Monday, June 3, 2013

Pretty Good for A Girl by Murphy Hicks Henry - Book Review

The genesis of Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass by Murphy Hicks Henry (University of Illinois Press, 2013, 456 pages, $29.95) grew from a comment intended as a compliment but experienced by women musicians as the ultimate put-down. Henry decided to create a data base of women in bluegrass as well as to begin distributing a newsletter on the same topic which continued to be published until 2003. Her master's thesis on Sally Ann Forrester, the first woman in bluegrass, became the basis for the first chapter in this cyclopedic account of the increased presence and influence of women in bluegrass from its beginning in (and before) 1945 to the present. Pretty Goodfor a Girl, ten years in the writing, provides the reader with a perspective putting the lie to the marginalization of women in the assertion that bluegrass was, and continues to be, largely a boys' club. Murphy Henry not only sets the record straight, she does so in a witty, engaging manner (sometimes with a slightly bighty edge) that entertains as it informs. For any student of bluegrass history, tradition, and culture, this book is must reading!

As Murphy Henry became involved with bluegrass as a performer, the bands she “worshipped” consisted entirely of men. She notes that she was “culturally conditioned to dismiss women and their accomplishments as unworthy.” before presenting a long list of bands she “worked shows with.” Early definitions of bluegrass reinforced this stereotype in both academic and popular publications. The stereotypes were contradicted early in print by Alice Gerard, but still tend to echo down the hallways of bluegrass music despite the prominence of so many women in bluegrass today. It is now, thankfully, unremarkable to see women in every position in a band, although bands consisting of all women are still, sadly, referred to as “girl bands.” (Within the past few weeks, I've heard a promoter say he sought to book at least one band fronted by a women, while another promoter was quoted to me as saying he already had his “woman band.”)

Sally Ann Forrester: the First Woman in Bluegrass
a Bluegrass Boy - 1944

Pretty Good for a Girl sets out to render the accomplishments of women in bluegrass from the very first, and succeeds on all fronts. Although this book concentrates on women who have made recordings, it acknowledges the contribution of those who never played professionally or played for only a short time. Henry writes throughout the book about the difficulties of being on the road while being both a wife and mother. She also discusses the suspicion women on the road encountered when they were neither married to a member of the band nor members of a family band. These limitations on women as touring performers increased the difficulty for them in achieving recognition. Furthermore, the kind of musicianship demanded in bluegrass, fast and hard driving, was seen as being “masculine” play which was difficult or impossible for members of the “weaker” sex to achieve. Many women were hired for their singing ability and relegated to playing bass or rhythm guitar because the showier fiddle, mandolin, and, especially, banjo were not where they were seen to excel. Numerous women today put the lie to these stereotypes as we see Laurie Lewis, Kimber Ludiker, Sierra Hull, Rhonda Vincent, and especially four time banjo player of the year Kristen Scott Benson as well a Gena Britt emerging as leaders on their instruments. The word “testosterone” is used much more often in this book than the word “estrogen,”although the effects of the latter on women's careers is evident throughout. The choices women must make because they are charged with the responsibilities of child rearing dominate the book and the careers of professional women.

 Gloria Belle

Henry defines bluegrass music as featuring Scruggs style banjo, which she admits is quite limiting. The book is extremely banjo-centric, but as strong women have emerged during the development of the singer/songwriter era of bluegrass, she actually admits bands which don't necessarily adhere strictly to her early definition. Nevertheless, she goes out of her way to feature female banjo players. The book is limited, too, by the emergence of bluegrass music, defined by the addition of Flatt & Scruggs to Bill Monroe's band in 1945, and the space available to her. Nevertheless, she nods admiringly to the many women who performed and recorded in the formative days of folk and country music, an age when genre differentiation was less clear than it apparently is today. She acknowledges this disparity and bluegrass's uneasy relationship to both its ancestors and related descendants, as well as country music in many forms.

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard
Structurally, Pretty Good for a Girl is divided into eras in bluegrass music. The 1940's begins with a profile of Sally Ann Forrester, the first woman in bluegrass and continues with Wilma Lee Cooper, Rose Maddox, and Ola Belle Campbell Reid. The decade of the fifties emphasizes family bands, focusing on the Lewis Family and the Stonemans. The sixties is particularly strong in its consideration of Hazel (Dickens) and Alice (Gerard) as well as Martha Adcock, who apparently contributed quite profusely. Lynn Morris and Laurie Lewis's contributions to the seventies era are interesting and important. In the 1980's, women began to emerge as band leaders with Alison Brown and Alison Krauss highlighted. In the nineties, and on into the twenty-first century the number of women become, as the chapter title says, “Too Many To Count.” Kristin Scott Benson and Rhonda Vincent are profiled in detail as well as the Dixie Chicks, perhaps bluegrass derived, but much too interesting to be left out of this account. Murphy Henry's decisions about who to include in her book suggest that importance as a women performer in bluegrass and country music is more important than purity in adherence to her definition of bluegrass as Brown's and Missy Raines' jazz influenced music attests. Too many women of importance to bluegrass music are included to name them all here. Scant attention is paid to the Daughters of Bluegrass projects, but decisions had to be made to complete this project.

PrettyGood for a Girl is well-researched and meticulously annotated. Many of the women featured in the book made themselves available for extensive interviews. The files of Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine, for whom Henry writes a monthly column, were extensively quoted. The change in the magazine's overall attitude towards women has changed for the better with the times. Her sources are nearly as interesting to read as the text, giving credit where credit is due and attesting to the sisterhood of music. I might quibble with the use of liner notes as a source, since in many cases they are, at least, puff pieces for the featured artists, and thus questionable as a resource. Web site references are increasingly seen in reliable research, and they are referenced here. The index is extensive and inclusive, as is the list of other sources. Not only is this an extremely useful book, it is an essential source book for the further research that needs to be done in the important issue of women in bluegrass.

It would be easy to nit-pick this magnificent compendium for being too banjo-centric in its definition and exploration of bluegrass music while at the same time edging towards being too broad in its effort to include all women who would reasonably fit within its covers. However, this bifurcation mirrors the problems confronting bluegrass itself as it seeks to remain relevant in contemporary music while remaining true to its founders and roots. One little remarked phenomenon made clear in this work is the growing importance of higher education in bluegrass, which has apparently caught on more among women players than among men. This increased amount of schooling has often led to more balance between music and business as well as greater lyrical and musical sophistication. The influence of folk music on the women included here cannot be overestimated. Murphy Henry writes, when discussing the Dixie Chicks, “Bluegrass Music has long had an uneasy relationship to its business side, preferring to pretend that most musicians play for love, not money.”

Murphy Hicks Henry

Muphy Hicks Henry is a professional banjo player, teacher, and writer living in Virginia. She founded the Women in Bluegrass newsletter and has written regularly for Bluegrass Unlimited and Banjo Newsletter. She is also the co-creator of The Murphy Method, a series of instructional videos on playing the banjo and other bluegrass instruments.

Pretty Good for a Girl by Murphy Hicks Henry (University of Illinois Press, 2013, 456 pages, $29.95) is an important, consistently interesting, and useful book detailing the influence and presence of women in bluegrass throughout its history. It is written with grace, style, and wit, remaining consistently interesting. It was provided to me by the publisher for review by Net Galley.


  1. Hey, Ted, thanks for the great review. You obviously read every word in the book. You are right about it being banjo-centric. Guess I just knew those folks better! All the best Murphy Henry