Women in Bluegrass have not always been common and sometimes still receive a second look when performing within the genre today. According to an article by Robert Oermann and Mary Bufwack, “men responded to [women in bluegrass] by shouting derisively at female pickers, making sexual overtures backstage, or snickering behind their backs” (Goldsmith). Today in class, it was questioned whether women made the choice not to perform Bluegrass or if history and tradition kept them isolated from it. I believe that because women traditionally took care of the cooking, cleaning and childcare, this left them no time to even consider playing Bluegrass. In the same article by Oermann and Bufwack referenced above, Bluegrass musician Delia Bell states,
“Women haven’t had the opportunity men do. Men can just pick up and stay out a week, go to a festival, while women stay at home, take care of the kids, keep house, and all of that. They don’t have the opportunity to get out and learn” (Goldsmith).
There was also not enough money for women in Bluegrass according to Ginger Hammond Boatwright who states, “In country music, women can have a bus or fly; and the work is just on weekends or in the summer. In bluegrass you have to stay out on the road a good while. It’s really hard to leave your family and go on the road” (Goldsmith).
In Thomas Adler’s “Is There a Link between Bluegrass Music and Sexuality?” he gives some early background of Anglo-American folksong. He explains that women were important vocally but were not valued so much instrumentally. “So even though women began to be seen playing bluegrass in the 1960s, it was a long time before there began to be enough really good women bluegrass musicians—women who were not only competent, but excellent—to begin to break down the male observation that women couldn’t pick” (Goldsmith). He also gives a few other reasons why women were not readily welcomed into Bluegrass including the difference in vocal ranges between men and women, the aggressive nature of Bluegrass and the thought that “an all-girl band may…be stereotyped as promiscuous” (Goldsmith).
In opposition to this gender inequality, Connie Walker’s humorous article, “The Plight of the Bluegrass Widow,” encourages female readers to “forget about big boy and start thinking about [themselves],” ensuring that they could “have an enjoyable time doing what [their] hearts desire.” In traditional Bluegrass, the most common way for women to perform the music was through connections with a relative. They were often portrayed as the sister, wife or mother of a male performer and stayed in the background without singing. However, we see female artists throughout Bluegrass breaking this cycle and pursuing solo music as their career.
In an article by Richard Harrington, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard are described as “the first women-led group to infiltrate the boys’ club of bluegrass music, which made them role models to musicians and, later, inspirations to the women’s movement.” Dickens was raised in the small town of Montcalm, West Virginia and, as we heard on the documentary It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, never went to high school but instead began working to help support her family. Her father was a timber-hauler and preacher. Her tough childhood background influenced her powerful songs such as “Working Girl Blues” and “Black Lung.” As quoted in Harrington’s article, Lynn Morris states, “Hazel can write about loss, about love gone wrong, without the sense that the woman is this helpless, hopeless victim. She writes from the perspective of a strong woman with a lot of feeling.”
Other women mentioned in the readings this week were Dale Ann Bradley, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Emmylou Harris, Molly O’Day, Alison Krauss and several others that have “invaded a style that was almost exclusively male twenty years ago” (Goldsmith).
Various articles from Thomas Goldsmith’s The Bluegrass Reader
It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song documentary
My post is a little late this week because it took me a while to decide what topic I wanted to write about. In class, we have been talking about place, influence and genre, incorporating discussion about types of music as diverse as Rappalachian and Hick Hop into our conversations. Some of the artists we talked about really got me thinking about genres, their boundaries and whether these boundaries should be crossed. Initially, I really didn’t think I was a fan of “Rappalachian” because the artists that came to mind (primarily Big Smo and Bubba Sparxxx) seemed like more of a comedic idea to me. Although their songs are catchy and fun to sing along with, deep down I don’t really feel like I take their music very seriously.
The more I explored this genre and different artists, however, the more I actually started to like it. Ganstagrass was one group in particular that caught my attention. It consists of six artists, four who play traditional Bluegrass instruments (guitar, banjo, fiddle and dobro) and the other two who incorporate rap into the group’s music.
One video that really stuck out to me was one of Gangstagrass singing the traditional hymn “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” This traditional Gospel/Bluegrass song that I have heard growing up in church intertwined with rap verses that I would normally only hear on a radio other than my own presents a dichotomy so powerful that I can’t express it in words and I’m not sure I could do it justice even if I tried. I’m usually a pretty conservative person but I love how this video crosses so many traditional boundaries regarding music, genre, culture and race. I think that, if done correctly, this somewhat odd place between different musical genres, between Bluegrass and Rap, can serve to help build a platform for change.
In my Bluegrass class this week we focused on Bluegrass festivals and the communities that form among members of the festival audience. On Monday we watched a documentary called Bluegrass Country Soul that showcased Carlton Haney’s 7th annual Labor Day Weekend Bluegrass Festival in Camp Springs, North Carolina and on Wednesday we read Robert Owen Gardner’s “Portable Community” that focused on the communities that form at Bluegrass festivals and why people are drawn to them. In his study, he researches the “ties that bind [the] mobile and transient grouping of individuals” at Bluegrass festivals and “discuss[es] the motives underlying their participation.”
I really enjoyed this section in the class because communities are something that I have always been interested in, especially after coming to Virginia Tech. I am from a small town where everybody knows everybody and the sense of community is very strong. When I came to Virginia Tech, I was afraid that this sense of community would be lost because of the large size of VT. However, I feel that I have found a sense of “portable community” in Blacksburg as Gardner describes.
What Gardner finds is that “members respond to the difficulties of finding community at home by forming networks and bonds that simulate traditional forms of community life. Though temporary and transitory, these communal relations fill a void in their lives.” As I have experienced in Blacksburg, Gardner also states that this type of community “has led [people] to shift their focus from neighborhood or place-based notions of community to specific instances in which individuals feel a sense of place, solidarity, or communion in the company of others.” Although not all Virginia Tech students are from the same place, background, culture, or religion, I believe we are able to find community around something that we all love (Virginia Tech) just as attendees of Bluegrass festivals form community around the music. As I stated in my blog post last week, I think an important aspect of music is its ability to bring people from different places together.
Bluegrass Country Soul documentary
Robert Owen Gardner’s “The Portable Community: Mobility and Modernization in Bluegrass Festival Life”
My initial reaction to the question, “Does Bluegrass music represent Appalachia?” was “Of course!” I grew up in Southwest Virginia, hearing Bluegrass and Gospel Bluegrass everywhere from churches to county fairs. Many of the themes in Bluegrass remind me of home, whether it be spending Sundays at the little church down the road or coming home after a long day on the farm. However, after discussing this question a little further in class, I started to think about it differently. Why is it said that Bluegrass solely represents Appalachia when it was born in western Kentucky, outside of the ARC’s definition of the region (seen below?) How can it represent only Appalachia if the majority of the audience at early Bluegrass festivals consisted of hippies and Appalachian “outsiders”? And finally, how can it represent Appalachia if you were able to hear “traditional hillbilly music” at a bar in New York City in the 1960s, sung by the Greenbriar Boys who hailed from Queens and New Jersey (Goldsmith)?
Carlton Haney, the mastermind behind the first Bluegrass festival, was able to bring a diverse audience to Fincastle, Virginia in 1956. Among these, one particular group (as noted in Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History) stood out as a relatively large part of the crowd. These “citybillies” wore, as described by Ralph Rinzler, the “uniform (blue jeans…beards and sandals or tennis shoes)” and contrasted against the various “salt-of-the-earth farmers and factory workers” that you would typically expect to be at a Bluegrass concert (Rosenberg).
Also noted in Rosenberg’s chapter “The First Festival and Bluegrass Consumers: 1965-66” are the “several evidences of resentment from local musicians at the expensive instruments and somewhat mechanical precision of city boys.” Going back to my initial reaction about Bluegrass representing Appalachia, I can understand why people from the Appalachian region would get defensive about this genre of music that is such a large part of their lives. If Bluegrass is truly representing Appalachian culture and lifestyle, there should be a certain effort to protect it from “outsiders.” However, I don’t believe this is the most important function of the music. What if it is not so much a question of “Does music represent a place?” but instead a question of “How does music bring different places together?” Rosenberg alludes to this question by stating in his book, “While there was some polarization between the citybillies and the hillbillies in the small crowd, many of those present shared an enthusiasm for the music which transcended cultural differences.”
After reading chapters 51-53 in The Bluegrass Reader and “Music and Politics” by John Street, it is easy to conclude that the “business of bluegrass” is centered around reaching new audiences through festivals, concerts and showcases. In Goldsmith’s chapter 51, he discusses IBMA’s World of Bluegrass trade show and states, “Taken as a whole, the trade show/concert series represented both the music-obsessed tradition and the business-oriented learnings of bluegrass.” The combination of artists, bands, promoters, radio stations and label heads created an environment in which information could be exchanged between members of the Bluegrass community. Art Menius described it as “the most significant business event in the history of the bluegrass music industry” (Goldsmith).
Goldsmith states that, “If all the great music heard at IBMA ’87 is to reach wider audiences, the bluegrass industry will have to seek new means of adding to the music’s faithful core audience.” One artist who did just that is Alison Krauss, a bluegrass artist who adds “a pop-rock twist to her versions of traditional standards” (Goldsmith). According to Jim Macnie’s “Country Artist of the Year: Alison Krauss,” Krauss’ album Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection “has made a whole new audience familiar with bluegrass” and that she and her band “have changed some perceptions about what bluegrass can be and what country is.” Goldsmith states that “’outside’ looks at bluegrass surely helped its rise to unprecedented levels of popularity near the turn of the millennium.” The IBMA strives to further promote the popularity and professional business aspect of Bluegrass by implementing values such as forward thinking and leadership, positive working relationships, professionalism, integrity, honoring tradition, diversity and inclusiveness, and education (IMBA website).
However, with the rise of any genre of music’s popularity there also comes a rise in power. In John Street’s “Music and Politics,” he speaks about music as a form of political expression and how it is a “source of fear,” “object of repression,” and the “epitome of freedom.” The first chapter in his book speaks on music censorship and if it is a repression of a basic human right. I would have to agree with Street that music can definitely be a form of political expression. Music can cross cultural and political boundaries and speak to a wide range of people. While I think some censorship of music is necessary due to aspects such as explicit content, too much censorship can take away the message of the music and hinder it from reaching a larger audience.
On Wednesday February 25, John Lawless (founder of Bluegrass Today) came to visit our Bluegrass class at Virginia Tech. After reading Chris Pandolfi’s Bluegrass Manifesto, I was able to link concepts between it and Mr. Lawless’ talk. Pandolfi’s Bluegrass Manifesto focuses on the transition from traditional to progressive Bluegrass and the acceptance of the newer artists by the older community. Mr. Lawless spoke on Wednesday about his views surrounding this debate, saying he doesn’t really care much about what is called Bluegrass and what isn’t. He quotes,
“If it has a banjo, fiddle and mandolin in it and I like it, then it’s Bluegrass.”
Chris Pandolfi, banjo player for the Infamous Stringdusters, dives a little deeper into this issue in his Bluegrass Manifesto. He explains how, as the Infamous Stringdusters were getting started, they were faced with the question of what type of music they played. This is an important question that he says every young band has to confront as they are getting started because “the ‘genre’ that [they] choose for [themselves] often sits atop the marketing plan” (Pandolfi). Initially for the Infamous Stringdusters, the answer to this question was Bluegrass.
As the Infamous Stringdusters became more of an established group, they began to rethink their own marketing strategies. Pandolfi states, “The most obvious questions (how many shows a year? what types of venues?) led to more significant ones (what type of experience do we want to create? what types of people do we want to play for? what types of people are we?).” They even began to question whether they should label themselves as “Bluegrass” because the genre wasn’t taking them where they wanted to be. They dreamt of bigger shows, larger venues and more fans, but the traditional Bluegrass genre was hindering them from acquiring their goals since it is “synonymous with a tiny sliver of the music business, small-time bands and relatively modest shows/income… Bluegrass is pure musical integrity, heavy on history and culture, but light on business savvy/stature” (Pandolfi).
The group ultimately decided that, although they may lose some fans, the ones who really mattered were the ones who would change along with them. Pandolfi states that “’Bluegrass’ is whatever someone says it is. That’s all it takes, one person,” closely resembling Mr. Lawless’ views seen in his quote (above). Fans of traditional Bluegrass, however, would disagree—which is where the debate surrounding Bluegrass arises. According to Pandolfi and Mr. Lawless alike, the extreme debate about the definition of Bluegrass has “literally come to define the core traditional community… Stiff opinions breed an atmosphere of exclusivity, and often negativity” (Pandolfi). Due to this dilemma, progressive Bluegrass bands and other genres swaying from the traditional “definition” are pushed to the side and not welcomed by the Bluegrass community.
Pandolfi states, however, that he is “not sure traditionalists understand how much respect the young progressive players give to guys like Earl and Ralph, even if they don’t copy their music… They have utmost respect for the quality of the music, and no misconceptions about where they stand. For the most part they are humble, appreciative, and probably willing to get involved… Acts like Mumford and Yonder want to celebrate the traditional idiom like never before. Respect for the masters is profound.”
Chris Pandolfi concludes his Manifesto by talking about how there has to be a mutual respect between traditional and progressive Bluegrass if the genre is to continue to grow, stating that,
“It’s time to ease up on our opinions, open the doors, enjoy some new tunes and share the wealth.”
Personally, the class readings this week and the visit from John Lawless were extremely refreshing. It is nice to move into learning about the progressive stage of Bluegrass and how it could reach and become popular with young people in today’s society. I would love to have a lot of friends who enjoyed listening to Bluegrass with me, even if it wasn’t necessarily Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley (although it would be nice if they liked “Man of Constant Sorrow” as much as I do).
Ricky Skaggs, considered by Fred Bartenstein to be a third generation artist, was born in Cordell, Kentucky on July 18, 1954. His father purchased a mandolin for him after he was heard harmonizing with his mother when he was only five years old. When he was six, he was invited to play onstage with Bill Monroe at a concert in Martha, Kentucky per the audience’s request. Ricky had become quite popular with people in his community and by the age of seven he earned his first paycheck after playing on a television show with Flatt and Scruggs. He also played in a band with his parents called the Skaggs Family.
Years later in 1971 (when he was 15), Ricky and friend Keith Whitley were invited by Ralph Stanley to join his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. After playing with Stanley for three years, Skaggs started playing with the Country Gentlemen (in 1973) and J.D. Crowe and the New South (in 1974). In 1976 he formed his own band, called Boone Creek, which was of the newgrass genre. In 1977, he started playing with Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band.
(above: Ricky Skaggs on the mandolin)
Skaggs’ first solo album, called Sweet Temptation, was released in 1979, which led to a contract with Epic Records in 1981 where he released his single “Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine.” CMT.com states, “By the end of the year Skaggs had become a star and, in the process, brought rootsy traditional country back into the consciousness of the country audience.”
Following several number one singles, Skaggs became the youngest member of the Grand Ole Opry. According to David Vinopal (CMT.com), Skaggs “helped spark the entire new traditionalist movement, opening the doors for performers like George Strait and Randy Travis.” Skaggs has won multiple awards throughout his career including CMA’s “Entertainer of the Year,” IMBA’s Album of the Year, fourteen Grammy Awards and many others.
Ricky Skaggs was dropped from Colombia Records in 1992 when the rise of contemporary country diminished his record sales. However, he still performed regularly and released several albums including Solid Ground, Life Is a Journey, and Soldier of the Cross. After Bill Monroe’s death in 1996, Skaggs moved away from country and vowed, “I’m going to play bluegrass. I may do some country dates, but I’m going to do bluegrass from now on” (Goldsmith).
Skaggs released an album in 2011 called Country Hits: Bluegrass Style, which “saw Skaggs returning to some of his country hits and reshaping them as bluegrass pieces” (CMT.com). His latest album, Hearts Like Ours released in 2014, features Skaggs and his wife, Sharon White, “dueting on handpicked country love songs” (rickyskaggs.com).
According to an article by David Vinopal on CMT.com:
“Skaggs is largely responsible for a back-to-basics movement in country music. He showed many that a bluegrass tenor with impeccable taste and enormous talent could sell traditional country in the ‘80s, a time when pop music had invaded the land of rural rhythm.”
On February 7th our class took a field trip to the 7th annual Appalachian State University Fiddler’s Convention in Boone, NC. This event is coordinated by only 15 to 20 ASU students each year. After attending a clogging/flatfooting workshop taught by Rodney Sutton (a member of the Green Grass Cloggers), we were able to watch the music competitions. There were performers from several states including Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and even some from Georgia.
The first competition we watched was the banjo. Next, we watched the string band competition that also included some singing. This was probably my favorite part of the whole day.
There were musicians of all ages in the string bands but more young people than I expected. The first two groups in the pictures above consisted solely of children and teenagers (except the man on the right in the first picture who was their instructor).
One of the bands struck me as pure, “traditional” bluegrass because it was an all-male group that had all five of the “traditional” bluegrass instruments (guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and upright bass).
After the string band competition there was a dancing competition. There were only four participants but it was still fun to watch.
After the dancing competition we ended the day with a performance by the Green Grass Cloggers, seen in the picture below.
This field trip was a great way to experience the culture surrounding bluegrass music and learn how to be an active, instead of passive, listener.
Robert Cantwell’s “Hillbilly Music” focuses on the commercial background of the Bluegrass genre, specifically the Monroe Brothers’ music. Cantwell begins this chapter with some of Bill Monroe’s background. In 1929, Monroe moved to Whiting, Indiana from rural Kentucky along with many other Southern migrants after World War I. He worked in a Sinclair refinery for five years, often acting as the only source of income for his family. The presence of industry in northern regions of the United States had formed a “cosmopolitan” yet “southern rural community” in which radio was very influential and, after playing music at local dances and parties, Bill Monroe and his brothers, Charlie and Birch, were offered to be part of a road show sponsored by WLS radio station.
Cantwell speaks to the importance of radio as a means of spreading hillbilly music all over the country. He states, “Radio has the power to transmit its message over geographical and cultural boundaries which even the most intrepid folklorist would hardly dare to cross.” Cantwell makes it clear that the radio helped introduce rural music into urban areas. The Barn Dance on WLS played “southern, rural, traditional music in conjunction with old-fashioned sentimental and popular songs” and “seemed to reconstitute the rural music as a popular or national form.” Aside from spreading the popularity of hillbilly music, radio also played a large political role in the 1930s, “amplifying the audience’s consciousness of its own identity, or even defining it.”
The radio “gathered together the audial images…of a history divided by world war, swift industrialization, and rural to urban migration,” a theme that was common in Bill Monroe’s music. The Monroe Brothers listened to bands on record that had “elements of instrumental technique, aesthetic posture, rhythm, and even the moral position Monroe would adopt for his music” such as the Carter Family, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and Bradley Kincaid. Cantwell states that the Monroe Brothers’ music simplified and presented a “romantic,” “stylized picture of the Appalachian region.”
Although the radio played a huge role in the spread of hillbilly music, Cantwell does address some of its downfalls. He states that the radio “inevitably threw a kind of dust” over hillbilly music, seeming to “shut the speaking or singing voice up into a suitcase.” He concludes his chapter with this statement:
“Old recordings, like the voice of a sweetheart, wife, or mother to whom the long-distance connection does not quite connect you, seem somehow just out of reach, melancholy, dream-like, set in the acoustic half-light of another time and place whose veiled image rises to consciousness under the promptings of an old song.”
While reading Cantwell’s article I began questioning the beginnings of the styles of Bluegrass music—how much of Bluegrass was originally started by Bill Monroe and other first generation artists and how much was borrowed from other genres such as string band and jazz?
I also started to question what attracted the early audience of Bluegrass to the genre. Were people drawn to Bluegrass because they actually connected with its themes of home, religion, family and a simplistic lifestyle? Or did the radio, as Cantwell states, cause a “yearning for places distant from and ways of life markedly different from” a listener’s own?
Cantwell, Robert. “Hillbilly Music: The Commercial Background.” Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. Urbana: U of Illinois. 41-59. Print.