When I first became aware of Bluegrass music in the sixties, it was an all white male affair. By contrast, country country had featured women from its outset with Sara and Maybelle Carter on through Kitty and Patsy to Dolly and Loretta. But if you saw Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs on TV at that time, you didn’t see any women. Of course Sally Ann Forrester had filled in for her husband while he was on military service but that was the exception to the rule.
I first became aware of the powerful influence women could make in our music after I moved to the Washington, D.C area in the eighties. I had drifted in my musical preferences and my newly restored relatively southern location exposed me again to the music I had grown up with in South Carolina.
The D.C metro area at that time was full of great Bluegrass. Local bands like the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene changed the way people listened to Bluegrass. Not only that but a trio of great female singers changed my concept about what Bluegrass could be and I realized that a lot of great Bluegrass demands the female touch. And there were three local Bluegrass stars in particular who I listened to every chance I got.
The first local Bluegrass gal who blew me away was Alison Krauss. I couldn’t believe someone with such an angelic voice and knack for harmony could also be a good fiddle player and song writer.
The second gal was Lynn Morris. Her CD with Ronnie McCoy on mandolin is still one of the finest Bluegrass recordings of all time. At a CBA workshop, I had the opportunity to meet Lynn’s husband Marshall Wilborn, who played bass on that CD and I told him about how I still listen to it (and I still do now several years later). If you’ve never met Marshall, I can assure you he is a really nice guy. His wife Lynn made some special music in her day before a stroke sidelined her.
The third D.C area female Bluegrass star that I admired was Hazel Dickens. Her harmonies with Alice Gerard were about as perfect as perfect gets and the songs that she wrote like Mama’s Hand and West Virginia, My Home are some of the best songs ever written.
We Bluegrass fans in California are very fortunate that our female musicians are some of the best ones out there. I hesitate to mention people like Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, A.J. Lee and Angelica Grimm only because these are a few of my personal favorites that come to mind and my readers will remind me of many others (go ahead). My point is that California bluegrass is full of great female voices and pickers. Heck we’ve got bands out here that are all female and they’re great.
I would be remiss on this Martin Luther King Day if I did not mention that I wish there were more African Americans in our music. There is no denying that at the core of the Bluegrass sound there is an awful lot of black blues and gospel. I was a huge fan of the Carolina Chocolate Drops but it seems in recent years that their talented musicians are seeking out other genres. If you have never heard Carl Johnson play the 5 string banjo, he’s worth a listen.