Virginian banjo player and writer Murphy Hicks Henry, founder of the Women in Bluegrass Newsletter, was well placed to compile this dense, far-reaching history of women who have succeeded in a man’s musical world.
Generally considered the purview of steely-eyed men playing steel-stringed instruments with a look of, if not downright pain on their faces, certainly a serious macho demeanor, bluegrass has nonetheless attracted many women singers and players. Some, like Wilma Lee Cooper, Rose Maddox and Roni Stoneman, were just swept up in the excitement of family music, growing up with the genre and its significant changes over the years. Some were drafted, one could say, from other spheres. Dede Wyland was musically trained, and after she got over British rock, “The feeling I had hearing bluegrass music was similar to the feeling of falling in love.” Arguably, Alison Krauss borrowed some of her singing style from Dede. Krauss is perhaps the bluegrass female best known in the American mainstream, owing in part to her contributions to the widely acclaimed movie
O Brother Where Art Thou. Krauss, who began her musical career with a hot fiddle and a modest wardrobe, has morphed into one of those stars who can pick and choose her fellow picking partners, most recently doing a duet production with rock icon Robert Plant. Another big name among the women in bluegrass is undoubtedly Rhonda Vincent, a lightning-fast mandolin picker and strong vocalist who recently recorded a song containing the eponymous “insult disguised as a compliment”: “You’re pretty good for a girl.”
As Henry points out, by the 1990s, there were “too many to count”--all girl bands like the Dixie Chicks, new soulfully expressive family groups like Cherryholmes, and crossover stars like Patty Loveless. 2005 saw the release of a three-part production featuring Daughters of Bluegrass, with women on both sides of the studio wall.
It is clear that Henry ploughed through a mountain of material to mine this fascinating, and indeed, long-needed compendium about the sorely neglected contributors to a very American musical phenomenon. It would have taken real guts for these women to strike out and strike it rich in the rough waters of early bluegrass. Janis Lewis of the famed Lewis Family band, born in 1939 and performing by early childhood, baldly stated that, as to women in bluegrass who inspired her growing up, “I don’t think there were any.” Luckily for aspiring girls who want to take up fiddle, mandolin and banjo these days, there are plenty of role models. Kudos to Henry for putting them in the spotlight.