When five first ladies take the stage at Red Hat Amphitheater on Friday, there won’t be a presidential motorcade in sight.
Instead, you’ll see and hear the first women who have won their respective instrumental awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
The roster features Alison Brown on banjo, Missy Raines on bass, Becky Buller on fiddle, Sierra Hull playing mandolin and Molly Tuttle on guitar.
What started as a hashtag has now become their working band name — the First Ladies of Bluegrass.
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Indeed, each member has built a career as a soloist or bandleader that makes her revered in the bluegrass world and beyond. But together they make a statement about what female pickers have done — and can continue to do.
Bringing the women together wasn’t necessarily a conscious response to the #MeToo Movement that has rattled other industries, though the timing may seem fitting, Brown said in an interview.
“In some way, maybe subconsciously, it informed this,” Brown said. “But really it was maybe more that it informed the fact that now there were enough women to be inspired to play well enough to get that award.”
They’ll be joined on the Red Hat stage by two other powerhouse musicians the First Ladies admire: Gillian Welch and Rhiannon Giddens. Giddens, a Greensboro native, was the keynote speaker at last year’s IBMA conference and later won a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” Welch also is a decorated singer, having won Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting from the Americana Music Association.
“They’re both incredible tastemakers in the roots genre, and incredible talents,” Brown said. “I feel that what they do musically and what they say musically is kind of watershed, game-changing art. They’re really at the cutting edge of defining what roots music should be and what it’s going to be like going forward.”
A happy accident
The First Ladies first came together last year to play on a song Raines recorded for a new album due in October. The song, “Swept Away,” was written by Laurie Lewis. Her three-quarters female band, the Good Ol’ Persons, formed in 1975, and provided early inspiration to girls who dreamed of a career in music.
Brown, who produced Raines’ album for her label, Compass Records, wanted to put together an all-female band in the studio for the occasion.
She called up people she knew, only realizing later that four of the five who signed up were the first female winners in their instrumental categories: Brown (in 1991), Raines (seven times from 1998 to the present), Buller (2016) and Hull for mandolin (2016 and 2017).
The fifth was Tuttle, and when she won the guitar award in 2017, the First Ladies had been inaugurated.
So it was all a happy accident, kind of. But in some ways, Brown said, maybe it wasn’t.
“The whole #MeToo movement and heightened awareness to those kinds of issues and this happening, they’re not consciously connected, but somehow in the greater sphere of things I think that there’s a connection,” she said. “I think that it’s always been an important statement to make, but it’s maybe more important than ever right now.”
Pretty much any vision of bluegrass’s future includes an increasing number of girls and women, as a look around the stages and sidewalk jams at World of Bluegrass is starting to reflect. And Tuttle said she’ll be glad for the company.
“I’d definitely like to see more women doing it,” Tuttle said in an interview. “I don’t usually feel shut out of situations, but sometimes being the only woman in a band or in a jam, it can just have a different feeling than if there are equals amounts of women and men in a playing situation.”
During Friday night’s set, the First Ladies plan to play some of each other’s songs as well as some standards they worked together to arrange. The fiddle tune “Sally Ann” is one example of the latter.
“We just came up with an arrangement for it together, which is unique and very reflective of everybody’s input, in true feminine fashion,” Brown said with a laugh.
Brown said she has enjoyed the dynamic of arranging music with her fellow women musicians; it differs from her experiences playing with bands where she is the only woman.
“This is nothing against the guys,” she said. “It’s just like there’s chocolate and vanilla — they’re both awesome. There’s the male process and the female process, and the difference is real, in my opinion.
“Guys will more often than not be just trying to claim their sonic real estate, and a lot of times in female situations it’ll be like, ‘Oh this song’s too long, cut my solo.’ ‘No, cut mine!’ It’s much more like a process of building consensus.”
Providing inspiration, support
Tuttle agrees that she’s seen a change in her industry with women becoming more visible in bluegrass.
“I think it’s definitely gotten better,’ she said. “People are paying more attention to women musicians and there’s kind of a shift happening right now, I think. Hopefully in years to come there will just be more young girls coming up playing bluegrass and playing their instruments.”
The awards that she and her First Ladies bandmates have received — and could receive this year — may well help spur that.
All five First Ladies are up for awards with Buller and Tuttle leading the overall nominees with six nominations apiece. Raines, Buller, Tuttle and Hull are nominated again in their instrumental categories.
And the song, “Swept Away,” that brought them together? It’s nominated for Song of the Year.
“People told me that it was really great to see a young woman getting recognized, because women haven’t always been recognized in bluegrass and in music in general,” Tuttle said. “I think it means that younger girls will see Sierra and Becky and me and Alison and Missy getting these awards and think ‘I can do that, too,’ and hopefully it will inspire more girls to play their instruments and play in jams and take solos.”
Along with that, Brown said, comes responsibility.
“That’s one of the things that’s really important to everybody to say with this project, which is women really need to support each other and create opportunities for each other,” said Brown, who has an MBA and worked as an investment banker before shifting to music full-time.
“Coming out of the corporate world, all too often it seemed to me that guys were much better at bringing along the next generation than women were. … And I think we’re at this moment in bluegrass music where there are enough women now that we can really support each other and create opportunities for each other, where in the past we might have been relying on a male musician to create those opportunities. So now that’s something we can do for each other.”
What: Special Collaboration with Alison Brown, Becky Buller, Sierra Hull, Missy Raines, Molly Tuttle and guest appearances by Gillian Welch and Rhiannon Giddens
When: Friday, 9:30 p.m.
Where: Red Hat Amphitheater, downtown Raleigh
Tickets: The set is part of the ticketed Wide Open Bluegrass. Shows are Friday and Saturday. Single-day tickets start at $50 for IBMA members, $60 for the general public. Two-day passes start at $80 for IBMA members and $100 for nonmembers. Children 12 and younger free with paying adults (general admission.)