“First Ladies” Lead A Dynamic Scene On The Eve Of The Biggest Week In Bluegrass
On a mid September evening at the luxuriously appointed Analog showroom in midtown Nashville, five women took the stage for just the second time as a band. Yet because they are stars of bluegrass, each in her own right, there was abundant curiosity about what they’d play, how they’d sound, and what might be next for them.
The quintet took the moniker The First Ladies of Bluegrass, not because there are male chief executive counterparts lurking somewhere, but because guitarist Molly Tuttle, mandolinist Sierra Hull, fiddler Becky Buller, bass player Missy Raines and banjo player Alison Brown are each the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association Award as the best on their respective instruments.
Brown first brought the women together for a video shoot and then Raines used the band for a recording session. Their first performance was a one-off at Colorado’s Rockygrass festival in July, and that generated enthusiasm to set up a super-group set this Saturday night at the World of Bluegrass in Raleigh NC, the international annual gathering of the bluegrass industry, which kicked off on Monday. The Analog set, a shake-down performance for that show, certainly left many in the house wishing the First Ladies were a going concern.
“The sisterhood of bluegrass is a powerful thing,” said Brown from the stage that night. She was named Banjo Player of the Year in 1991, just the second year the award was given. “I was a party of one. There were no gal pals,” she said. But only for a time. In 1998, Missy Raines won her first of seven Bass Player of the Year awards.
Raines, after time as a side musician for Claire Lynch, formed a duo with guitarist Jim Hurst and then her own band The New Hip, which uses a multi-genre approach to supporting her singing and songwriting. Brown has become not only a respected banjo composer merging string band music with jazz, she’s a co-owner of Compass Records and an industry leader.
The rest of the First Ladies come from a subsequent generation. All looked up to Raines and Brown as mentors and all won their “firsts” in recent years. In 2016, Sierra Hull became the first woman to be named the field’s best mandolin player while Becky Buller won Fiddle Player of the Year. Then last fall, while Hull won again, Molly Tuttle took Guitar Player of the Year. The latter may be the highest bar of all because of the social structure in the industry that for years discouraged girls from playing lead guitar. The Californian-turned-Nashvillian also won Instrumentalist of the Year at the recent Americana Honors & Awards and is one of the rising stars of roots music.
The rise of women in bluegrass paralleled and sometimes even lagged behind the 20th century’s struggles for equity in business and socio-political life. One of the early musicological attempts to define a bluegrass band explicitly described “five to seven male musicians who play non-electrified stringed instruments.” That little nugget comes from the exhaustively researched book Pretty Good For A Girl: Women In Bluegrass by Murphy Hicks. She describes a long journey from the 1940s to recent days in which female musicians, songwriters and band leaders had to fight for respect and opportunity in a largely conservative, male Southern ecosystem.
The First Ladies are an all-star band with no second stringers in the lineup. Each is clearly and legitimately at the top of her field, and it showed in the varied repertoire at the Analog. Each musician took turns at the front, whether as a vocalist, songwriter or instrumentalist. There were traditional standards like “Sally Ann” re-worked with inventive touches, as well as songwriter forward material with string band arrangement. Raines offered “Swept Away,” a composition of bluegrass pioneer Laurie Lewis that is nominated at this year’s IBMA awards as the year’s best song. Hull smoked her mandolin on an original instrumental called “Hullarious.” Brown channeled bluegrass founding father Earl Scruggs on her own banjo number “Girl’s Breakdown.”
The First Ladies will bring other important women to the stage at their Raleigh set, including Americana standout Gillian Welch and banjo-playing, songwriting polymath Rhiannon Giddens. The show is part of a two-day festival at the Red Hat Amphitheater. Also this week, a business conference, club-based showcases and a massive free street festival that for the past several years has drawn hundreds of thousands, many of whom were getting their first deep dive into bluegrass.
Some of them are young girls seeing exemplary musicians of their own gender, perhaps promising super-groups of the future.