Spotlight On: Women’s Jam Camp

Last year Casey and I held our first-ever Women’s Jam Camp. It was a fantastic experience for everyone and so we’re doing it again July 8-10. What was so fantastic about it? Three things stand out.

Women's Jam Camp 2015

Women's Jam Camp 2015

Harmony singing! As we discovered serendipitously at our first Women’s Banjo Camp, most of the women loved to sing and loved to harmonize. In many bluegrass jam sessions, however, women are often relegated to singing the tenor part so they have little experience with singing high baritone or low baritone or even low tenor. In other words, they haven’t experienced the full range of bluegrass harmony. So in our camps, we put songs in women’s keys (often C, D, or E) and demonstrate the various harmony “stacks” that are possible. Then we work on singing them. (Shout out to Janet Beazley! Everything I know about teaching harmony singing I learned from her!)

We also work on lead singing and every woman who wants to gets a chance to sing lead—in the key of her choice. As I’ve said many times, most women cannot sing lead in the key of G. This is unfortunate because G is the “default” key for beginning bluegrassers thus leading many women to conclude that they can’t sing bluegrass. That is why I make it a point to play in the key of C in all of my jams sessions, including beginning-level jams, so the women can sing the lead. They love it! At the jam camp we help women find the best keys for the songs they sing. And when women are singing lead, other women usually have an easier time finding the harmony parts because the song is now pitched in their vocal range. We don’t think that women need to wait to get to heaven to “sing, sing, sing”!

Totally supportive atmosphere. You know, I find the men in my Tip Jar Jam and the men who come to our mixed-gender camps to be some of the most supportive and kindest men on the planet. But, as most women will tell you, there’s just something different about playing bluegrass in an “estrogen jam.” It’s really hard to explain. But let me just say it hasn’t been too long ago that many people thought—and wrote—that women could not play bluegrass. To wit: “Bluegrass bands are made up of between four to seven male musicians.” In 1965, when this first appeared, there were already plenty of women playing bluegrass. It’s just that nobody, apparently, noticed. Then there is this: “Few women seem to possess the technical skill necessary to play bluegrass instrumentals properly and few women can sustain the ‘punch’ or ‘drive’ so essential for the successful presentation of bluegrass vocals.” Fortunately, the fabulous Alice Gerrard pointed out that “women have not been encouraged to develop these skills and qualities; or have been made to feel that the skills were not in keeping with their oft-defined roles as women.” And finally guitar-picking whiz Marcy Marxer said that she often battled the idea—spoken and unspoken—that “women aren’t strong enough to play guitar.” [References below.] These statements are not just innocuous words on a page. Whether we knew it or not, we women internalized these thoughts. So when a woman ventures out to learn to play a bluegrass instrument, she almost always has to contend with these negative inner voices. And when you’re in that vulnerable place of having to screw up and fail—in front of people--before you get it right, it helps to be around other women who are experiencing the same things or who have been there already and survived.

To quote from that wonderful poem by Cheyanne Whien, “When you have to walk that lonesome valley and you have to walk it by yourself [i.e. play a solo break in a jam session] the women will be cheering you on, praying for you, pulling for you, intervening on your behalf, and waiting with open arms at the valley’s end.” That’s what happens at Women’s Jam Camp.

Working with a second instrument. Since the camp is open to women who play at all levels (except rank beginner), women who are learning a second or third instrument come because, again, it’s a comfortable place to fall on your face as you go back to square one. It’s not easy to go from being a competent banjo player who can rip through breaks to being a wannabe fiddle player who hears every wrong note she plays yet who knows she has to keep playing in order to get better. Been there, done that! And the most supportive thing ever said to me about my fiddle playing was said by an older woman. I was working hard on a difficult new fiddle tune, playing it repeatedly and making many mistakes. We were at a vacation cabin and people were starting to wander into the living room where I was sawing away, so I became self-conscious and apologized as I left to take my fiddling out onto the porch. I said something like, “Sorry I sound so terrible.” Then this woman, herself a long-time professional bluegrass bass player and singer said, “You don’t sound terrible. You sound like a good musician who is trying to learn a new song.” OMG! I feel all choked up just writing that. Nobody had ever said anything like that before. I felt so supported. And though this happened years ago, I’ve never forgotten it. Thank you, Polly Johnson, bass player with the Sounds of Bluegrass from Jacksonville, Florida.

At our Women’s Jam Camp you will be supported and cheered on! If you need to play slow, we will play slow. If you want to play a fast one, we will support you with rhythm even if we can’t play lead. If you want to sing, we will help you find the right key and we will harmonize with you. And sometimes we may all sing the lead together just because a chorus of women’s voices is so beautiful!

And with apologies to the old gospel song “Heaven’s Jubilee,” this just popped into my mind. I can’t help it!

Dozens there will join the throng

With them we shall be

Singing bluegrass all day long

Jam Camp Jubilee!



This year our Women’s Jam Camp will be held July 8-10, 2016, in Winchester, Va., at the Courtyard Marriott. (They love us there!) There is a limit of 20 students.

Dede Wyland will be our harmony singing teacher! She will join us Saturday, July 9, for a workshop and she and her band will play a concert that night. I’m so excited about this!

Seasoned players: If you’ve been wanting any of the women in your life to give jamming a try, this is a golden opportunity. We welcome new jammers. You do have to know your chords and be able to change quickly. Guitar players and banjo players have to be able to use a capo. Capos are also encouraged on mandolin. For everything you want to know about the camp and the requirements click here


References: All the quotes in this paragraph are from my book Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass, University of Illinois Press, 2013, pgs 3, 4, 182, 344.