Bluegrass Corner

Women in Bluegrass

Mother Maybelle Carter.

Bluegrass music was started in the 1940s by Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. This great group is still the gold standard for bluegrass music today. At that time the vast majority of bluegrass music players, and all the stars, were men. The women were few and far between and almost always relegated to playing the stand-up bass and singing. There were, of course, a handful of influential women who preceded the beginning of bluegrass in the 1940s, but they were a courageous few. Mother Maybelle Carter stands out by making her mark in the 1920s with her group The Carter Family. Wilene “Sally Anne” Forrester actually played with Bill Monroe in the 1940s, on the accordion no less!

Other early pioneers included Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens as well as Rose Maddox. But, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanleys, Osbornes, and other all male groups dominated bluegrass music well into the 1960s. As we left that decade and entered the ’70s, pioneers like Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick fronted their own bluegrass bands, demonstrating that they could play instruments other than bass and produce great bluegrass music at a top level. In those days, Dolly Parton was an influential, savvy business woman, singer, songwriter, and performer of a variety of music, including bluegrass. Emmy Lou Harris and a raft of early women country singers also played an important role, which inspired the participation of women in bluegrass. Most of the women from this era are still active and going strong today.

Allison Krauss

Janet Beazley at Summergrass

Today, it’s different. Pick a hot young band, or a star on a bluegrass instrument, and it is likely to be a female. Allison Krauss fronts her own band Union Station, plays top notch fiddle, and writes and sings bluegrass at the top level. She is, arguably, the best and most successful bluegrass artist since Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. In fact, Alison Krauss has won more Grammy Awards (27) than any other artist, male or female, of any genre in the history of American music!

Dell Mae, an all-female bluegrass band, has won many, many awards, has travelled the world, and sets a high mark. Sierra Hull has won top awards on mandolin, Molly Tuttle on guitar, and Sarah Jarosz, too. In fact, Sarah will be the keynote speaker at the annual IBMA convention this year. Today, there are too many female bluegrass stars to count. The Bill Monroe of the 1940s would be in shock to see the influence of women in bluegrass music today—a pleasant shock, I hope!

Right here in San Diego we have many outstanding women playing and singing bluegrass music as well. Listen to Ramona Ault with her band Prairie Sky, Janet Beazley with Chris Stuart and Backcountry (Janet recently relocated to Port Townsend, Washington), Becky Green who recorded with Down the Road and 117 West, or Mary Jane Cupp with her band the Shoreline Pickers, or give a listen to Rose Scibelli. And, there are many more talented women, young and old, forming a central part of San Diego’s bluegrass community. Aren’t we lucky to see the music we love evolve and include women—I sure think so!

The political season is on us at the presidential, congressional, state, and local level. The Bluegrass Corner encourages you to study up and be sure to vote. It matters. Many have fought and died for your right to cast that vote. There are many big issues, not just candidates, who will be on your ballot this year. Some of the issues being voted on impact the music world, the rights of performing artists, and more. Sure, I know, you are being inundated with emails, texts, zoom conference requests, and more by so many candidates and on so many issues. But this will be over in a short month and we will all have to live with the results. So, put in some time, be wary of the disinformation that is pervasive, and make sure your votes are well informed.