Fiddler Rachel Calvert Takes a Leap of Faith With Barbaro

"Playing in small classical ensembles was a great way to prepare for the dynamics, both social and musical, in a band"

By Greg Cahill | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Ask Rachel Calvert to describe the driving force behind Barbaro’s recently released album, About the Winter, and the classically trained violinist-turned-bluegrass fiddler sums it up in a single word. “Patience is the word we’ve been using a lot as a band to describe our current sound and attitude to creating music,” she says. “We wanted to really sink into sound and texture, and create an album that allowed us to carve out our own sound. We weren’t trying to impress any one particular market or genre—we just wanted to be true to ourselves and our unique voice as a band.”

Calvert, 29, joined the Minneapolis-based progressive bluegrass band in 2017 after holding down a number of full-time jobs, from organizing social activities at a Jewish community center to handling chores as a project assistant at an architectural firm. But she is now devoted fully to Barbaro, which also includes principal songwriter Kyle Shelstad (vocals and guitar) and Jason Wells (vocals and double bass). About the Winter is an adventurous romp that expands on traditional Americana tropes with a blend of bluegrass, jazz, pop, and country-western. The band, hailed by The Bluegrass Situation as “one of the Midwest’s most in-demand acoustic acts,” already has made an impact beyond America’s heartland: in 2022, a three-week international tour, sponsored by the US State Department’s American Musicians Abroad program, brought Barbaro to Bulgaria, Turkey, and Qatar. 

Barbaro, About the Winter (StorySound Records)

“I have a narrow window to try and ‘make it,’” Calvert told Tapestry, the newsletter of the Bet Shalom Congregation in Minneapolis, where she worked as operations manager before committing to Barbaro full time. “I need to work as hard as I can to let this band grow so that I don’t have any regrets later. I’m looking forward to settling down and starting a family in a few years, so for now I owe it to myself and my band to see what we can do. My partner and family are really supportive, and I am grateful that they have my back no matter what I do. I’ve learned in the last few years that life is short, and I can’t take anything for granted—so I need to do what I love while I can!”

Calvert had played in a few different bands before joining Barbaro but didn’t feel those were the right fit. Then, her friend, the mandolinist and singer Max Graham, invited Calvert to play with him and Shelstad at a local gig. “Max, who has since passed away, was a wonderful friend and shining light in our music community,” she says. “He was always an encouraging cheerleader and connector, and I am so grateful that he guided me to this band. He was playing with Barbaro at the time, so I began to play with the full band, and I guess I never left. Barbaro’s music essentially swept me off my feet.”

Barbaro has given Calvert, who handles a lot of the band’s melodic aspects, a chance to improvise and stretch out as a player, though she scrupulously develops her parts before recording. “Over time, as I experiment with different ideas through practice and improvisation, I usually settle on something well before we actually record,” she says. “I really like to feel prepared on my on parts before recording. That way my attention can go to the quality of my sound and little interpretive details instead of anxiously wondering what the heck I should play. That said, there are a few big moments on this record that were question marks before we actually recorded. I really focused on deep, intensive listening to make sure that I was playing with intention and keeping the overall sound of the song in mind rather than my individual performance. I think the overall mix of preparation and improvisation struck a great balance—as much as I value preparation, there are some real magical, spontaneous moments that were nice surprises!”


Barbaro band
Barbaro. Photo: Wolfskull Creative.

Born in Santa Barbara, California, and raised in Minnesota, Calvert has been breaking stereotypes since she was a child. “My mom’s family is a classic Ashkenazi story,” she told Tapestry. “My great-grandparents left Eastern Europe, fleeing persecution and war, and emigrated to Canada and New York City. My mom’s family is full of East Coast academics. My dad’s side of the family is a classic John Steinbeck story—my great-grandparents on his side were Oakies who fled poverty and the Dust Bowl to seek a better life in California, where they became ranch hands and wildland firefighters.”

Her family moved to Minnesota in 2006 after living in rural communities in Indiana and Michigan for most of her childhood. Calvert, whose mother was a Suzuki violin teacher, started playing violin at age four. “As soon as I expressed interest in playing as well, I began taking lessons with her teaching partner,” she says. “I was a Suzuki kid—I grew up with the Suzuki method and attended the Suzuki Institute every summer at [the American Suzuki Institute in Stevens Point, Wisconsin] until I was a teenager. I also played in my school orchestra, youth orchestras, and chamber-music ensembles. I didn’t major in music at Lawrence University, where I went to college, but I did receive a nice scholarship that allowed me to take lessons and participate in ensembles as a non-major.”

Her Suzuki training provided valuable tools for her life as a collaborative adult musician, including attention to detail, technique, self-discipline, and appreciation of a wide range of textures. “Playing in small classical ensembles was a great way to prepare for the dynamics, both social and musical, in a band,” she says. “The constantly shifting and subtle balance between individual expression and ensemble sound as a whole is so carefully choreographed in classical chamber music, and I brought that with me to my time in bands.”

“Exuberance, sorrow, faith, heartbreak, love, joy, grief—it’s all expressed so wonderfully in string-based traditional music.”

She made the shift to traditional music to impress a boy. “Love makes us do all kinds of crazy things,” she says. “After college, I began dating a man who was involved in the ‘jam-grass’ scene, and he encouraged me to start fiddling. However, it wasn’t until I was in Barbaro that I started to actually study fiddle tunes and technique instead of faking my way through as a classical-music defector.”

Romance not withstanding, she also was drawn to bluegrass by both the sound and the playing culture. “I didn’t think I would continue as a musician after college—I don’t want to be in a practice room all day, and the competitive nature and standard of technical excellence in the classical world require a certain kind of intensity that I just don’t have in me. Of course, the fiddlers I most admire do practice extensively, and real professionals take their craft very seriously, but the life balance feels a little more reasonable for a young musician. I also really enjoy the creativity and opportunities for improvisation within folk music. I also like the music! Exuberance, sorrow, faith, heartbreak, love, joy, grief—it’s all expressed so wonderfully in string-based traditional music, and delving into that world has been a great pleasure.”


Leaving the financial stability of the nine-to-five world for the risks of a full-time musical career was brought about, in part, after reassessing her life during the pandemic. But, still, it required a leap of faith to overcome the doubts that plague so many string players contemplating life as a professional musician. “Although I have skills that make me pretty good at office administration work, I have slowly learned that it does not make me happy,” she says. “I learned a lot at my past jobs, and enjoyed the people I worked with, but I felt an overwhelming, constant sense of dread and anxiety. Staring at a computer all day is not good for the soul, or at least my soul. I am lucky enough to have the support of a wonderful family and partner—I would not be able to take this risk without them. I cannot in good conscience encourage people to drop everything and follow their dreams unless they have some solid backup plans when financials go awry—and they will! It felt wildly delusional to quit my salaried jobs with benefits to pursue music full time, but I feel like this is the last time in my life I can try this experiment. I don’t have children yet to consider, but I want them soon, so now is the time!” 

Compounding the situation, Calvert also had been struggling with health issues over the last few years, and there came a point where even basic mobility and the stamina to perform daily tasks became quite limited. “I finally got a diagnosis and treatment plan that gave me my life back,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be my ‘old self,’ but it does feel like a dramatic recovery. It made me realize that life is short, you can’t predict the future, and you need to do what you love while you still can. So now that I’m able to play, travel, and socialize with more ease, I’m taking advantage of it!”

And she has found that the workaday world provided skills that translate well for a professional musician. “It takes a lot of administrative skill to do all the ‘behind the scenes’ work of being a musician: scheduling, tracking details, responding to calls and emails, and so on,” she says. “Feeling competent in these areas goes a long way.”


And she has been able to employ her experience as a substitute teacher and day-camp supervisor. “One of my favorite kinds of gigs Barbaro does is workshops with kids,” she adds. “I miss teaching, and it’s fun to bring my educational background into my music career.”

This melding of life experiences has had a profound impact on her as a player. “As I grow older, and mature as an adult, I feel I am somehow both more confident and more humble than I was when I was younger, and I feel the same is true for my playing, not feeling like I have anything to prove beyond staying true to myself and patiently respecting my ability to make something beautiful,” she says. “I also have a healthier relationship with practice that allows me to improve as a musician. Practice used to be a chore I would avoid out of anxiety, self-defeat, and misplaced priorities. Now I love when I have time to dig into my instrument! 

“Still, I would like to find a better life balance. The demands of being an independent musician have really prevented me from prioritizing people in my life who I love. I would like to move forward in a way that includes music in my life, while allowing time to give back to my friends, my family, my partner, and my greater community. Touring and performing are exhausting, and sometimes I feel like I’m really missing out on giving back and participating in big milestones all around me—a goal of mine is to keep music in my life, while still leaving room to care for others. And for some self-care, too!”

Does she have any advice for string players juggling the challenges of day-to-day living while contemplating a career as a professional musician? “Win the lottery? Have rich, well-connected parents? In all seriousness, I think coming to terms with the reality that it’s a really hard industry to be in, and that you need to be prepared to be broke and frustrated a lot of the time, unless you come from money. Save when you can and be frugal. I wish my younger self would have known these things,” she offers. “Also, be nice. To everyone. You never know who you are going to meet, or what they will be up to later. People like working with excellent musicians, but they really like working with personable people who are a joy to be around. People will respect and respond to people who have authentically generous hearts.”