Bless Your Heart: The state of women in bluegrass

coverDanielle Bishop only cries when she’s mad.

“And was I mad,” she said.

Sitting in a booth at the Papertown Grill in downtown Canton, Bishop’s eyes light up when asked if her aspirations of becoming a touring musician were ever influenced by the fact that she was a woman. Already an acclaimed fiddler at only 20 years old, she has spent most of her life in pursuit of a dream of taking to the open road and sharing her talents with the world. Recently, a popular regional bluegrass outfit was in need of a fiddle player who could also play mandolin and guitar. Bishop is well versed in all three instruments and decided to call for a tryout.

“They just said they wanted a guy,” she shrugged her shoulders. “They figured it’d be more appropriate. I guess it just wouldn’t be convenient for them. So, I hung up the phone and cried — it was frustrating that it wasn’t an equal opportunity.”

Like so many women in bluegrass — in any field of work for that matter — Bishop has had to prove herself in a male-dominated industry. Some women have had better luck than Bishop at breaking through, though at 20 she still has a long career ahead of her. Bishop’s story of rejection isn’t unique or dime-a-dozen, but another stitch in the rich and vibrant melodic fabric women in string music have put together from sheer will and determination.

“If you keep pushing, eventually people can’t ignore you anymore,” Bishop said. “They can’t keep looking over the fact that you’ve got talent, you’ve got guts and the same drive that any other guy playing music has.”

 

Different set of challenges

That sentiment of hard work and preparation leading to opportunity for female musicians is something that permeates all levels of the industry. Name almost any famous female bluegrass performer, and they can tell you about the particular challenges women face.

Not only one of the biggest female names in string music, Rhiannon Giddens is also one of the modern-day torchbearers of old-time roots and mountain music. Lead singer of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, a North Carolina African-American string group, Giddens also hit the national spotlight with her recent record “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes,” which was a modern interpretation of never-before-released Bob Dylan songs that included collaborations with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and T-Bone Burnett.

As a touring musician, she has seen her share of judgment taking the microphone as the only female onstage.

“‘Come on up here, little lady,’ they’d say to me,” Giddens chuckled over the phone last week while on vacation in Ireland. “I know when I was with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, I’d try to resist the whole, ‘Oh, there’s a girl playing fiddle, let’s go see that’ type of thing. You have the tools like anybody else, and maybe being a female will get people initially there, but it’s your talent that has to keep them there. We were also a black string band, and people thought that was interesting, but if we weren’t any good, it wouldn’t have worked.”

While currently recording a new album in Virginia, Sylva-based Mountain Faith singer/fiddler Summer McMahan has also dealt with the challenge of being a female bluegrass musician. When on the road performing, she does notice a lack of women onstage.

“I think there’s more men than women in bluegrass because of families,” the 21-year-old said. “I couldn’t imagine being a wife and mom and having to leave my family at home every weekend. I’m single, so that isn’t something I’ve had to deal with yet. The road life is very hard. It wears and tears on you, for sure. I can’t imagine this lifestyle being very appealing after getting married and starting a family.”

 

‘Aunt’ Samantha

The earliest recording of the five-string banjo actually came from the skilled fingertips of a woman, and a Western North Carolina woman at that. “Aunt” Samantha Bumgarner from Dillsboro was a renowned early country and folk performer. Born in 1878, she garnered a reputation around Southern Appalachia as a musical force to be reckoned with. In 1924, she and guitarist Eva Davis headed to a studio in New York City to put together songs for Columbia Records. 

“I mean, for our region, you wouldn’t have a lot of the mountain music to begin with, without Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis,” said well-known Western North Carolina banjoist Laura Boosinger. “They recorded those songs in New York before anybody did. Nobody recorded the five-string banjo until Samantha Bumgarner did — period.”

Bumgarner’s notoriety only rose as the years went along. In 1939, she was one of the musicians invited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to perform for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England at the White House. Pete Seeger, the late legendary folk icon and political activist, pointed to Bumgarner as the initial influence on him to pick up the five-string banjo. She also became a mainstay at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance & Folk Festival from 1928 until her death in 1960. Now entering its 88th year, the festival takes places over the first weekend in August in the Diana Wortham Theatre at Pack Place in downtown Asheville. 

“Especially in our region, women have always had such a strong influence and been on the local scene here,” Boosinger said. “Yes, there’s very few girls in the scene when compared to the number of men playing, no doubt about it. But, there’s a lot of bands fronted by women that are major players these days, and also these young string bands with female leads that are coming up.”

Though a lifelong musician, it wasn’t until Boosinger came to Western North Carolina as a teenager that she truly connected the beauty of sound and those who played and danced to it. Attending Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa in the late 1970s, she found herself right at the source of real mountain culture and music. At that time, ironic bluegrass musician/storyteller David Holt began to develop and direct the Appalachian Music Program at the college. The program was ahead of its time in terms of preserving the old-time music and also bringing forth legendary musicians from their front porches to the stage.

“I didn’t really know anything about mountain music. The music was incredible, but it was the people that fascinated me,” she said. “Why did these people do this? Why were these traditions in their families? I mean, I didn’t have any traditions that were generations old.”

An acoustic guitarist since she was 12, Boosinger fell in love with the banjo when banjoist Marc Pruett (of Balsam Range) gave her one to take home, look at and learn to play. It was at that moment when she began her journey down the rich tradition of mountain music history and the faces behind the instruments.

“The folks that grew up with this music here, the places I went to hear and play it, the old-timers were just glad that anybody wanted to play music,” she said. “And they saw me, this girl coming along with a banjo — they were all about it.”

Alongside her decades of performing and perpetuating the craft of bluegrass and old-time mountain music, Boosinger is also a consultant for the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina, an entity partnering the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and the North Carolina Arts Council. Encompassing 29 counties in Western North Carolina, the trails were created to preserve, interpret and promote these pockets of music and dance that have had a profound impact on American culture and beyond.

“My hope is that this music will still remain a cultural treasure,” she said. “These families continue for generations, and this music needs to stay in people’s focus because it’s still evolving.”

 

Forging her own path

When she was 3 years old, Bishop was given her first fiddle. Since then, you wouldn’t cross paths with her without a fiddle in hand.

“I’ve never been able to put it down,” she laughed. Raised in Fairview, her father — an accomplished player in his own right — owned a music store filled with instruments and curious musicians. As a kid, Bishop remembers going to trade shows with her dad. It was that early influence which ultimately led her to take lessons from renowned Western North Carolina fiddler Arvil Freeman, who taught or influenced seemingly every young player in this region. “Bluegrass is what I was raised on,” she said. “I like that there’s not a lot of structure with what you can do, but at the same time there is. I like being able to make my own style within something that’s already established.”

For the last few years, Bishop has been front and center onstage with the Whitewater Bluegrass Company, a well-known bluegrass group that includes Steve Sutton, an International Bluegrass Music Association award winner and Grammy-nominated banjoist who has worked with the likes of Jimmy Martin, Rhonda Vincent and Alicia Nugent. Recently, Bishop sat in with Balsam Range, the 2014 IBMA “Entertainer of the Year,” when lead singer/fiddler Buddy Melton was unable to play. Balsam Range mandolinist Darren Nicholson also invites her to play from time-to-time in his successful solo band.

“Steve and Darren, they don’t see me as a kid or a girl,” Bishop said. “They’ve always treated me as an equal, as a musician who can pull their part.”

But, the road to this point in her career hasn’t always been so smooth. As a kid, Bishop entered and won numerous contests. Though obviously talented, she does, however, point to the fact she felt like more of a novelty, one who maybe wasn’t taken as seriously as she should have been.

“I got tired of the cute factor, and it happened all the time,” she said. “It would just drive me crazy with all these people going, ‘Oh my goodness, she’s cute and plays a fiddle — here’s a ribbon.’” 

Bishop said she’d like to interact with other professional female musicians. But she rarely comes across others with whom she can collaborate and connect to talk about what it means to be a woman in bluegrass.

“To be honest, I don’t really know any other females,” she said. “They’re out there, but I don’t cross paths with them often enough to have that type of conversation about it.”

Pushing through all of the background noise, Bishop looks at her journey as maybe taking a little longer than expected, where dialing into the ideal situation comes with perseverance and tough skin.

“I think what’s important right now is making the right connections and not relying on anybody’s reputation but my own,” she said. “And that might take longer, but this is my dream.”

 

Let the music speak for itself

Giddens, a Greensboro native, studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory but grew up around bluegrass and traditional music. Both her uncle and grandfather played in string bands. After college, she discovered roots music and had an epiphany as to what she wanted to do with her life.

“I picked up the banjo and dove in with both feet,” she said. “That sound of the clawhammer banjo just drew me in. I fell in love with the music, with the history — that was it, I was a goner.”

Giddens started to wander around North Carolina, attending bluegrass/roots festivals and other avenues while meeting like-minded musicians. Once the Carolina Chocolate Drops formed in 2005, she began to hit the road, only to notice there weren’t as many females as one would expect in her same position.

“In terms of bluegrass, it always seems to be dominated by dudes, but there’s always going to be those notable women out there. As far as how many, I don’t know?” she said. “And the instrumental side has been a guy’s game for a long time. There have always been female instrumentalists, but in terms of sheer numbers, and at festivals, there’s not as many as I’d like to see.”

Giddens points to bluegrass icon Alison Krauss and old-time legend Abigail Washburn as leading the charge for females breaking into the genre. Add in the likes of young bluegrass phenoms Sierra Hull, Brittany Haas and Brooke Aldridge, and you have the outlines of a new dawn for women in string music.

“This cadre of women will only continue to inspire more girls,” Giddens said. 

 

Tell it from the mountain

Forming nearly 15 years ago, the Mountain Faith quintet includes Summer’s father, Sam, and brother, Brayden. Like Bishop, Summer’s love of bluegrass also emerged at a very early age.

“I started playing when I was 4 years old. I went to Mountain Heritage Day in Cullowhee and saw the Fiddlin’ Dill Sisters perform. Two weeks later, I had a fiddle and was taking lessons from Amanda Dills,” she said. “I think what stuck out most to me in bluegrass was all of the raw talent. My bluegrass heroes have spent their lives perfecting their raw talent. That blew my mind and sparked my interest.”

Mountain Faith has spent countless nights on the road, all in an effort to spread their music and message. And it’s being on the road that Summer enjoys the most when not performing. 

“It’s absolutely exhausting, but nothing is more fun,” she said. “It’s like a family camping trip that never ends. Yes, the [boys] are messy and smell, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

And as a female touring musician, McMahan is grateful for the support and respect she’s received thus far in the industry.

“Thankfully, I’ve never been in a situation where I was treated negatively because I’m a woman,” she said. “Most people have gone out of their way to make me comfortable.”

So, what does it mean to be an influence on other women trying to break into bluegrass?

“I’m the happiest when I’m onstage. It’s such an honor to be part of women in bluegrass. The most rewarding part is talking with the kids after shows and being a positive role model that they can look up to,” she said. “The few women I do see out on the road absolutely love what they do. Rhonda Vincent has the most passion for music and fans that I’ve ever seen — that’s what it takes. [You’ve got to] make sure this is what you really want. If you do want it, put your heart into it. It takes a lot of hard work and passion.”

 

Can you have it all?

As women try to mold and sustain long-term careers in bluegrass, the question arises — can you have it all, the career and the family? A wife and mother, Giddens takes to the road with her husband and children in tow. With her undying passion for music and performance, she’s been able to find the ideal balance in having a career and a family.

“That’s a huge piece of it, in terms of turning professional,” she said. “I have a lot of people asking me how we did it, how we were able to take the family on the road. It takes a supportive partner and being able to put things together to make it work. I’ve been mentoring other women musicians, and it seems to be a growing idea — that it doesn’t have to be either or, that you can be a musician and a mother.”

“I definitely have thought about my future of hopefully being a wife and mom,” McMahan added. “My dream would be to have my family on the road with me. I know that would be nearly impossible living on a bus. I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”

Looking around the current bluegrass and string music genres in Western North Carolina and beyond, one can see numerous young girls participating in the popular Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) camps and workshops. But then, somewhere around post-college, those numbers seem to drop off dramatically, whether it be at the hands of marriage, children or simply just focusing on navigating daily life rather than pursuing a career in music.

“I kind of like my life the way it is right now,” said Emma McDowell Best. “I’m married. I like to come home at night, make dinner and hangout. I like playing on the weekends, but besides the occasional trip somewhere, I wouldn’t want to tour and play full-time.”

A Haywood County native, Best, 26, came about as a bluegrass prodigy. She started taking fiddle lessons at age 8, eventually also getting instruction from Freeman a few years later. Alongside her kid brother Bryan, the fiddlin’ siblings played every weekend growing up in the McDowell Family Band. Best became a professional musician, ultimately giving fiddle, mandolin and guitar lessons of her own. 

“I played everywhere, all over the South. I played the Shindig on the Green and Mountain Dance & Folk Festival in Asheville,” she said. “And I was encouraged so much to play music and have a career. I loved playing bluegrass, something about that style and lonesome sound that’s so honest, natural and comfortable.”

Best had high hopes of making a career as touring musician, but those thoughts slowly fell to the wayside when she got married, her military husband (grandson of legendary Haywood County banjoist Carroll Best) relocating the couple to Upstate New York amid his deployments. She also felt burned out from constant playing and performing over the years. She even stopped giving lessons, with her personal playing time dwindling, too. 

“Then I heard an interview Carol Rifkin (WNCW) did with Arvil Freeman and it inspired me to go back to teaching and playing again — I almost felt guilty for stopping,” Best said. 

These days, besides giving lessons around Western North Carolina, Best performs throughout the region when called upon by other musicians and bands. And with that, she does point out times where maybe she wasn’t taken as seriously being a female musician.

“I know occasionally when I want to get a date booked at a venue, I sometimes get the feeling that the venues don’t take me seriously, where they might look at me as not being able to play to the level of difficulty as men do,” she said.

Regardless, Best isn’t deterred from playing the music she loves. Next month, she will make her first appearance at Merlefest, a long-time beloved bluegrass/roots festival in Wilkesboro, alongside Boosinger. Through she’s slowly getting her feet wet again, Best finds it hard to track down other professional female bluegrass players, let alone balance performing and having a family.

“Locally, I actually have a hard time finding other women to play with,” she said. “And just finding time to rehearse can be difficult, especially when other female musicians have kids. Then, you have the regional and national levels, and those people have committed so much time and life to learning and playing, which I think they’re more willing to sacrifice a little bit more than someone who may just go out and only play a Friday night.”

On the flip side, Best’s brother, Bryan, is currently a national touring musician, playing fiddle and mandolin in the Claire Lynch Band, one of the top tier groups in all of bluegrass.

“He really enjoys performing, traveling and meeting new people,” she said. “When I was younger I wanted to be a touring musician, to do what Bryan is doing right now — that’s all I wanted to do. I would have liked to have know what it was like, to be a touring musician, even if it was just for a couple of years.”

In regards to the small numbers of touring females in bluegrass, Best points back to the societal expectations of women and the families they’re part of. 

“You get sidetracked with family and obligations, with life, and maybe you pick it up again after the kids have grown up,” she said. “I think it just has become more acceptable for men to go off on the road than for a girl to leave the home, leave their families and hit the road. They say ‘Oh, well it’s my job.’ Yeah? Well, I’d like that job, too.”

 

Even the playing field

As a teenager in Alabama, Claire Lynch began searching for new music, people and places. She eventually found herself at a bluegrass festival in 1973. It was there she laid her eyes on the power of string music, and also her future husband, who opened the show. The couple began collaborating together, with Lynch coming into her own. Her words found their way onto recordings by Kathy Mattea and Patty Loveless, while her voice backed greats like Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.

Now 60, Lynch has garnered quite a successful career as a leading lady in bluegrass. She is a three-time IBMA “Female Vocalist of the Year” winner (1997, 2010 and 2013) and also took home “Song of the Year” in 2014 for “Dear Sister.”

“I’m beginning to see a pretty even playing field these days — I think it’s wide open for women in bluegrass,” she said over the phone while on tour in California last week. “Today is nothing like it was back then. I think the women I came up with in the 1970s, and the ones before that, did a lot of plowing, pushing our way into leadership roles.”

Though female musical acts and influences were rare in her early days, Lynch also said that whatever negativity or prejudice may have been directed at her for being a woman in bluegrass either didn’t faze her or she simply wasn’t going to pay attention to it.

“I was kind of young. I didn’t know any better,” she laughed. “Even before I was in a band, I was dating Larry [Lynch] and he covered me when we were out traveling on the road. When I was in the band, I was innocent. I was just doing my job. I was used to the male dominance in the scene and it was no skin off of my back. I knew a lot of women who entered the bluegrass world when I did that were offended, but I didn’t feel that way. I think the audience thought we were a breath of fresh air because I was a girl. There were definitely people behind our backs who said we weren’t part of bluegrass, but I didn’t get any of that from people in our scene and those at the festivals.”

Lynch noted how her ever-evolving skills in the music industry came in handy when stepping up to the plate when it came to business and professional decision-making.

“I had secretarial skills, so all the administration stuff gravitated towards me,” she said. “I learned how to handle things, I studied up, learning about the music business, publishing, writing, managing a band, touring.”

In terms of modern bluegrass, Lynch says there’s still a long way to go for total equality even though the female presence is rapidly changing. She pointed to all the positions held by women in the genre, from former IBMA Executive Director Nancy Cardwell to the innumerable publicists, festival promoters and business personnel. 

“In society, women are one of the last minorities to find freedom, and I think sometimes we’re not considered a minority because we’ve been visible all these years,” she said. “There are some men who may belittle my presence, but that’s not true of all men. The men I’ve played with have given me nothing but respect and power — I’m not a man hater, I’m a man lover.”

What about the idea of a woman touring on the road with men?

“Not all women are willing to share a restroom facility with several other hairy-legged guys — it can be an uncomfortable thing,” Lynch said. “And I can see why a band might just grab another guy musician and hit the road, because men tend to know where they stand with each other.”

“I’ve found as being the only woman with a bunch of dudes for a while quite a funny life, in being a touring musician,” Giddens added. “The key is to find people you’re willing to be with, on and off stage. If they don’t want to tour with a girl, then they’re probably not the people you want be around — go find your people, go find the people that inspire you, go find your pack, and practice your butt off.”

 

Holding your own

Giddens sees the place of females in bluegrass, roots and string music as one where the music will always win out. No matter what gender you are, if you can play, and play well, the best talents will rise to the top. 

“You learn as a woman, and as a Southern woman, that you’re in survival mode,” she said. “If you want to be taken seriously, you have to have respect for yourself. You have to figure out where are the mountains for you to die on? What are the things that you want to push forward? How do I shape my reality to my purpose?”

Besides, Giddens said, the music industry in general can be a rough place to carve out a career, no matter if you’re male or female.

“In this industry, you’re going to have to push through a whole bunch of things anyways, and if being a woman in all of this is your first lesson, that’s great, because it’ll help you deal with all the other crap, no matter what,” she said. “You create your own reality, bit by bit. I’ve sacrificed a lot to do what I love, and it means so much to me that other women find inspiration in that — if we don’t support each other, nobody will.”

Finishing up her cup of coffee at the Papertown Grill, Bishop is readying herself to enter into the impending day. There are upcoming performances and new band prospects on the horizon. It is another morning for her to prove herself and her talents to a bluegrass community full of fresh ears awaiting the next thing to turn their heads and get their bodies moving. 

“It’s good sometimes to think the music industry is all rainbows and unicorns, but it’s not very productive for me to do so,” she said. “Thinking about myself in the respect of inspiring others makes me want to do my best, not only to be someone worth following, but to also make it easier for those who come after me.”

When asked if there was anything, perhaps advice, she would have told her younger self, Bishop takes a sip of coffee and pauses. She places the cup down on the table, slowly gazing out the window and back to the question posed. It is an extended pause, one with enough space to recall her lifelong memories of performance and sound.

“I would have probably told myself to toughen up soon, because I didn’t think I had to,” she said. “I came up being the cute little fiddle girl, and I got used to people praising that instead of my ability. In having that, I put my guard down to what was actually going on. It all has changed as I’ve gotten older.”

She takes another big gulp of coffee and again makes direct eye contact.

“Then again, it’s character building — what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she said with the trademark grin of someone destined to achieve their wildest dreams, come hell or high water. “So, I’m not too upset about it.”

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