Women's growing place in bluegrass means not hearing 'pretty good for a girl' anymore

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comSeptember 24, 2013 

  • Murphy Henry’s talk

    Murphy Henry will appear on women in bluegrass at 3 p.m. Wednesday at the International Bluegrass Music Association Business Conference at the Raleigh Convention Center.

— Virginia author Murphy Henry, a banjo player since the early 1970s, says the accomplishments of performers such as Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent and Laurie Lewis mean women in bluegrass are far less likely these days to hear the words of her book title, “Pretty Good for a Girl.”

Henry, who’ll preside over an International Bluegrass Music Association panel on women in bluegrass at 3 p.m. Wednesday, spent 10 years researching and writing “Pretty Good for a Girl,” published by the University of Illinois Press this year.

With incisive writing and historical detail, Murphy goes a long way toward meeting her goal: Letting people know that bluegrass music isn’t almost entirely a man’s world.

“I hope this book will open some eyes, take off some blinders,” Henry, 61, said in an interview. “There always have been women out there, they still are women out there and they are fabulous musicians.”

The founders of bluegrass, led by Kentuckian Bill Monroe, came to prominence in the male-dominated post-World War II days, when women who went on the road as musicians were viewed as suspect unless married or related to a male band member. But even in Monroe’s band, Henry points out, musicians such as Sally Ann (Wilene) Forrester and Bessie Lee Mauldin appeared on shows and recordings in the 1940s and 1950s.

However, it has taken succeeding decades for women such as fiddler-singer Krauss, mandolinist-vocalist Vincent and fiddler-singer-songwriter Lewis to emerge as stars in their own right.

“Because of Alison, I just think there are so many young women out there that have taken up the fiddle,” Henry said. “I think Rhonda Vincent has been perhaps as influential because we are seeing so many women playing the mandolin.”

“It’s changed dramatically for the better,” Lewis, in Raleigh for the IBMA convention, said Tuesday at the Convention Center. “It’s still heavily weighted to the male side. But with the women musicians, it’s not ‘pretty good for a girl,’ it’s damn fine playing.”

Another development has been the increasing number of women, such as banjo player Kris Scott Benson, who work as side musicians in bands led by men or women.

“I think it has so very much to do with socialization and culture,” Henry said. “With men, it’s easier for them to be out there and aggressive. That’s another layer women have to play through.”

Gerrard and Dickens

Triangle resident Alice Gerrard and her one-time partner, the late Hazel Dickens, figure prominently in the narrative of “Pretty Good for a Girl,” a term used to dismiss women’s contributions to bluegrass as generally of less value than men’s. California-raised Gerrard and West Virginia native Dickens met up in the freewheeling Washington D.C. scene of the 1950s, creating a powerful singing team and hard-hitting original songs that earned them record deals and far-reaching influence.

Henry quotes Gerrard’s response to the notion that women don’t have the necessary drive or “punch” to play and sing bluegrass properly:

“One reason most women in bluegrass or even country music have tended not to possess the above-mentioned skills is not for lack of inherent ability, but more because they have not been encouraged to develop those skills and qualities; or have felt or have been made to feel that the skills were not in keeping with their oft-defined roles as women.”

‘Things are changing’

The panel that Henry will moderate Wednesday offers living proof of the prominence and success of women in the bluegrass field today. She’ll be joined by Lewis, who produced Gerrard’s new CD; Grammy-winning guitarist and songwriter Kathy Kallick; Annie Staninec, fiddler in Kallick’s band; Kimber Ludiker, a member of the buzzed-about all-female band Della Mae and North Carolina banjo player Gena Britt, who’s had top sideman gigs as well as leading her own band.

“Now that there are more women out there to model what can be done, things are changing,” Henry said. “The only direction is up.”

Outside the convention center Tuesday, banjo player/composer BB Bowness, of Wanganui, New Zealand, said her playing has been her ticket to acceptance regardless of gender.

Once you play with people, they don’t see it,” said Bowness, who’s living and playing music in Boston. “If you can play, you can play.”

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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