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Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass (Music in American Life) Paperback – May 13, 2013
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For too many years, bluegrass was considered a “man’s music.” But as this impressive history of women in bluegrass clearly indicates, women have been a big part of bluegrass since its earliest days, even when they were ignored by the media and fellow musicians. Henry herself is a banjo player and teacher as well as founder of the Women in Bluegrass newsletter. Many of the more than 70 women in Henry’s book have been sadly overlooked. What most people don’t know, she points out, is that when Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and Lester Flatt created the Blue Grass Boys in 1945, they were accompanied by Sally Ann Forrester on accordion, and there are plenty of other similar examples. Among the bluegrass women profiled here are Rose Maddox, the Stonemans, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, and the Buffalo Gals, along with Alison Krauss and the Dixie Chicks. In all, a much-needed addition to the bluegrass canon. --June Sawyers --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Determination and drive is a theme pervading this book: these women are significantly engaged in their music making, not as female bluegrass musicians but as bluegrass musicians in general. Highly recommended."--Choice
"One of the most important bluegrass books that will be published this decade."--Bluegrass Today
"This academically solid and emotionally moving work shows the price that was paid by so many women in creating not only their own place in bluegrass, but in shaping and taking the music to new venues and wider audiences. This work should be a highlight on any list of required books for many years to come, and should be read by everyone in bluegrass--women and men."--Bluegrass Unlimited
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Top Customer Reviews
Ms. Henry, whose master's thesis was on Sally Ann Forrester – the first woman in a bluegrass band, must have distilled down years worth of gathering information in order to write this book. It is clearly a work of the heart for her judging by her warm folksy writing style and the insight into the subjects that the reader gathers when you read what she has to say. But it is also the work of a professional historian with detailed cites, a balanced presentation, and what I consider an objective approach to the subject of women in bluegrass.
This book is not a screed but you can't help but think that Ms. Henry, who is an accomplished banjo teacher and musician, can't have a dog in the fight. Yet this obvious approach is not evident. What is striking is that you learn how important the role of women musicians is and was to the music starting with accordion playing Sally Ann Forrester (Bill Monroe would probably not have satisfied the absolute purists in his own music what with the accordion, new age bird sounds, etc.) to these days where arguably the most popular bluegrass bands are fronted by great woman musicians.
I was born in 1944 which makes me two years older than bluegrass. I was raised in Nashville which allowed me to see the Flatt and Scruggs show on TV from its inception and drew me to the music the moment I heard Earl Scruggs play the banjo. Not much later I learned from friends of my father's (the Williams brothers who owned Martha White Mills) that it was Louise Scruggs, Earl's wife, who negotiated the deal that made F&S famous throughout the South and eventually the world via TV deals, Carnegie Hall, etc.. Because of the Martha White deal, Flatt and Scruggs could travel all over the South and eventually to the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, thirteen years after the first bluegrass music was played. One remarkable woman put bluegrass on the map and the rest, as they say, is history.
Louise Scruggs did not get this recognition for many years and the women in “Pretty Good...” didn't either, especially the early contributors. “Pretty Good For A Girl: Women In Bluegrass” tells their story and in the process fills in the blanks for me and others.
If you are a bluegrass fan and especially if you are a musician, this is a must read book.
Each section of the book represents a decade and begins with a short synthesis of the lives and musical contributions of those included followed by a brief biography of each. Sally Ann Forrester kicks off the decade of the 1940's. Here Ms. Henry opens several recurring themes: early in the history of Bluegrass women seldom, if ever, played-out professionally unless a male family member was an important member of the band; a woman in a Bluegrass band felt that she was the only woman doing the music and experienced the emotional isolation that came with that feeling; the ability of women to play instruments was unfairly disparaged; marriage and children challenged the careers of women Bluegrass players in significant ways; they did not, with a few notable exceptions, lead groups until the most recent decades; and they seldom changed groups as side performers. This is not just the musings of an admitted feminist, but the "Cold Hard Facts". All of this, particularly the lack of woman group leaders and the ability to move from group to group, kept a vial pool of talent from having the positive impact it could have had on the development of Bluegrass. However, Henry may be making a bit more than is necessary out of the relationship between these facts and the mountain and southern culture from which Bluegrass grew. With the possible exception of the folk music of the 1950's and 1960's, women were in the same position in every genre of American roots music be it jazz, blues, R & B, or rock and roll.
Throughout the book Ms. Henry includes the names that many recognize (Rose Maddox, Bessie Lee Mauldin, Donna and Roni Stoneman, Hazel Dicksens, Alice Gerrard, Ginger Boatright, Allison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, but she also discusses many less well-known talents, some of whom were prominent only regionally, and in so doing paints a picture of Bluegrass music that would be far less vivid without these inclusions. In each biography she also provides the context within which the woman worked and this enriches our understanding of some of the unique influences they and their generation had on Bluegrass.
This is a book that I read through in just three or four sittings. I must admit that as I read the first fifty or so pages I was beginning to feel like I was back reading the masters theses I had to review during a brief tenure as associate dean for graduate studies at East Tennessee State University, but beginning with the chapter about Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Ms. Henry's personal involvement in Bluegrass and her relationships with many of the women featured in the book infuse a passion and eloquence I found compelling. The book ends in the 1990s and while there may not be numerical parity between men and women in Bluegrass the advent of strong, talented band leaders and sidewomen leaves little doubt that the women's voice and hand will be heard strongly in Bluegrasses future. I know this to be true from personal experience with the many find musicians in the Bluegrass and Old Time Music Program at East Tennessee State. Women such as Becky Buller, Beth Lawrence, Megan McCormick and Angela Oudean stand at least beside the male graduates of that program. Also, cast against the early history of women in Bluegrass, I have to facetiously remark that another alum of that program, the great fiddler Hunter Berry, is working for a girl and married her daughter.
The downside? The wish list of music I wish to purchase - albums cut by the artists profiled in the book - is very long and getting longer!
Thanks to Murphy for giving these women credit and recognition long overdue.