Looking Back at the First All-Female Bluegrass Band
I’ll admit that I bought this record for the cover. It was spendy at the record store ($9.95 at House of Records in Eugene, Oregon), but that cover just popped — bright yellow, with great, cartoon-y art.
I did a quick Google search on my phone and found out that this group, Buffalo Gals, was one of the first all-female bluegrass bands, and I knew I had to have it. I also immediately knew that I had to try and track down some of the Gals now to see if they’d talk about their band and the era (the album, First Borne, was released in 1975).
What I wasn’t expecting was just how forward-thinking this album is. The second track on Side One is “Foggy Mountain Locomotion,” a gleefully subversive cover of the classic, bubbly pop song (written by Carole King) “The Loco-Motion.” The next song, “Bluegrass and the Boys,” addresses relationships with a happy frankness that still feels unheard of for bluegrass women today. There’s a subtle sarcasm in tongue-in-cheek lyrics like:
I need a man pretty bad,
to help me with my pickin’
Well if I had a man, each day would be worth startin’
If I had a man then I could be like Dolly Parton.
“Sittin’ on Top of the World” turns in a deep blues rendition of the classic while still retaining subtle bluegrass touches. Some songs are more traditional, like “Same Old Man” from the Dillards, but the refrain of “same old man living at the mill” manages to sound a bit bitter, or maybe I’m reading too much into this. It’s hard to separate our modern perspective when looking back at the music of this time, and both Susie Monick and Martha Trachtenberg talked about how they never wanted to be political in their music. But even looking at press pics of the band from the time, it’s clear that they just didn’t care what anyone thought about them. They were out solely to make music, have fun, and kick ass.
Aside from the lyrics, Buffalo Gals had a number of hot instrumentals that pushed hard into new terrain as well, with advanced chords and solo progressions. Even today, bluegrass isn’t known for raising or supporting hard-picking women; the cover of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine has featured a woman only twice, I believe. Yet here these young women from New England were picking powerhouses back at a time when this would have been even more of a surprise than it is today.
This was clearly an album full of surprises, so I reached out to two of the original members of the band to get more of the stories.
Guitarist and vocalist Trachtenberg is a songwriter whose songs have been covered by bluegrass artists like Tony Trischka and Missy Raines, and Marty Stuart guested on her solo album. She’s also a folk/roots musician of note who plays and sings in a number of groups in her native New York.
Progressive banjo player and vocalist Monick was Tony Trischka’s first ever banjo student and is still a noted musician in Nashville. When I wrote to her, she was also appearing as an extra in Hollywood films and even the television show Nashville. She’s a well-known artist and mentor for other artists in Nashville, and her own solo album, Holly Wood and the Extras, released in 2014.
In 1974, together with mandolinist/vocalist Carol Siegel, fiddler/vocalist Sue Raines, and bassist/vocalist Nancy Josephson, these women founded Buffalo Gals on the campus of Syracuse University in New York. The history of the band is detailed in the wonderful book Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass, which is also an invaluable resource for learning more about this often unreported history. I highly recommend the book.
But I wanted to know more about this album, cut on the controversial Revonah Records (Del McCoury sued them over album rights) in 1975, one year after Buffalo Gals had begun playing regularly. According to author Murphy Hicks Henry in Pretty Good for a Girl, the Gals had been playing together since 1972, which makes them the first all-female bluegrass band, beating out the Bay Area’s Good Ol’ Persons by a few years.
Martha Trachtenberg on the album:
We were approached by Paul Gerry, the owner of Revonah Records, and we were mighty excited to be making an actual record. Revonah — which is Hanover spelled backward, for reasons yet unknown to me — was located in Ferndale, New York. It was a two-track studio, which meant that everything was recorded live, as a group — no overdubs, no editing. If one of us made a mistake, we had to play the whole song over again. And over again. He gave us two days to record thirteen songs. …
That’s the only Buffalo Gals album, and I hope you noticed that the title on the cover is First Borne; on the back, it’s First Born. For the life of me, I can’t remember if that was deliberate.
Michael Horen [who did the album’s cover art] did the artwork for the Towne Crier, a wonderful music venue that we played several times, and we all loved his work. I still can’t get over that cover; he did a brilliant job.
Paul deliberately left off the writers’ credits, so that he wouldn’t have to deal with paying those pesky royalties, even though we’d gotten permission from the writers to use their songs. I think Herb Feuerstein might have written “Bluegrass and the Boys,” and have a faint memory of it having started life as “Bluegrass and the Girls.” We were a sassy lot, but I hesitate to say that we were making “strong statements about men.” That makes it sound as if we were more politicized than we were. I think we made our “statement” simply by going out and playing. As for being known for our music being an impossible goal because of the time we worked in — it’s still more or less impossible for women musicians to be judged solely on the basis of their music.
It may be a matter of perception on my part, colored by the era in which I grew up — dear God, I sound old — but physical beauty is still necessary for women to become stars, and then it’s sometimes used against them. Look at Taylor Swift. She’s one hell of a writer and singer, she’s a good guitar player, she’s a disciplined worker and performer, and I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of the press she gets is centered on her looks, not her accomplishments. …
As I’m not really in the bluegrass community — I wander about the fringes, getting songs cut from time to time — I’m not in a position to say how things are now. I do know that the quality of playing by women is spectacular these days.
About a month back, I got to see Della Mae at a small club and I was absolutely blown away. The playing, the writing, the singing — they’re brilliant. I sat there and turned into [a] fangirl, an interesting state for a woman in her sixties.
Susie Monick had an interesting memory of recording the album as well, and both she and Trachtenberg were concerned that somehow the album got tuned up in pitch between the end of their recording session and printing of the albums, which was a big disappointment.
“The biggest story I remember about the recording,” Monick says, “is that it was two-track … we would have to go through the song and not make any mistakes. So, we did ‘Foggy Mountain Locomotion’ that ended with a traditional ‘shave and a haircut’ bluegrass ending to ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ and I hit the last note on my banjo one fret off and messed up the track. I guess we had to do it over.”
I asked Trachtengberg how the Buffalo Gals were received at the time as the first all-female bluegrass band.
“As far as we knew at the time, we were the first,” she told me. “I know that Carlton Haney and Jim Clark [well-known bluegrass presenters in the South and East Coast] hired us for festivals based on our being a novelty. Neither of them were particularly concerned with how well we played, which was fine with me, at least. We were learning as we went along, and were delighted to have the work. Lots of the older players were clearly bemused by what we were doing, and were encouraging to us. What did they think of our playing? I have no idea, but overall, they were kind.”
In Pretty Good for A Girl, Trachtenberg relates a great story about a festival presenter that booked the Gals as a novelty act and stuck them in the way-early morning spot. To get back, the Gals performed entirely in their sleeping bags on stage and were never forced to play that early again.
As Monick explains, “All-girl bands were not common in the 1970s, so we tried to let the music speak and didn’t really have a political bent, but we dressed down to not look girly-miniskirt. However, we did wear long granny dresses. We were friends in college who bonded and learned how to play music together. I think we were unique because we had original vocal songs and original instrumentals and we had to venture out to play trad songs in different keys for higher voices. We were blazing new trails.”
Though most people seemed to be pretty accepting of the Buffalo Gals, Susie had trouble a bit closer to home.
“I think playing in an all-girl bluegrass band was hard on my mom, who said that she was embarrassed to say, ‘My daughter, the banjo player.’ She sent me to college and I didn’t even get married. … [But] I wrote and illustrated a children’s book called Susie And Her Banjo about a little girl who sees a guy playing a banjo and goes on a journey to find one.”
Following the recording of First Borne — or First Born, depending on what side of the LP you’re looking at — the Buffalo Gals were touring more and more, bringing about a move to Nashville that lost them their mandolinist, Carol Siegel. In the late 1970s, the band hung up the name and individual members moved on to other things in music. Bassist Nancy Josephson went on to play more with her partner David Bromberg.
I asked both Monick and Trachtenberg what they were up to now. Both are still making music. Monick performs as herself and with a band called Holly Wood & the Extras. Trachtenberg is in a trio called the Folk Goddesses, who are currently working on a new album. She also performs with her husband doing a show called I Choose You, where they sing a collection of songs loosely based on their 33 years together.
Both Monick and Trachtenberg (and the other women in Buffalo Gals, if the Pretty Good for a Girl interviews were any account) have retained their ironic sense of humor — something that was audible in the tracks of their first and only album. Though it’s the first album of an all-female bluegrass band and though these women undoubtedly helped pave the way for groups like Della Mae or Uncle Earl today, at the time they were just trying to have as much fun as possible — pickin’ and playin’ and partyin’ — and it comes through in the tracks of the vinyl.