Stepping into the Spotlight: Women in Bluegrass
Recently I wrote a review of Holly Gleason’s marvelous new book, Woman Walk the Line, a collection of essays written by 27 highly accomplished women writing about 27 female country artists. These fairly compact essays vividly present the the impact the performers’ music and lives had upon the writer as she first encountered their music, and then, in many cases, came to know and appreciate them personally. The writers’ struggles reflected their own difficulty in discovering who they were, and how they learned to express qualities that their subjects exhibited as they emerged in the world of country music and music publishing largely dominated by men.
As I read these often haunting and challenging tales, I began looking at some of the demographics governing consumption of my own writing. I discovered that 73% of the readers of my blog are men, while only 27% are women. My YouTube demographics are nearly identical. Our Facebook Page, Ted & Irene’s Most Excellent Bluegrass Adventure, looks a little more balanced, with 43% listing themselves as women and 55% men. Then, while attending a bluegrass festival in the Midsouth, I looked around at the jam I like to play in. The jam circle, except in one brief session, was 100% men, while the wives sat around the circle watching and listening to the music, formed their own chatting circle, or adjourned for a long-running game of dominoes. This divide also finds itself manifested in the demographics of the performers and audience for bluegrass and country music as well as the power structure for executive positions within music. Meanwhile, more women traditionally get killed in bluegrass songs than treasured, except if they’re mothers, in which case they’re worshipped.
This year’s induction of Hazel Dickens, noted as a filmmaker and social activist as well as a singer, along with sometime performing partner Alice Gerrard, in the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame, is the result of a yearslong effort on her behalf by a number of men and women whose voices are heard in bluegrass. Only one woman, Louise Scruggs, is a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame for her own (nonmusical) accomplishments. All other women recognized were part of a band. These include Maybelle and Sara Carter and the three Lewis Family sisters: Polly, Janice, and Miggie. Does the 2017 picture look any better as we participate in the midst of IBMA’s week of self-congratulation? Here, Hazel and Alice sing “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me.”
For years, bluegrass bands were dominated by men, although a few notable women were part of the scene from the genre’s earliest days. For a detailed account of this story, read Murphy Henry’s fine book Pretty Good for a Girl. Often the woman in the band was limited to singing and playing the bass. In recent years women specializing in playing other instruments have emerged as central players with three, Kristin Scott Benson on banjo, Sierra Hull on mandolin, and Becky Buller on fiddle, having recently been named IBMA Player of the Year. Rebecca Frazier has pioneered the way for women as flatpickers on the guitar, with Courtney Hartman also being recognized. This year, Molly Tuttle, who grew up in a family band in California and attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, has become the first woman nominated for IBMA Guitar Player of the Year. “From an early age I was inspired by women in bluegrass such as Kathy Kallick, Laurie Lewis, Hazel and Alice and many more,” Tuttle told me. “I like to think that if I were to be the first woman to win the Guitar Player of the Year award, it would honor and shine a light on the who came before me and hopfully encourage girls of the next generation to pick up lead guitar.” Here’s Tuttle playing and singing “Gentle on My Mind” at Music City Roots a couple of years ago.
While there have been a few bands in bluegrass composed entirely of women, perhaps most prominently the Coon Creek Girls, featured at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in Kentucky, during the 1930s and ’40s and the New Coon Creek Girls more recently, bands dominated by women have been few. Della Mae, named Emerging Band of the Year in 2013, made an international name for themselves with their State Department-sponsored tours, but have recently disbanded. This year, the all-star band Sister Sadie, composed of five busy, productive, and well-recognized musicians pursuing busy careers in music, has been nominated for Emerging Artist of the Year at IBMA. With five-time Female Vocalist of the Year Dale Ann Bradley singing lead and busy touring fiddler Deannie Richardson’s soulful play, the band excels. Here they sing “The Fugitive” at the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival in New Jersey.
One of the most notable advances for women has occurred this year with the addition of Haley Stiltner to Country Current – The U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band. Country Current represents the Navy at home and abroad, having performed before the last five US presidents as well as at numerous bluegrass festivals and other events across the country. They also function as an important recruiting arm of the Navy, performing frequently at high schools. Along with two other members of Country Current, Stiltner is a graduate of the bluegrass program at East Tennessee State University. She has played with touring bluegrass bands The Next Best Thing and The Little Roy & Lizzy Show. She recently completed basic training in the Navy and joined Country Current as the band’s third banjo player, after Keith Arneson and the band’s founder, Bill Emerson, and the first woman to play for the band. Here she is in only her third performance with Country Current at the Dumplin Valley Bluegrass Festival in Tennessee.
It is still likely that you will see only one bluegrass band fronted by a woman or containing women at a bluegrass festival, although it seems to me, as a frequent attendee at festivals, that the number has increased in the years of my involvement. Meanwhile, on Tuesday afternoon, Rhiannon Giddens’ keynote address at IBMA World of Bluegrass inspired the audience with her account of the erasure of black people from the history and development of bluegrass music as a result of the music industry’s calculated decision to emphasize “race” music and “hillbilly” music. She called for music to “tear down this artificial division” between people who have made music together for hundreds of years. Giddens was the second woman in two years to give the keynote address, as well as the first person of color to keynote the conference. In a conservative genre within a conservative industry, I’d say progress is being made, but we still have a long way to go to make ourselves more universally attractive. Below is a video of Giddens’ full keynote address: