Several years ago, a series of IBMA seminars highlighted the problems encountered by women musicians on the road. I thought I’d take a look at how the climate may have changed, or not, since then through the experiences of several women who agreed to respond to my questions. Since their responses turned out to be more personal and revealing than I had anticipated, I’ve decided to use their quotations without names to look at some history and give some perspective on the current state of affairs for women on the bluegrass trail. This piece is intended to ask the question of how we, as fans, musicians, and promoters, can continue to increase opportunity for men and women to work together making beautiful music while assuring equity, comfort, and safety for all.
Early in the days of touring musicians in bluegrass and country music, almost the only women who were booked were members of family bands or the wives of band leaders. Women leading bands were rare; the road wasn’t seen as a fit place for unattached women to be. Rhiannon Giddens’ IBMA keynote speech this year focused on the role of women and minorities in bluegrass, including in those early days.
The women I heard speaking at the IBMA seminars told how they often encountered promoters who simply weren’t prepared or willing to do business with women, to provide adequate facilities for them, or to refrain from inappropriate touching or more. Several women wrote or spoke with me about these issues, and more, with forthrightness and courage. I prefer, as much as possible, to let them speak for themselves.
Asked why women are afraid to speak out when they encounter problems, one respondent wrote: “I have, not infrequently, heard colleagues say they refrain from speaking out on areas of identity. Why is that especially hard for musicians? I believe that in most areas of music we are dependent on public affirmation to be successful, so being perceived as going with the crowd actually does matter. Being liked versus being seen as a trouble-maker, or drawing attention to issues of gender or other minority identifications actually can make or break careers. So there is societal AND real professional pressure to conform on the outside. To be sort of one dimensional. Just our art divorced from other aspects of identity that are deep and profoundly important.” Nevertheless, she said, “I have always felt there is redemption to be found in the bluegrass community. We can do it better, and we can do it differently. We do share fundamental values in bluegrass, even more fundamental than gender acceptance or politics.”
Another woman responding wrote: “I would say things have changed for the better over the years. In the early days, it was hard to get a presenter or promoter to talk to me about a booking. It was always better if I had an agent — or a man who would make phone calls. The male promoters were not only uncomfortable talking about fees, but often wouldn’t directly pay me at the end of an event, asking instead to transact money with one of the guys in the band. This was weird for everybody, and it’s definitely not an issue anymore.” Another asked, “Do you cry sexism if a male-fronted band gets hired instead of you, or are there other factors at play? You’re never going to know for certain, because promoters are about ‘asses in seats’ and have their own parameters. But yeah, it’s rarely 50/50. Now, is that because there are more male-fronted bands in bluegrass or is that because they’re hiring us gals less? Or are they hiring based on the preferences heard from fans? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?”
For a long time, said one veteran touring professional, “there wasn’t always a place for women to change into our performance clothes, or anything else private. We got good at dressing in the back of the van! Also, many festivals have only one act featuring a woman in the band. I still look at the festival lineups and see an entire festival with no bands including women other than as part of a family band or the novelty ‘all-girl’ band. It’s just plain thrilling to see two or more bands led by women playing the same event. I can’t even tell you how many conversations I’ve had with festival promoters who say they’d love to hire my band but they’ve already hired one woman band. They think they can only have one of these bands at their event because we all sound the same.”
Bluegrass is, perhaps, unique in the access fans have to performers. It’s traditional for bluegrass performers to spend time with their fans at the merchandise table, and to be available to them on a more personal basis during a festival where a number of bands perform during the day. Several mentioned the issue of the too-close hug, or the hanger-on.
While some women answering my questions reported never encountering such difficulties, several expressed anger at some treatment they had received, or even surprise as a long-buried memory of deeply inappropriate behavior, sexual or in other ways, while writing to me. Somehow, like the strong women they are, these women have carried on, become stronger, and made their mark. Nevertheless, the wounds are deep and persistent.
Most of the respondents also noted what they perceive to be a generational change in how men and women respond to each other. They pointed to young performers like Kristin Scott Benson, Sierra Hull, and Molly Tuttle who have received professional recognition in the form of awards and bookings, suggesting that many of the barriers to performance have begun to fall away.
While many more bands have women side musicians or featured performers today, the all-female band is still rare. Skills aside, an emphasis on attractiveness still prevails for women, but is virtually non-existent for men. The overall impression this leaves with me is that the world of bluegrass reflects changes and issues present in the broader society, but still has much to learn. As long as people think of addressing these issues as “political correctness” rather than as human decency and respect, the issues will persist. One can only hope that the essential decency of bluegrass people will rise to the top.
My thanks to the women who were willing to discuss these issues for the trust they’ve placed in me. Also, to Jordan R. Laney, who took time from working on her doctoral dissertation at Virginia Tech to read and suggest additions and changes.