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January 10, 2013
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Little star rising: Bella Betts back in Aspen

ASPEN - Sandy Munro might have mistaken the situation some years ago, when an Aspen woman came in to Munro's Great Divide Music, inquiring about guitar lessons for her young daughter. The mom, Mona Esposito, was doing the talking - begging, actually, for Munro to ignore his usual policy of not taking on students under 8 or so, and begin instructing her daughter. Munro might have thought it was the parents, Esposito and her husband, Richard Betts, doing the pushing. But standing over by the songbooks, straining to listen for Munro's response, was Bella Betts, 5 and a half years old, and intent on getting herself some guitar lessons."I really wanted it," Betts, who is 12, said from her home in Boulder, where the family moved to in 2008. "I had to beg my parents first. Not that my parents weren't willing to consent. But I was the one who put the idea in their heads. For sure, I wanted it. I was just too shy to ask Sandy for lessons. But I remember waiting to hear his reply. I remember standing in the corner of the Great Divide, the store being really busy at the time."Munro said yes; something about Bella and the way the parents asked made him waive his customary age requirements. Bella has since validated Munro's perception that there was something special in her desire to learn music. Bella leads her four-piece string band, Bella Betts & the Little Stars, to a headlining gig at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. The free show, part of the Wheeler's lineup of Winterskl events, doubles as a CD release party; Bella will be selling copies of "Lights Around a Curve," her debut album, released this past week.Even as a 5-and-a-half-year-old, Bella's tenacity was apparent. Right around the time she began guitar lessons, she spent her Fourth of July morning running, alongside her father, in the Boogie's Diner Buddy 5 Mile Run. Bella finished first in the Under-10 age group. She has since traded in her running shoes for music gear - especially a mandolin, her instrument of choice, though she also performs on guitar and vocals - but she has a recollection of the internal drive it took to run the Boogie's race, and says it's similar to the dedication she brings to music."I know I can do that for anything I want to. And that anyone can," Bella said of bringing passion to a chosen pursuit. "But it's about loving it. And music is the only thing I'm willing to do that for. And maybe for my friends and family."••••Taylor Swift and Katy Perry had not yet become the pop stars that young musicians emulate, so it was a more old-school role model that sparked Bella's love of music. She became enamored of Maria, the singing Austrian nun with an acoustic guitar at the center of the musical "The Sound of Music.""I guess Maria was kind of my hero. She played guitar, so I wanted to play guitar," Bella said. Bella believes she actually showed considerable restraint in imitating Maria. Bella first saw "The Sound of Music" when she was 4, and let a year or so pass before making noise about the guitar lessons. "I waited quite a while. I didn't think I had the focus, and was too little to hold a guitar."In Tucson, while visiting her grandparents, Bella finally got her guitar; her first memory of it was playing "Edelweiss," from "The Sound of Music" - pretending to play it, actually; she didn't know the chords - for her grandmother and grandmother's friends. Three years of guitar lessons with Munro got her started on a repertoire of folk songs and kids songs; it also spurred an interest in piano, fiddle and dobro, all of which she has given a shot.Bella says the big leap in her career didn't come about with a breakthrough in technique, appearing onstage with a renowned picker, or signing a recording contract. It was simply realizing, around the age of 10, that music was what she wanted to devote her life to, and the accompanying realization that this put her passion in her own hands."When I took control of my education, that's when I realized I love playing music," she said. "With that, you get an understanding of the different levels - of where you are now, what you need to make you better, what you need to reinforce. Most of all, you understand that you love it, that you really want it. You're never going to understand that if you're just blindly led by your teachers."Bella says that genetics haven't played any apparent role in her musical make-up; neither of her parents were especially musical when Bella started. But Bella did get an array of interesting influences at home. Her father passed his master sommelier exam when Bella was little; Bella watched as Richard, the director of the wine program at The Little Nell hotel in Aspen, became a star in the world of wine and liquor - a maker of wine and mezcal, co-owner of the Betts & Scholl wine label and the Sombra mezcal brand, a speaker who makes regular appearances at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Mona Esposito took on the role of home-schooling Bella, giving her an education rich in arts, agriculture and food. A year after Bella began studying music, Esposito, who had played some piano, picked up guitar so she could play with her daughter. (Esposito is now a solid bassist who occasionally accompanies Bella, but is not part of her band. Of her music-loving father, whose tastes range from hip-hop to the Grateful Dead, Bella says, "He can keep a beat ... sometimes. You can't count on it.")One key influence on her musical development was the result of fortuitous geography. When the family was moving to Boulder, Munro advised her to go to Rockygrass, a first-rate festival in nearby Lyons. There she fell in love with bluegrass: "I played good solid bluegrass for a bunch of years," Bella, who has participated in the Rockygrass Academy several times, said.But Bella was leaning toward something different, the progressive wing of bluegrass. She became a big fan of the visionary string quintet Punch Brothers, and happened to meet Chris Thile, the band's leader and mandolinist, in a Boulder restaurant when the band was in town. An introduction was made, and Bella played some mandolin for Thile. The next night she saw Punch Brothers play at the Boulder Theater; the evening ended with the two doing a bit of backstage jamming. A Youtube clip, from Telluride in 2011, features Bella and Thile picking in a coffeehouse; Thile isn't dumbing things down and Bella keeps right up. (There are also clips of Bella performing on proper stages with singer-songwriter Amos Lee, folk-blues act Langhorne Slim, and Sarah Jarosz, a singer and mandolinist who began gaining notoriety as a teenager.)"He's on-board with me and I'm really grateful for that. He thinks I'm worth his time, which is really nice," Bella said of Thile. "You think of his approval, how far he's gone, and if you're down, it gets you right back up."And Punch Brothers' playing opened up a new world - you can do anything you want to on your instrument. I love the style of their music. They're very intense, very exhausting. They always have a point, but they are rarely directly to the point. I think that's the way to go."••••Last year, Bella launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to record her debut album; the $20,000 goal was hit in a matter of days. This past fall, she recorded at a Boulder area studio with a three-piece band and a handful of guest players. "Lights Around a Curve" features seven of Bella's original tunes - including the album-opening "Punch Sister," about not succumbing to stage fright - plus covers of likely candidates (Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go"; Rodney Crowell's "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight"), and the unexpected (U2's "Where the Streets Have No Names"; Death Cab for Cutie's "Transatlanticism" and New Order's "Temptation")."My dad got real into '80s music, so I got turned on to '80s music," Bella says of the U2 and New Order covers. "I don't usually like rock music. But the songs appealed to me."The album fits in well with modern string-band music - more folk and pop than rock or even bluegrass, strong on melody, arrangements and vocal performance. There is little evidence that it was made by a 12-year-old."I learned what it's like to give all of your better self, and know what it's like to work really hard and be rewarded for it," Bella said.The album, and the handful of radio appearances and CD release parties surrounding it, might spell the end of a burst of activity. For the near future, Bella is more interested in input - learning to sight-read, working on mandolin technique - than on output."Shows, this album - that's all output," Bella, who writes a monthly column for the Power Pickin' magazine, said. "I'm ready for input. Drop off the edge of the earth. If I don't drop off the edge of the earth, I'm not going anywhere. It's getting opinions, forming opinions, and working on the things I need to work on."Bella has adjusted well to the adult world she lives in - playing with adults, for adults, singing mature lyrics. To her, it barely seems an adjustment; one of the few things that rattles her is when she gets dismissed for being a 12-year-old."That doesn't discourage me. It makes me want to improve," she said. "If people exclude me because of my age, if anything, it makes me ornery."stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jan 11, 2013 05:58AM Published Jan 10, 2013 10:11AM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.