If the word “bluegrass” conjures up visions of conservative-looking guys with banjos and whiney tenor voices, then you’re partly right. However, there have always been women in bluegrass; it’s just that they sometimes labor in obscurity or even fail to get off their front porch. (And I’d love to expound on the reasons, but I’ll save that for another time.) The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) just gave out most of their 2008 awards to men. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
Two names that come up most when talking about women in bluegrass are fiddle player/singer Alison Krause and mandolin player/singer Rhonda Vincent. Both were nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year. They didn’t win. Best Female Vocalist went to Dale Ann Bradley (pictured below). Born in Kentucky, her career has included stints with the New Coon Creek Girls and now with her own band. Her clear voice is distinctive and definitely a few notches better than your average whiney guy tenor.
But those are for a category that has to include women. There were a few women nominees in other categories (like Rhonda Vincent’s band The Rage for Best Entertainer) but mostly, it was guyville. A shining exception was in the banjo category, won by Kristin Scott Benson. She won against four men, and girl howdy, can she play. She’s toured with Laurie Lewis and now has her own band.
Speaking of Laurie Lewis (who bills herself as a singer-songwriter-fiddler-guitarist-river rat), she’s not a real Southerner; heck, she’s from California, and I’ll bet she even eats tofu. I don’t hold that against her — I’ve always loved her music. While she wasn’t nominated this year, she is a two-time winner in the female vocalist category and she’s a Grammy winner too.
Another great fiddle player is Sara Watkins. You may know her work with Nickel Creek. She’s in the studio now, recording a solo album produced by John Paul Jones. (Yeah, the guy from Led Zeppelin — that’s not too surprising since he’s been seen on projects from the old-timey all-women’s band Uncle Earl, as well as Canadian acoustic-fusion band The Duhks.)
Barbara Lamb is a fiddle player who’s worked with bass player Laura Love as well as others, including the honky tonkin’ (mostly) women’s band Ranch Romance (which toured with k.d. lang in 1989). Love is no slouch in the bluegrass department. Her 2007 release NeGrass was in constant rotation on my iPod for months.
Bluegrass has its share of banjo players too, like Casey Henry and Alison Brown. Brown toured with that other Allison Krause and now has her own label, Compass, through which she produces other artists. She doesn’t dwell strictly in bluegrass, venturing into a variety of styles including jazz and pop. If someone asked her to play Jill Sobule’s “I Kissed A Girl,” I’m sure she’d do it with a blur of hands and a backbeat worthy of any pop band. (And wouldn’t that be hot?)
And let us not forget Dolly Parton. If I could choose one bluegrass album for that proverbial deserted island, it’d be her Halos and Horns. She once said in an interview that she enjoyed doing her bluegrass recordings because they’re self-produced and she didn’t have any big Nashville cat peering over her shoulder and telling her to cut her story songs down to a radio-friendly length. She’s one of the best female songwriters of all time (“I Will Always Love You,” anyone?) and while I like her country songs, it’s her bluegrass that really touches me.
(I’ve always wondered about Dolly’s “Shattered Image” from Halos and Horns, where she sings: “If you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones / Don’t shatter my image till you look at your own / Look at your reflection in your house of glass / Don’t open my closet if your own’s full of trash.”)
There’s a great tradition of family bands in bluegrass and some of them feature girls and women. You’ll find them at BBQs and county fairs. Some who aren’t in a band, like multi-instrumentalist Kara Barnard, should be famous, especially when they play as well as she does. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Barnard personally, but hey, I still know great chops when I hear them.)
Let’s hope the IBMA pays attention and nominates more women next time. I don’t want to have to write another cranky blog.
Are you a bluegrass fan? Which artists really flip your switch?