Monday, August 10, 2009

Bye-bye Boys’ Club - Women in Bluegrass

This blog post is a revised, extended, and illustrated version of a post that appeared on the California Bluegrass Association Welcome Page in May. Check out the CBA site, which really covers the California scene very well.

Lest I be misconstrued here, let me begin by saying that women have always been a crucial component of folk and country music and in the early days of bluegrass. In writing what’s about to come, I don’t want to overlook the crucial contributions of people like Maybelle Carter, Hazel Dickens, and other early pioneers in the ongoing story of bluegrass music. They were there from the beginning placing their imprint on the music. Now, having made the disclaimer, let me proceed to try to build a thesis and support it.

Alison Krauss at Merlefest

Alison Brown at Podunk
There are historical reasons bluegrass music spent many of its early years as a boys’ club and continued that way into late middle age. As an invented music (well…derived), the first bands put together by Father Bill Monroe were composed almost completely devoid of women. Kevin Lynch has informed me that Bill Monroe had a woman named "Sally Ann" sing with his band in early 1945. I'm going to assume, unless someone can set me straight, that after Flatt & Scruggs joined his band, he didn't have women in his band again, except for Bessie Lee Mauldin, his long time mistress and sometime bass player. Similarly, Monroe’s primary spin-off bands were all men, too. So far as I know, and my history may be a little weak here, Flatt & Scruggs never had a woman in the band either. Well into the second generation, bluegrass bands, as they came to be known, were composed entirely of men. In the sixties, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard recorded with Folkways Records and are now seen as “Pioneering Women of Bluegrass,” the title of their compilation album released in 1996. It could be argued that the Carter family was a pre-bluegrass band, more folk or country than bluegrass, although their influence in bluegrass music cannot be overestimated. Many of you are more familiar with this history than I, and I leave it to you to fill in the holes.

Carrie Hassler at IBMA Fan Fest

Claire Lynch at Podunk

Rhonda Vincent
Meanwhile, over the past two decades we’ve seen the emergence of featured performers in bluegrass bands who are women, women fronting bands at the very top of bluegrass music, bands composed entirely (or almost so) of women, a woman’s sensibility in bluegrass music, and the emergence of the female voice as a solo instrument. It’s impossible to overestimate the influence of Alison Krauss in these changes. Recognized early as a virtuoso on the fiddle, Kraus emerged as a top band leader with Union Station and achieved stardom beyond bluegrass with the film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Her current CD and tour with Robert Plant have established her in a much wider musical community, but we in bluegrass still claim her. Rhonda Vincent & the Rage stand as another example of a person nurtured in bluegrass rising to the top. Vincent’s story is somewhat different from Krauss’ however, as, after some success in bluegrass; she took a shot in the larger world of country music. After not achieving at the level she hoped, she returned to bluegrass where her hard work and quality entertaining value have given her great success and many rewards. Her album “Back Home Again” (2000) signaled her return to bluegrass music, but recently her music has turned again to bluegrassy versions other forms, including country, western swing, and Cajun.

Deanie Richardson at MACC

Lorraine Jordan at her own Homecoming Festival

A notable example of a woman forging an influential place in bluegrass music is Lorraine Jordan. Her band “Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road” will celebrate its tenth anniversary this fall. Meanwhile, Jordan stands as perhaps the strongest female advocate of Monroe style mandolin among women pickers. Her band has a reputation for being a hard working, blue collar band that can be relied upon to be solidly entertaining. Periodically, her band has also featured other female musicians, notably Gina Britt on banjo, but currently has no other women in it. Perhaps Lorraine Jordan’s most important contribution to the place of women in bluegrass will be seen as her IBMA award winning album “The Daughters of Bluegrass.” The current Daughters album “Bluegrass Bouquet, produced by Dixie Hall features fifty women who are bluegrass musicians. The place of women in bluegrass music seems pretty well assured.

Kim Fox

Dale Ann Bradley
Dale Ann Bradley, Claire Lynch, and Laurie Lewis provide an essential vocal component while playing their instruments well. All three lead outstanding bands that stand as ground breakers. Younger pickers like Sierra Hull and the Lovell Sisters are making a huge impact with contemporary sounds that appeal to younger audiences as well as traditionalists. Each band has a unique sound and will continue to improve. Sarah Jarosz does not yet have a steady touring band, as far as I know, but has already garnered significant attention. The Boston acoustic music scene will be enlivened in the next few years as Hull and Jarosz are both enrolling in Boston music schools. These women are all outstanding instrumentalists as well as fine singers.
Women have not only assured themselves a place in bluegrass music, but they are helping to forge transitions into the form, content, and sensibility of the music that will have profound importance in the future. As bluegrass music developed under the autocratic and self-centered regimen of Bill Monroe, it was always assumed that most players in a bluegrass band would be masters of their instrument and be first rate singers contributing to the vocal tone. While trios and gospel quartets were central, often every member sang in various combinations. Certainly, all singers played an instrument.

Sierra Hull

Laurie Lewis
Today, we are seeing a change in this pattern. While, I’ve never seen a male singer in a major bluegrass band not playing an instrument, there are now several women fronting bands who either hold a guitar or mandolin to little musical effect or are willing to stand and sing, their singing crucial to the sound of their bands. Among these, Michelle Nixon, Alicia Nugent, Melonie Cannon, and Carrie Hassler come immediately to mind. Rather than criticize them for not playing, or not playing well, I prefer to see voice emerging as an important instrument in a bluegrass band. With the lead female vocalist using her voice as an instrument, is it necessary for her to excel on a string instrument, too? That’s not to say that there aren’t women who excel on their instruments, but who are not well known as vocalists. Leading the list would be Alison Brown (also well-established as a record producer with her company Compass Records) and Kristin Scott Benson, both IBMA Banjo Players of the Year on that notoriously masculine instrument. Also, it’s completely un-remarkable to see a woman, Deanie Richardson, for instance, hired entirely for her instrumental skills, as a side musician in a bluegrass band today.

Missy Raines

Melonie Cannon and Alecia Nugent
There are also emerging bands that are all women, or mostly so. At the national level, Uncle Earl comes immediately to mind. In North Carolina, two local bands stand out. Sweet Potato Pie and Steel Magnolias each are dominated by women. The Gary Waldrep Band, from Alabama, has featured as many as three women performing in the band with Waldrep. This is the only band I can think of where a male band master has chosen to include a majority of women in his group. Singer/Songwriters like Louisa Branscomb, Kim Fox, and Donna Hughes come quickly to mind as women who have made significant contributions to bluegrass music. Branscomb’s song “Steel Rails” performed by Alison Kraus and others headed the bluegrass charts longer than any other song.
Mindy Rakestraw (Gary Waldrep Band)

Kristin Scott Benson
It remains to be seen how the nature of bluegrass will be changed by the breaking down of the boys’ club barrier. Suffice it to say the changes have already been significant and profound and will continue, challenging some and satisfying many others. One thing we all can hope will happen is that the emergence of more women in bluegrass will attract more fans to the genre.
Note: I know I haven’t been comprehensive in mentioning women making important contributions to bluegrass. There just isn’t room to name or show photographs of them all. Suffice it to say, their contributions have been huge and the future will show more still.

The Lovell Sisters


Note: Jon Weisberger joins Kevin Lynch in assuring me that not only did Bill Monroe carry a woman in his band early, but had a woman bass player for a number of years. He has also pointed out other cases where women played in bluegrass bands. I'm grateful for my readers' willingness to continue my education. I think I'll stick to my assertion that for many years bluegrass was largely, even if not exclusively, a genre dominated by all male groups. A reader, see comments, thinks I'm overstating what he sees to be the natural progression mirroring general societal changes, and cautions me to stop thinking so much. I think I'll stick with the general thesis of this piece, and I doubt whether I'll stop looking for underlying social messages implicit in the content and process of bluegrass music.

Note 2: A reader in Austin, TX tells me there's a very good article on Gloria Belle (Gloria Bernadette Flickinger, born in 1939) who played with Jimmy Martin off and on for several years as well as part-time with a number of other bands. The article, by Murphy Henry in the August issue of Bluegrass Unlimited, generally supports the thesis of my post, if not some of the details. From what I have read, it seems that family bands were the place where most women had opportunities to perform (Sally Ann Forrester, Wilma Lee Cooper, Rose Maddox, and many more). Gloria Belle was unusual in that she toured as a single woman with Martin's band. Murphy Henry is currently working on a book about women in bluegrass music, which I look forward eagerly to reading. She also gave the IBMA keynote address in which she dealt with the issue of women in bluegrass. As Murphy so eloquently points out, the bluegrass trail was, until quite recently, a road "less traveled" by women. She suggests that it still is infrequent enough to deserve mention for women to perform as side musicians in major bands.