7 Women Smashing the Bluegrass Glass Ceiling

Music Lists Bluegrass
7 Women Smashing the Bluegrass Glass Ceiling

Bluegrass is often maligned either as one of the whitest American music genres, or one of the most male-dominated. Certainly, the main foundational figures of bluegrass were all men—Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley. But women have been a part of bluegrass from the beginning, first with Sally Ann Forrester on accordion in Bill Monroe’s first band, and later with pioneers like Louise Scruggs, Earl’s wife and a powerful businesswoman in the bluegrass music industry, or Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, a duo most often quoted as paving the way for women in bluegrass. Today, it’s not as hard to point to powerful women in bluegrass, from country star Alison Krauss (who has a new album coming this year), who got her start as a precocious bluegrass prodigy, to popular Americana artists like Sarah Jarosz or Sara Watkins, both of whom emerged in the bluegrass scene at young ages.

Still, it’s not always an easy road, and the artists interviewed here recognize the struggle of women within a music genre that’s constantly looking to the past for authentication. But these artists also recognize that we’re on the cusp of change. The International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) recent annual conference looked very different from past years: there was a showcase on diversity featuring artists of color (who are virtually non-existent in traditional bluegrass), as well as LGBT artists. Speaking at the IBMA conference, Marian Levy, a founding member of Rounder Records, called for change in the tradition, stating the Rounder Records rallying cry that “music doesn’t discriminate.” There’s still much work to be done, though, and these seven artists are at the forefront of the new wave of women smashing the bluegrass “grass ceiling.”

1. Sierra Hull
Coming out of the child prodigy world of bluegrass, mandolinist Sierra Hull released her first album at age 10. Growing up, she says, “I started playing bluegrass music at such an early age that it never really dawned on me that I was the only female around at times. I think that was one of the reasons that I fell in love with Alison Krauss so early on. I was nine years old when I got my first Alison Krauss recording and she really became a big hero to me.” Krauss ended up as a mentor for Hull at a young age, and Hull’s first album came out on Rounder Records when she was only 15 “I remember getting my first Rhonda Vincent album, too,” Hull continues. “I didn’t know anything about her music, yet, but I thought it was so cool to see a woman holding a mandolin on the album cover. I remember being about nine or 10 and thinking, ‘that will be me someday—a woman mandolin player!’”

Hull’s new album is an adventurous departure from her previous work in bluegrass, pushing more towards a kind of thoughtful or artful minimalism. She also pulled in the Mandolin Player of the Year at the 2016 IBMA awards, which is the first time the award has gone to a woman. Still, it’s not all smooth sailing. As she says, “I think I can speak for most of us that it can get a little old to sometimes feel like there is one slot on a festival lineup for ‘the female’ artist or band. From my experience, it doesn’t work that way as much when you are speaking of male musicians, but for women sometimes there’s a lot of comparisons.”

2. Alison Brown
Alison Brown has been at the forefront of bluegrass for years, first as a renowned banjo player and then as the label head for Compass Records. Compass is one of the best record labels covering the modern roots revival, and Brown’s hand has been on the wheel for their many signings; she’s also produced many of the albums coming out of Compass’ Nashville offices. Brown actually started playing at a young age, and Stuart Duncan, now one of the most in-demand sidemen in Nashville, was her first musical partner. Duncan’s dad actually pushed him to play with her when he was 12! Speaking with Brown on the phone, she brings up the point that early women in bluegrass were usually there with men at their side, essentially as chaperones. The genre come a long way since then, she says. “When I was growing up people would always say, and it was meant in the kindest possible way, ‘You’re really good for a girl,’ because there weren’t a lot of girls or women playing. Out of this small pond of people, it was surprising to them. In my opinion, you’d have to be pretty unworldly to make a comment like that anymore.” Brown pointed to the rise of Alison Krauss as well as the real watershed moment for women in bluegrass. “Nobody had the success that Alison Krauss had,” Brown explains. “So, when that happened, I think it started to make it difficult for people to look at women in bluegrass as some kind of exceptional thing. Here was a woman who really blew out the boundaries for the music and really expanded the potential for the music and brought in new listeners.”

3. Dale Ann Bradley
Born and raised in the coalfields of Appalachia, Dale Ann Bradley today is one of the most respected bluegrass vocalists, with five IBMA Vocalist of the Year Awards under her belt. She’s got the kind of hard twang of the best Appalachian bluegrass singers, and she’s always one with a kind word and helping hand for new musicians. Aside from releasing a stellar solo album in 2015, Bradley also formed up the all-female bluegrass supergroup Sister Sadie, with four close friends. With a debut album released last year and a quick reputation for incendiary live shows, Sister Sadie’s easily one of the best bluegrass bands in the US right now. A tie to the older bluegrass world, Bradley reflected back to the days when women in bluegrass weren’t allowed to sign contracts, making it hard for them to participate in the business. “I think we have, just like in society, a way to go for everybody to be recognized equally,” Bradley explains, “but I think women have learned business and honed their craft. They’re great musicians. I think that’s been a very important point for women growing in bluegrass.” For Bradley, Emmylou Harris was one of her first inspirations in music. “When Emmylou came out with ‘Roses in the Snow,’ I was a teenager and that absolutely, that was just it, that was the first real representation of the female artist making one of the best records that ever been in bluegrass, acoustic and roots music.”

4. Kristin Scott Benson
Though women fronting bands in bluegrass are much more common today, there’s still not as many “sidewomen” in bluegrass. The sideman in bluegrass is a like a gun for hire; they’re often considered some of the most technically brilliant musicians and are hired accordingly. Just as it’s nearly impossible to find articles on female guitarists in guitar magazines today, it’s hard in any genre to find women who are feted for their instrumental abilities rather than their vocal work. Benson’s long been an outlier in this field as a fiery banjo player and instrumentalist. She tours with famed bluegrass band The Grascals, won the IBMA Banjo Player of the Year award four times, and her new solo album, Stringworks, opens with a nuclear banjo solo played at top speed. “In 1995, I was lucky enough to get a job traveling with a busy, all-male band. I was only 19 years old, and I’ve stayed employed ever since. It wasn’t until years into my career that I realized my experience could be considered rare. As a teenager, I was just happy to be playing my banjo and I didn’t dwell on any gender-specific issues.” Benson’s hope is that other women can follow her example: “If they don’t have to play with an all-female band, a group led by another woman, or be the bandleader themselves, the number of job opportunities drastically increases. I believe that, eventually, gender won’t be an issue. One day, female musicians will just be musicians and that’s the ultimate goal.”

5. Melody Walker
Lead singer and songwriter for progressive bluegrass band Front Country, Melody Walker is an outspoken force in bluegrass. She routinely calls out the sexism, racism and injustice she sees in the world, a difficult thing to do in an industry still run by many conservative elements. A product of the Left Coast bluegrass world, Walker came up in the Bay Area bluegrass scene. The progressive bluegrass world on the West Coast is sometimes pejoratively referred to as “CPG” by Eastern conservatives-CPG stands for “Colorado Pussy Grass.” It’s a title that Walker and others have reclaimed, making it almost a badge of honor. Front Country’s recent recording is a musical mixtape of favorite covers, proving their ties to a more adventurous bluegrass sound. Walker uses her wide-ranging influences to work out innovative covers of artists like tUnE-yArDs, Don Henley and King Crimson, but also The Good Ol’ Persons, one of the very first all-female bluegrass bands from the Bay Area. With their new album, “Other Love Songs,” coming April 7, 2017, Front Country promises to push the bluegrass envelope even further. “I think the bluegrass scene was broken wide open in the ‘70s and ‘80s revival,” Walker says, “not only to women, but also an expanded definition of the genre. That revolution fostered this new generation of pickers that have grown up largely up encumbered by past limitations. We still encounter echoes of the past, but as we grow and the next generation of young players comes along, we all become an integral part of the industry and change it from within. We are starting to have some much more open and radical conversations within the IBMA about breaking those next barriers of inclusivity, and making sure LGBT and people of color are included, and that even more political and musical viewpoints are welcome. It’s really exciting, and it makes me proud of my scene and hopeful for the future.”

6. Rebecca Frazier
Like Kristin Scott Benson, guitarist Rebecca Frazier is another instrumental luminary in bluegrass today. The first woman to be featured on the cover of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Frazier’s talent as a guitarist is much respected in bluegrass circles. She’s also a great singer, and her recent album, When We Fall, showcases both talents. Like many women here, she started playing at a young age (just 12 years old) and later founding her band Hit & Run Bluegrass in Colorado, which has one of the best bluegrass scenes in the US. Now living in Nashville, she moved to the city on the cusp of motherhood, something that can be a difficult prospect for touring musicians. Now one of the most respected bluegrass guitarists, Frazier’s a source of inspiration for other artists, though she herself points to banjo player Alison Brown as one of her primary inspirations. “If we’d like to be honest about gender in the music world,” Frazier explains, “we need to address all parties. Women need to invest in themselves, hustle for gigs, network, and do the work of forming bands and cultivating their own talents if they would like to be taken seriously. The industry pretty much always rewards women who do these things. I’m not interested in any special handout just for being a woman. But on the other hand, if a woman is doing these things, yet she’s told ‘We already have enough women on the bill, so we’ll call you next year’—now that’s an issue. No one says to a male artist, ‘We already have enough men on the bill!’”

7. Kimber Ludiker
In addition to coming from a powerful music family (she’s a fifth-generation fiddler), Kimber Ludiker is also one of the best known ambassadors of bluegrass today. Through her work with her all-female bluegrass band Della Mae and her work overseas with the U.S. State Department, Ludiker’s been a voice for reason, pushing for more diversity and inclusiveness in bluegrass. A dedicated sidewoman in bluegrass, she’s keen to improve opportunities for women who aren’t bandleaders in bluegrass. “There’s a lot of complications in this industry for being on the road as a female musician in a more conservative musical world,” Ludiker says. Hotel rooms can be limited, and some male musicians don’t want to share a room with a woman. But she’s hopeful for the future of bluegrass, “We just saw the first female winner for instrumental categories this year at IBMA, for a fiddle player, Becky Buller and for a mandolin player, Sierra Hull. It’s one thing to nominated in those categories; it’s a whole other thing to win it.” Ludiker takes a lot of hope from the recent IBMA conference, which made historic pushes towards inclusion and equality. “I think that there’s definitely a younger generation coming to bluegrass that sees the world in a different light. You saw this energy and this charge that came from younger people coming in to bluegrass and IBMA and really caring about inclusivity. It affected some of the professionals and the people who have been in the business for longer; we saw them empowered to speak on behalf of inclusivity.”

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