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.
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.
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.
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.
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.