Author: Lehmann, Ted

Bye-bye Boys’ Club

Lest I be misconstrued here, let me begin by saying that women have always been a crucial component of folk and country music and in the early days of bluegrass. In writing what’s about to come, I don’t want to overlook the crucial contributions of people like Maybelle Carter, Hazel Dickens, Iris Demint and others in the early and ongoing story of bluegrass music. They were there from the beginning placing their imprint on the music. Now, having made the disclaimer, let me proceed to try to build a thesis and support it.

There are historical reasons bluegrass music spent many of its early years as a boys’ club and continued that way into late middle age. As an invented music (well…derived), the first bands put together by Father Bill Monroe were composed completely of women. Similarly, Monroe’s primary spin-off bands were all men, too. So far as I know, and my history may be a little weak here, Flatt & Scruggs never had a woman in the band either. Well into the second generation, bluegrass bands, as they came to be known, were composed entirely of men. In the sixties, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard recorded with Folkways Records and are now seen as “Pioneering Women of Bluegrass,” the title of their compilation album released in 1996. It could be argued that the Carter family was a pre-bluegrass band, more folk or country than bluegrass, although their influence in bluegrass music cannot be overestimated. Many of you are more familiar with this history than I, and I leave it to you to fill in the holes.

Meanwhile, over the past two decades we’ve seen the emergence of featured performers in bluegrass bands who are women, women fronting bands at the very top of bluegrass music, bands composed entirely (or almost so) of women, a women’s sensibility in bluegrass music, and the emergence of the female voice as a solo instrument. It’s impossible to overestimate the influence of Alison Kraus in these changes. Recognized early as a virtuoso on the fiddle, Kraus emerged as a top band leader with Union Station and achieved stardom beyond bluegrass with the film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Her current CD and tour with Robert Plant have established her in a much wider musical community, but we in bluegrass still claim her. Rhonda Vincent & the Rage stand as another example of a person nurtured in bluegrass rising to the top. Vincent’s story is somewhat different from Kraus’ however, as, after some success in bluegrass; she took a shot in the larger world of country music. After not achieving at the level she hoped, she returned to bluegrass where her hard work and quality entertaining value have given her great success and many rewards. Her album “Back Home Again” (2000) signaled her return to bluegrass music, but recently her music has turned again to other forms, including country, western swing, and Cajun.

A notable example of a woman forging an influential place in bluegrass music is Lorraine Jordan. Her band “Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road” will celebrate its tenth anniversary this fall. Meanwhile, Jordan stands as perhaps the strongest female advocate of Monroe style mandolin among women pickers. Her band has a reputation for being a hard working, blue collar band that can be relied upon to be solidly entertaining. Periodically, her band has also featured other female musicians, notably Gina Britt on banjo, but currently has no other women in it. Perhaps Lorraine Jordan’s most important contribution to the place of women in bluegrass will be seen as her IBMA award winning album “The Daughters of Bluegrass.” The current Daughters album “Bluegrass Bouquet, produced by Dixie Hall features fifty women who are bluegrass musicians. The place of women in bluegrass music seems pretty well assured.

Women have not only assured themselves a place in bluegrass music, but they are helping to forge transitions into the form, content, and sensibility of the music that will have profound importance in the future. As bluegrass music developed under the autocratic and self-centered regimen of Bill Monroe, it was always assumed that most players in a bluegrass band would be masters of their instrument and be first rate singers contributing to the vocal tone. While trios and gospel quartets were central, often every member sang in various combinations. Certainly, all singers played an instrument. Today, we are seeing a change in this pattern. While, I’ve never seen a male singer in a bluegrass band not playing an instrument (well…almost never), there are now several women fronting bands who either hold a guitar or mandolin to little musical effect or are willing to stand and sing, their singing crucial to the sound of their bands. Among these, Michelle Nixon, Alicia Nugent, Melonie Cannon, and Carrie Hassler come immediately to mind. Rather than criticize them for not playing, or not playing well, I prefer to see voice emerging as an important instrument in a bluegrass band. With the lead female vocalist using her voice as an instrument, is it necessary for her to excel on a string instrument, too? That’s not to say that there aren’t women who excel on their instruments, but who are not well known as vocalists. Leading the list would be Alison Brown and Kristin Scott Benson, both IBMA Banjo Players of the Year on that notoriously masculine instrument.

There have also begun emerging bands that are all women, or mostly so. At the national level, Uncle Earl comes immediately to mind. In North Carolina, two local bands stand out. Sweet Potato Pie and Steel Magnolias each are dominated by women. The Gary Waldrep Band, from Alabama, has featured as many as three women performing in the band with Waldrep. This is the only band I can think of where a male band master has chosen to include a majority of women in his group. Singer/Songwriters like Louisa Branscomb and Donna Hughes come quickly to mind as women who have made significant contributions to bluegrass music. Branscomb’s song “Steel Rails” performed by Alison Kraus and others headed the bluegrass charts longer than any other song.

It remains to be seen how the nature of bluegrass will be changed by the breaking down of the boys’ club barrier. Suffice it to say the changes have already been significant and profound and will continue, challenging some and satisfying many others.

Ted can be reached at
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Posted:  5/15/2009

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