In the history of music, the contributions of females is often overlooked or minimized. Murphy Hicks Henry aims to help correct that in bluegrass music. In her fantastic new book, Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass takes an entertaining and informative look at the contributions of women to the history, and the future, of one of America’s original forms of music.
Music Tomes: This book is already being compared to Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History and Bob Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown as far as its importance to the ongoing study of bluegrass. How do you feel about those comparisons?
Murphy Hicks Henry: I am blown away by those comparisons! I feel like I’m on cloud nine. I own a well-marked copy of Neil’s book, Bluegrass: A History purchased when it first came out in 1985. It actually falls open on page where he talks about Louise Scruggs! I learned so much about the history of bluegrass by reading his book, and often used it as a reference for other writing projects before I starting writing my book. Then, when I first got to work on my book, I set Neil’s book up in my mind as the “gold standard” I wanted to reach. I wanted my book to be as good as Neil’s. I wanted it to be that detailed, that thorough, that “authoritative.” Neil is so insightful and had done so much research and was actually THERE when much of this history was happening. Finally, of course, I realized I couldn’t be Neil, I couldn’t write my book like Neil wrote his. I had to write my own book. But I still have the utmost reverence for his book and I consider Neil a good friend. He was always available, by email, to answer any questions that came up during my own research and writing and was always gracious. Having said all that, I did grow to realize that there were few women included in Neil’s book. And, to his credit, Neil has told me that he wished he had included more women. So, adding these women back into the history of bluegrass was one of my goals in writing my book.
I also have a copy of Bob Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown. It, too, is marked up, although less so than Neil’s book. Bob’s book was harder for me to digest simply because he delved so deeply into the technicalities of the music itself and, as a “by ear” player I found his explanations hard to follow. It was less about people, and more about the esoteric aspects of the music. Still, it offered many insights into the music which I enjoyed reading about.
MT: How does a genre, or more specifically its practitioners, go about moving away from a climate that discourages by inaction the participation of females?
MHH: Oh my! This is a tough question! And I’m glad you noted that the discouragement of women in bluegrass is “inactive,” rather than an active, visible discouragement. This “inaction” is often hard to see, which makes it harder to rectify. One answer (out of many) would be for the “practitioners” to keep an open mind regarding women’s participation especially when it comes to the singing. Women don’t sound like men when they sing bluegrass–keep an open mind about this. Women sing in different keys from men–keep an open mind about playing in those keys. Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent have done a great job of getting people to accept women’s voices in bluegrass. Another answer is to think outside the box about ways to encourage women to participate in bluegrass. My banjo-playing daughter and I are putting on an All Women’s Banjo Camp this July. It has been our experience that most attendees at bluegrass camps are men. We hope that if we offer an all-female space that women will feel more comfortable about their playing. No one likes to fall on her face when learning a new skill but women seem to feel particularly uncomfortable doing this when men are around. For many reasons.
Other short answers : Festival promoters could hire more bands with women in them. This makes women more visible to other women (and to the men, too). Radio DJs could play more songs that feature women as singers or pickers. Do you have to dig deeper to do this? Yes, you do. Again, you have to think outside the box! Steve Martin could give his $50,000 banjo prize to a woman! Players who are members of the International Bluegrass Music Association (our professional trade organization) could think outside the box and vote for more women for our annual awards. Yes, you do have to think harder, but there are plenty of women out there on the road working just as hard as the men are! They just often aren’t as visible. (On radio or at festivals. It’s a Catch-22.)
MT: I found your discussion of the “rare female” very interesting. Did you find that feeling in other musicians you interviewed?
MHH: Yes, I did. The other women didn’t use the words Rare Female, but over and over I heard the phrase “I was the only one” or, as Jeanie West put it, “I was it.” But then, interestingly enough, later in the interview almost everyone would go on to mention other women who were out there playing. They would say, “Of course, there was Gloria Belle.” Or Wilma Lee. Or the Lewis Family sisters. Even Sierra Hull, who is a young mandolin player in her early twenties, said she felt like she was the “only female around” in jam sessions. Clearly, we were not “seeing” each other. But I also think that the whole culture of bluegrass is so “male” (at least that was the way I experienced it) that women felt very lonely. I know I did. Even as I tried to “macho” my way through by being as “male-like” as possible. That became much more difficult when I was pregnant! I do feel like this is changing some nowadays, although perhaps today I simply choose to play music in situations where I feel more comfortable.
MT: Was there anything in your interviews or research that surprised you?
MHH: Honestly, it surprised me that there were so many women out there so early on. Their presence simply hadn’t been documented before. And I think there are many more out there still waiting to be found. I had to limit my own research to finding women who had recorded (and were thus “visible”) or who had been mentioned in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine which didn’t start publication until 1966. I hope someone else will undertake the gargantuan task of looking for the women who played locally and never hit the “big time.”
The other thing that surprised me was how many women used the expression “I was eat up with it” to describe their passion for bluegrass, especially when they first discovered it and were in the throes of learning to play. Again, I thought I was the only woman who felt that!
MT: What are you currently working on?
MHH: Publicity and promotion for Pretty Good for a Girl! I haven’t yet started another book project. I will be curious to see if any offers come my way.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
MHH: Oh yeah! One of the books that inspired me during the writing of my own book was Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s by Sherrie Tucker. Few people believed her when she made the claim that there had been hundreds of all-women swing band in the 1940s. She found them! And, although she was writing about swing music, she made me aware that bluegrass texts, too, are not “gender neutral,” they are “histories of musical men.” Another much-loved book is Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music by Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann. It, too, is copiously underlined and falls open at the chapter on women in bluegrass! I also loved Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg. Great story of Sara and Maybelle Carter!
Other favorites include Ramblin’ Rose: The Life and Career of Rose Maddox by Jonnie Whiteside; Pressing Own: The Roni Stoneman Story by Roni Stoneman as told to Ellen Wright; The Stonemans: An Appalachian Family and the Music That Shaped Their Lives by Ivan Tribe; Country Music U.S.A by Bill Malone; A Good-Natured Riot by Charles Wolfe; Pickin’ On Peachtree by Wayne W. Daniel; and, I have to include Peter Guralnick’s biographies about Elvis, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. I could continue on….I love the history of music and musicians!