Not (as Much of) a Boys’ Club Any Longer
I noticed as I was writing a preview for the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival, which we’re going to attend in Connecticut in two weeks, that their Friday lineup features four bands who are fronted by and/or dominated by women. Furthermore, three others have women in the band. In other words, every band of the Friday schedule has a crucial female member. Three additional bands on Saturday are fronted by women who are singer-songwriters.
In August of 2009, I wrote an entry on my blog called Bye-Bye Boys Club assessing the role of women in bluegrass. It focused on a new CD produced by Lorraine Jordan called The Daughters of Bluegrass, featuring a number of women who were members of bluegrass bands and major contributors to the genre. I made some factual errors, granted, but sought to address the issue of the role of women in bluegrass bands at the time, as well as in an historical context. Still, the number of female bluegrass pickers performing at Strawberry Park seems to me to be an extraordinary statement of the current state of affairs.
In 2013, Murphy Hicks Henry wrote a book called Pretty Good for a Girl, examining the history and place of women in bluegrass. Henry is a noted writer, banjo player, and bluegrass entrepreneur who has pioneered a teaching method emphasizing playing bluegrass instruments by ear. She is also a regular columnist for Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, the oldest continuing publication in the bluegrass vein. Her book’s title grew from the (probably unintentionally insulting, but certainly thoughtless) comment about women bluegrass players who excelled in their instrument as being “pretty good for a girl.” She looked at women in bluegrass who were crucial members of bands, noting that for many years women could not break into a band unless they were members of a family band or married to a member of a band. Independent women whose names were featured in the band were rare or nonexistent. She interviewed and profiled dozens of women who helped to break the stereotype, particularly Laurie Lewis, who first fronted a band called Good Ol’ Persons in 1974, on the West Coast.
Henry also names Sally Ann Forrester, a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, the first true bluegrass band, as early as 1945, and details the large number of women who have been first-rate bluegrass pickers and vocalists, particularly bassists and singers.
Meanwhile, certain instruments were seen as being “men’s” instruments, requiring masculine forcefulness to drive a band, with the banjo leading that line. Alison Brown cracked that barrier in 1991, as the second recipient of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Banjo Player of the Year award. Brown, who holds a BA from Harvard as well as an MBA, worked as an investment banker before turning full time to bluegrass. She and her husband are co-founders and top executives at elite recording company Compass Records. More recently, Kristin Scott Benson has been named Banjo Player of the Year four times. However, among the 39 people who have been named Instrumental Player of the Year by the IBMA, there are only three women mentioned, the remaining one being Missy Raines, who was named Bass Player of the Year nine times. Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss, the latter who has won more Grammys than any other individual, remain the only two women named Entertainer of the Year at IBMA since the awards were instituted in 1990.
It still remains necessary for women who play in bluegrass bands, where outdoor bluegrass festivals are one of the major sources of income, to learn ways to protect themselves from unwanted advances while maintaining the friendly camaraderie that’s a feature of most festivals. In recent years, a panel at IBMA’s annual business convention has been devoted to helping women in bluegrass learn road survival skills from their sisters on the road. Presenters there depict a lack of appropriate changing facilities, getting dressed inside porta-potties, learning to ward off inappropriate hugs and gropes, and more.
Two notable all-woman bands are currently touring in the bluegrass world. Della Mae, founded in 2009, has established an international reputation. This is due partially to the international tours they have undertaken under the auspices of the State Department, but mostly because they are just plain good. Recently, another all-woman band called Sister Sadie has emerged. Since all of its members have commitments with either their own bands or with other major bands, it’s not clear whether they’ll become a force themselves. Their debut at last year’s IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh was greeted to great acclaim by those who saw them, though.
The Bluegrass Hall of Fame, located at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, KY, with members elected by an IBMA special committee, remains the ultimate recognition of lifetime achievement in bluegrass music. There are currently 57 members. Of these, only six are women: Sarah and Maybelle Carter and Louise Scruggs. The two Carter women were members of a bluegrass precursor band, The Carter Family, and Louise Scruggs, Earl Scruggs’ wife, was admitted as an industry inductee for her business acumen in managing Earl’s career. Three Lewis sister were admitted as part of the Lewis Family Band, a noted bluegrass gospel band.
Hazel Dickens, who died in 2011 at the age of 85, is perhaps the foremost bluegrass performer who has not been admitted to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Along with Alice Gerrard, she formed a band in 1965, toured and recorded together until they went their separate ways, both continuing to record and perform. Dickens was involved in two important films, Matewan and Songcatcher. It’s entirely likely that she has been ignored by the committee as much for her left-wing politics as for her gender. (She was an outspoken advocate for women’s and miner’s rights.) Whether or not folks agree with her politics, Dickens belongs in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Her admission has become a cause to which several high profile bluegrass performers have committed.
While it seems likely that women are emerging as instrumentalists, singers, and band leaders as well as publicists, agents, broadcasters, and executives, there remains a disproportionate majority of men in bands, and according to demographic research I’ve read recently, the bluegrass audience is male dominated, too, depriving us of the full musical and social richness that equal representation could provide this dynamic and growing genre.