login | Register

O Sister Thou Hath Been There All Along - Women in Bluegrass

Women in Bluegrass Music

by Derek Halsey
June 2002

In the documentary/concert movie Down From The Mountain the women musicians are just as much a star of the show as the men. The movie was filmed in mid-2000 at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and was presented as the live concert from the performers who contributed the music for the hit movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. In May of the year 2000, the O Brother movie was just coming out and those that performed that May evening had zero idea that their music would go on to sell over four million copies and win the coveted Album of the Year at the 2002 Grammy Awards. Since then, traditional mountain and bluegrass music has seen a resurgence in popularity that has caused long time fans of the music to shake their heads in amazement. In the concert movie and the O Brother soundtrack you will see not only bluegrass greats like the late John Hartford, the legendary Dr. Ralph Stanley, dobro great Jerry Douglas, and the mythical Soggy Bottom Boys, but you also see Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch, the Cox Family and the White family bands. But in the world of traditional mountain and bluegrass music, it has not always been an easy thing for a woman to be successful.

Alison Krauss has paid her dues as a musician having won the Illinois State Fiddle Championship at the age of eleven. From there she went on to play many bluegrass festivals over the years, has evolved as a musician and singer and is now selling millions of CDs and doing it her way. However, a whole lot of ground was broken by women that came and played the music before her. An excellent CD has come out on the heals of the O Brother phenomenon that is a very good sampler of the women musicians who have paved the way in the field of traditional and bluegrass music. That CD is called O Sister. Yet Ken Irwin, co-founder of Rounder Records and compiler of the songs on the O Sister CD, says this project was started long before O Brother was a hit. He does admit though that a simple and timely change of the title of the CD has made all the difference in the world.

Says Ken Irwin, "I started on this a couple of years ago and thought that we had almost everybody that I wanted except Rhonda Vincent. When she got out of her contract we signed her, and that was sort of the last piece that I felt we needed. I had already started the listing (of performers) and brought it up to date. At one point we had actually done a recording session with a number of women, and the nickname, or the tentative name was Rounder Women, which we decided was not a great idea. (Laughs) We were trying to put something out which would be significant and dignified and classy. The whole process had gone along where we had the liner notes in the works and had the record all mastered when we decided to come up with the name O Sister. It wasn't something that was thrown together at the last minute. I think the record would have done well and would have gotten attention, but nowhere near the attention that it has."  

Actually, all Rounder had to do was go into it's own archives. One of the oldest cuts on the CD was performed by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. Says Irwin, "From the very beginnings of Rounder, one of the first people we saw that we wanted to record was Hazel Dickens. We saw her at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival probably in 1970-71. It took a couple of years before we were able to do the first Hazel and Alice records, but at that point there were hardly any women leading groups. There were situations where you would have heard, 'Well, now we’re going to hear one from the girl singer.’ If they were in a group they would play bass and virtually no lead instruments."

Appearing along with Hazel and Alice and Rhonda on the O Sister CD are some of the best bluegrass and traditional artists to come along in the last 30 years. Women like Claire Lynch, Delia Bell and Wilma Lee Cooper, Lynn Morris, Laurie Lewis, Suzanne Thomas, Ginny Hawker, Kathy Kallick, Carol Elizabeth Jones, as well as Alison Krauss. However, the story of women in the world of traditional/bluegrass music goes back almost sixty years. Some would say even further, with the recordings of Mother Maybelle Carter. She was a part of A.P. Carter's early recordings that some say are the basis for all the modern, mainstream country music that has been made since. But an overlooked woman named Sally Ann Forrester played in Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys back in the 1940s and appeared on a few of his now famous tunes that Monroe recorded for Columbia Records.

Murphy Henry is a bluegrass musician, a creator of the Murphy Method of teaching the banjo, and a board member of the International Bluegrass Music Association. A few years ago, Murphy decided to do her Masters thesis on the life of Sally Ann Forrester. Sally Ann had passed on some years before the project was started so Murphy decided to contact her kin to see if they would help. It was then that an amazing thing happened.  

"I had a fiddle player that knew the Forrester family,” says Murphy. “So he connected me up with Sally Ann’s son, Bob Forrester, who was one of the nicest people in the whole world. I made a trip to interview Bob and got to know him. Howdy Forrester’s brothers, (Howdy was Sally Ann's husband and a legendary fiddler in his own right) Joe and Clyde, are still alive. They are very old, 83 and 86, and we just became friends. Bob let me take home with me his mothers scrapbooks, her notebooks, her diary, her pictures, letters from Howdy to her that she had saved- he let me have access to all that. No qualms about it whatsoever. He said, 'Here, pack all this stuff up and UPS it to your house.‘ I was so scared my house would burn down."

Now there are those who think Bill Monroe did not have a band before Earl Scruggs came along. But in fact, Earl Scruggs was the final and most spectacular part to the bluegrass puzzle that had been developing long before he showed up to fit that final piece. Sally Ann Forrester was in fact in the band for three months at the same time as Earl. And before that she recorded with the Bluegrass Boys on some of Monroe's most famous songs. Sally Ann played the accordion, believe it or not, with the likes of Dave "Stringbean" Akeman, on clawhammer banjo, and the great fiddler, Chubby Wise, who were both also in the Bluegrass Boys at that time. In February of 1945, Monroe and the rest of the band went to Chicago to record for the Columbia label. Sally Ann played on classic Monroe songs like “Kentucky Waltz," "Rocky Road Blues," "Blue Grass Special," "Come Back to Me in My Dreams," "Good Old Pal," "True Life Blues," and others. Chubby Wise said many years later on a show about Bill Monroe that the song he was most proud of and was his favorite was "Footprints In The Snow." Also on that recording of "Footprints..." was one Sally Ann Forrester.

Sally Ann was married to Howdy Forrester who was Monroe's fiddler before World War II found him drafted and off to the armed services. There are some who say she was kept on as a favor to Howdy, but this belies her musical abilities as well as the notion that Bill Monroe would let anybody stay in his band that couldn't play worth a darn. Sally Ann grew up in Oklahoma, not far from the Texas border, and ended up being raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather, "Daddy George," seems to have been the musical influence on her in her early years. There is a picture of Sally Ann, then known as Wilene, taken when she was in her early teens and she is holding a ukulele and her grandfather has a fiddle in his hands. In Sally Ann's sixth grade autograph book she lists "piano and violin" under the "music” heading of the social activities page. In her seventh grade book she lists "guitar" also. Later on she went to a junior prep college called the Southwest Baptist University. Her autograph book from those days is littered with references to her musical abilities. Said one fellow student,"Even if everybody says so too, I must say that I love to hear you play guitar and sing. Of course, your piano playing is marvelous too." Perhaps one of the biggest contributing factors to her love of music is the fact that her grandfather would take her on a regular basis on a 30-mile bus ride to Tulsa to see, hear, and dance to the legendary Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys playing at the Cain Academy. By the time she and Howdy became a part of Bill Monroe's band she was a well schooled and competent musician in her own right.

Katie Laur's story is a bit different than Sally Ann's. Katie ended up being one of the very few women to actually lead a bluegrass band in the 1970's. Katie, and Betty Fisher a couple of years before her, started bluegrass bands back in the early 1970s that were not so-called 'family bands.' They were females who headed up bands with mostly or all men in them without being related to the guys in any way. This was the toughest scenario for women musicians to find themselves in. Katie grew up playing folk music until she heard a bluegrass band in Cincinnati. Says Katie,"It was a time in my life when I was homesick, I was lonesome, and they (the band) were singing “Salty Dog Blues” and I just went berserk. It's like people having an 'experience.' It’s like finding God or something. You know, God speaks to you and this is it. I started hanging around there all the time and they asked me to sit in with the band. I knew how to play the guitar but not that style. I played more of a folk guitar. Eventually they asked me to join the band, and I got to causing such a furor that they got offered this five night a week job up in Clifton. (a cultural district surrounding the University of Cincinnati) These guys were hard looking guys. Rough. We eventually started going on the road and I felt like I was getting in a van with a bunch of axe-murderers and going somewhere. And I think, “What am I doing this for?” Well, one time when we were working up in Clifton and a guy came in and spat on me. He just spat on me. And he said, “You don't have any business…there's no reason for women to be in bluegrass." 

Eventually Katie went on to start her own band, The Katie Laur Band, and it was not easy. It was, in a lot of ways, a man's world. Says Katie, "It was hard. They were Southern men and they were not used to...I had to be charming. I just had to develop a knack for getting what I wanted across and I didn't always get what I wanted. When you're in a van for weeks at a time with people, all their idiosyncrasies come out, including mine. There's nothing you don't know about each other. One of the examples I think the guys would give you of that is me telling them that they were all going to have to go out and get some new underwear or I wasn't going anywhere with them. A lot of festivals that I went to didn't have any female performers. There would be an outhouse in back of the stage and it would say 'for men only.' And I would have to get Kenny Baker, who was a good friend too and was a fiddle player with Bill Monroe, and he would stand outside the outhouse, or port-o-let or whatever they were, and guard it while I changed clothes, in a tight little port-o-let in 97 degrees of heat. It was miserable."

These days Katie Laur is back singing and playing again after getting away from it for a while. She is enjoying it more than ever. But she still remembers when her long time friend John Hartford and others would have their adventures back in the day. 

" In 1975, I met John Hartford and I went on this bluegrass cruise with him and about 14 other musicians,” recalls Katie. “We flew over to St. Louis and took the Delta Queen (riverboat) back to Cincinnati. We played 24/7. I remember Doug Dillard was playing banjo on the trip and his fingers would swell up so bad he couldn't get the picks off of them. So we would say, well, if you can't get the picks off you might as well play some more. That’s what we did."

There seems to be three reasons or explanations that keep coming up as to why there haven't been more successful bluegrass women over the years. I have seen them referred to in things from Marty Godbey's excellent liner notes in the O Sister CD, to Murphy Henry's work. The three reasons are as follows;

One:  That women sing in keys that are a problem for the other musicians to play their instruments in. Is this true?

Says Katie Laur,  " I like to think that that helped the guys in my band. Nowadays more and more musicians are playing in keys like F and B-flat. But back then it was hard, a difficult thing. Sometimes I'd drop my voice and make it fit. What we developed, what we used was high lead. In other words I would be on top of the harmony structure, then there would be baritone, and a low tenor. It was an Osborne Brothers kind of harmony."

Says Rhonda Vincent, " Yes, they are a bit more difficult. Women sing in D and E a lot, and that is not exactly your B, like B is your perfect bluegrass key. If I can sing a song in B, even if I have to drop it down a notch, or up or whatever I’ve got to do, that (key) just has the sound, or the 'buzz,' if you will. E is a very cantankerous key on the banjo. It's more difficult. The crazy thing is that my Dad didn't know any better, he tuned his banjo to A, so E was not a problem for him. He would listen on the radio and taught himself to play and didn't realize they were tuned up with a capo on so he just tuned his up to A and still does to this day. Which fixes the problem. We did half our songs in E."

Says Murphy Henry, " I’ve heard some of the women out there say, 'The singer always calls out the key.’ Bill Monroe said the same thing to Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, 'Put songs in keys that you can sing them in, and if the people can’t play them, get you another band."

Reason two:  Bluegrass and traditional bands have limited budgets and a woman's need for extra rooms etc. is a hassle.

Says Katie Laur, " Forget the separate rooms. I had to bunk with somebody else, just the same as everybody else. I was one of the boys before I knew that that couldn't be done. It was awkward, it was all awkward, but like I said when you're on the road for weeks at a time there's nothing you don't know about each other."

"That is very true,” agrees Rhonda Vincent,  “It requires another room. A lot of issues I guess. I was in a family band,  so it wasn't like I was just like a female (in a band), and that is a whole other issue. You get the stigma of, 'Oh, that’s a family band.’ I put together a band with some friends and we did a couple of festivals and the response was just so overwhelming. Everyone was saying, "This is what you should be doing." And I'm like, wow, this is so natural, and I've never been happier. From that the rest fell into place. That was quite a transition. You’re on a bus with your family. And you’re on a bus with people that are your colleagues, and working colleagues, and they’re not your parents anymore, or your brother, so you can't just say, "Get out of my face".

Says Murphy Henry; "I think that’s true. If everyone is sleeping in one hotel room it’s awkward. It’s not that people are going to be jumping a woman in a sexual way, it’s just uncomfortable. Not a whole lot of women would want to be in a hotel room with four or five other guys. So you are talking about getting another hotel room which is another expense. Especially if the woman happened to be married, I don’t think her husband would like it too much."

Reason three:  Jealousies arise in the wives and girlfriends of the men who play and have that musical connection with the woman in the band.

Says Katie Laur, "Well, that was a problem. A lot of times you get to where when you call somebody you hate for the wife to answer because you know she isn't going to like it. Jealousies did spring up. Yes, to this day I feel like I have bad wife karma (Laughs). It is powerful (playing music with some one), it's a powerful thing. I don't blame them for feeling that way. I don't think there's anything more powerful. It is better than sex. I can say that at my age (Laughs). But, you feel this charisma about yourself that comes out under the lights, and you feel like you could do anything."

Says Rhonda Vincent, "Right. It poses a problem if you are not really secure. I have been married for 18 years to a wonderful husband. There is a line, and I'm traveling with four men, but we all know where the line is. I'm married and that's the way it's going to stay. There are no other issues there. The guys and I talk about that. In any other band there could possibly be other things going on. In any work place there are feelings that can develop. And you're on the road for a long time. You have to be a really strong person and know where your morals are, where your standards are, so your like, ok, this is the way it is."

Says Murphy Henry, "There is the jealousy factor with wives because they are not comfortable having a woman in the band. There is that bonding kind of thing. I really do think that the generation that is coming up is having a little bit different attitude about it. They seem to be more comfortable with women players. I can not tell you how delighted I am that Sarah Watkins is playing with Nickel Creek. That is so exciting to me that you have a top-notch band with a woman playing the fiddle." 

As Murphy says, times have changed, at least up to a point. But the women who came before changed a lot of it. One person whom Murphy thinks should be in the IBMA Hall Of Honor and is someone who is not a musician, but broke ground on the business side of the music. That person is Louise Scruggs, who has been the manager for her husband Earl Scruggs from his Flatt and Scruggs days until now.  For fifty years, Louise has managed Earl through putting out the important Flatt and Scruggs Live at Carnegie Hall album, to being on the Beverly Hillbillies television show, that is seen in over 70 countries worldwide, and up to his newest CD, Earl Scruggs and Friends that just won a Grammy. 

"I think Louise is much underappreciated,” says Katie Laur. “She was a shrewd businesswoman. She knew the right things to do." 

Rhonda Vincent says," I was just with Earl and Louise, and she's still in there promoting Earl. She was instrumental in all of that. She is in there, you have to have someone who really believes in you, who can get out here and fight for you, and I think that's great." 

Says Murphy Henry," It’s my understanding that she was behind a lot of the things they did, like their appearance at Vanderbilt and when they played at Carnegie Hall. It was her idea to record the Carnegie Hall album. It was her idea to do the album they did with Doc Watson. The one they did with Mother Maybelle Carter. She was the booking agent, and one of the best, when women just didn’t do that."

All of these ladies are encouraged by the notion that more and more women musicians are going to come to the fore in the future. With the popularity of O Brother, and the O Sister CD as well, an even bigger generation of female performers could be in the wings. They are seeing signs of it already. Says Rhonda Vincent, "I believe they are. I'm seeing these young people at our concerts, just in the last two years, that I have never seen before. I was worried about that. I was beginning to think the same thing, that the younger generation was not going to carry this on. Last weekend I was in Denver and they had a specific children's workshop and show up on stage. I'm seeing a lot of children now.

"I’ll be honest with you,” says Murphy Henry. “That has just never worried me. I think bluegrass is here to stay. I think there will always be a next generation. I think there will probably always be the next generations that will take it in different directions, like where Bela Fleck is taking it; and Alison Brown who incorporates jazz elements into it; Tony Furtado. But there will always be traditionalists that just play the good old Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Stanley style. I think it is good that bluegrass is expanding."

As for the women from the old days Katie Laur says this, "I went out for a while for the Ohio Arts Council in the '70s to do some field interviews of musicians, like Ralph Stanley and people like that. Every single one of them learned from their mothers. All of them learned their music from their moms. I think that women had duties in the home and could not, did not, see music as a profession. I think they thought that maybe it was kind of silly. (Laughs)I'm not so sure it's not. But there was too much talent in the women to keep it bottled up forever and it had to come out at some time or another. You got to come out of the bottle."

A friend of mine, Theresa Marie, whom I have known for a long time, up and took to learning the fiddle about a year ago. She is also quite the deer hunter having harvested the biggest buck, a 160 plus Boone and Crockett, off of the family farm. And yes, she did receive some flak about it from some of the guys. Her latest harvest was a nine point buck and when she took it to the sporting goods store to check it in the man behind the counter asked her if it was really hers. I am glad I wasn't him on that day. But without over-reacting, or acting like she had a chip on her shoulder, she dern sure set him straight. If she carries that attitude over to her fiddle playing she will do just fine.

related tags


Currently there are 0 comments. Leave one now!

Sirius Satellite Radio Inc.
Copyright 1998-2018 by Swampland Inc. All rights reserved.