Sinner Friends’ status and projects, “We got the chance to safely record a ‘quarantine EP’ last November at Bigtone Records in Bristol, VA and we’re excited to release that this spring. We are premiering our first single from that project on February 15th. It’s our stripped-down cover of the Hamilton Camp song ‘Pride of Man’ which many bluegrass fans know from Tony Rice’s iconic performance. We thought that the lyrics were timely and I’m very pleased with how our treatment of the song turned out.”
Van’t Hof’s interest in illustration has evolved into a sideline as an artist and graphic designer, taking advantage of her art studio studies from her college days.
“I have always had a propensity for expressing ideas visually,” she explained. “When I was living in Asheville, I had the opportunity to apprentice with Jenny Fares, the owner of Sound Mind Creative, and immediately understood that design and illustration kept me involved with music, even when playing was not my full-time gig. As my skills improved, I had the opportunity to work with so many awesome clients including Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Jim Lauderdale, and Mile Twelve. I also had the honor of being nominated for IBMA’s Graphic Designer of the Year award in 2019 and 2020. Fingers crossed for 2021!”
To understand her vocation as a “live scribe and graphic facilitator” needs a little explanation, however.
“Live scribing is a form of visual note-taking to capture the form and ideas of a conversation or a presentation in real-time,” she said. “It’s a very visually-rich form of mind-mapping. I create what is essentially an infographic of a conversation as it’s being had in real-time. Afterward, there is a record of what was said that sparks a visual part of the brain that would not be engaged when simply reading minutes from a meeting. I used to travel and do this work and would often be gone for weeks alternating between scribing gigs and playing shows, but now in the age of COVID19, I work over zoom on an iPad. I never thought I would miss hotels so much!”
And speaking of the COVID pandemic, van’t Hof tries her best to get some practice time in on one or more instruments every day. Occasionally she and her fiancé will work up old ragtime or classic banjo piece which she said is always a fun challenge. “I have so far had a really hard time completing any songwriting, but I am hearing from my colleagues that that is not uncommon,” she said. “As I mentioned, I do graphic facilitation virtually, but it’s been hard. My fiancé and I live very simply without much overhead, but it’s still been a tight and tough time.
“As an introverted person I think I may have had an easier time than others, but I’ve gotten to the point where I am having a really hard time staving off the depression blahs,” she confessed. “Finding the motivation to do anything feels like a Herculean undertaking and I can’t get the thought that I am losing time and opportunities out of my mind. I really miss the validation of being onstage and entertaining folks, knowing that you are improving their mood or helping them feel a connection to you or a character from a song. Finding that validation on social media often feels empty and false. My partner and I joke that playing online shows and interacting on social media feels like you’re starving, and someone hands you a hamburger-flavored La Croix.”
To stay in shape, she uses a small elliptical machine twice a day and makes it a point to take a good long daily walk with her dog, named Lefty Frizzell.
“Left is just loving all the attention,” she laughed. “I eat mostly vegan food and try to avoid extra sugar. I’ve been sober since 2018 and no longer drink coffee. Mental health-wise I speak with my therapist every other week. Highly recommended. I still feel my depression, but imagine how much worse it would be if I wasn’t proactive about my health?”