women in bluegrass

I don’t remember who sent me this photo of Janet Davis and me, but
apparently this was (or is?) an exhibit at the American Banjo Museum in
Oklahoma City, Okla. I knew nothing about it! I am honored, however, to
have been featured. If anyone knows anything about this, please let us
know! The museum includes banjos of all types, not just the five-string.
Here’s the link to their site: https://americanbanjomuseum.com/

How time does fly! The three months since our last post here have been filled with camps, swimming, a new mandolin DVD release, the IBMA convention, and one huge award for Murphy. The IBMA honored her with a Distinguished Achievement Award recognizing her groundbreaking work writing the history of women playing bluegrass: Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass.  They give out five each year and her co-recipients this year were Pete "Brother Oswald" Kirby, Alison Brown, Steve Martin, and the International Bluegrass Music Museum.

Murphy and Missy

Murphy Henry hugging Missy Raines as she goes to accept her Distinguished Achievement Award. Photo by Ted Lehman.

Missy Raines made the award presentation with a fabulous speech. I knew she would do an amazing job, but I was still blown away by how over-the-top amazing it was.

After the ceremony Murphy got introduced to Steve Martin by Alison Brown (who sits on the board for his Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo) and they got a picture of all three with their awards.

Murphy, Steve, Alison

Murphy Henry, Steve Martin, and Alison Brown with their Distinguished Achievement Awards plaques.

...and their shoes

...and their shoes!

Here is the entire presentation by Missy and Murphy's acceptance speech following. It is a great overview of Murphy's life and career. Her acceptance starts around the 9:00 mark. Thanks to Kathy Holiday for the video work!

Recently David Morris wrote an article for the online magazine Bluegrass Today suggesting rather strongly that Hazel Dickens should be in the IBMA Hall of Fame. Since Hazel, and her singing partner Alice Gerrard, are both featured in a chapter of Murphy's book, Pretty Good For A Girl, that topic is right down Murphy's alley. So, as soon as she remembered her user name and password (which involved getting a new user name and password!), she posted a comment. You can read the article and all the comments here.

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Our regular Tuesday Tip Jar Jam was canceled this week so I could go up to Elkins, West Virginia, and give a talk about my book, Pretty Good For A Girl. I also played in a concert that night with another band of "Merry Chicas" that included Casey, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, Tammy Rogers, Sharon Gilchrist, and Mary Burdette. "My, my, my" as the song goes! I was accompanied on my trip by my friend and "personal assistant," Kathy Holliday, who is the Best Book Seller Ever and a great road-tripping buddy. We talked all the way up, and all the way back. And on the way back we also Ate Chocolate and Drank Cokes! Yippee!

The book talk went great. IMHO, it's finally shaping up now since I've given it a number of times. I've finally figured out that I do better sitting down with "my banjo on my knee" and just talking. When I run out of things to say or feel like I'm "yammering," I punctuate the talk with a song. This time, Casey joined me on stage so we had the full force of two banjos! As one of our songs, I got the audience to sing along with us on "Worried Gal," in the women's key of C and asked them to pay attention to how difficult it was to actually remember to sing the word "gal" instead of "man," which is the more conventional way to sing this (and the way the Carter Family sang it).

After being immersed in a book talk and an all-female band, I'm feeling my feminist oats! I was so proud that Laurie Lewis called me a "firebrand." High praise, indeed! ...continue reading

Murphy and Casey appeared at the after-lunch roundup during Bluegrass Week at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, WV, July 29, 2014. "Lonesome Road Blues" was the first tune ever recorded by a woman playing Scruggs-style banjo. That woman as Roni Stoneman.

Tuesday evening during Bluegrass Week all the female instructors played a set at the evening concert. What a fun show! Here is "Banjo Pickin' Girl". Murphy and Casey Henry (banjos), Kathy Kallick (guitar), Mary Burdette (bass), Laurie Lewis and Tammy Rogers (fiddles), Sharon Gilchrist (mandolin).

Casey Henry

In preparation for our Women's Banjo Camp in a couple weeks I dug out this old paper I wrote for a class in college. It explores the different ways men and women act in jam sessions. It is lengthy, and a bit academic, but holds up pretty well even after all these years. I post it here for those of you who are interested in the subject.


The Relationship of Musical Experience and the Experience of Gender in Bluegrass Jam Sessions

By Casey Henry

October 28, 1999

Written for a Women in Music course at the University of Virginia

(MUSI 419, Prof Suzanne Cusick)


Bluegrass music is, and always has been, played mostly by men. Throughout the history of bluegrass this has always been the case, although more women are entering the music now. As a woman who plays this predominantly male music, I am frequently made aware of my gender, especially in jam session situations where I am playing with and for men who I do not know. Gender is relevant to the entire jam session setting both in the character of the music itself and in the interactions between the players. One particular

jam session at a festival in North Carolina two years ago provides a nice setting for exploring how gender interacts with and affects the playing of bluegrass. But first, a little background on gender and bluegrass in general.


The band that most people consider the quintessential bluegrass band, Bill Monroe's 1946 Blue Grass Boys, was composed of five men: Monroe on mandolin, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts on upright bass. That band, and the other bands around that time—Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Reno and Smiley—defined, and still define, what bluegrass sounds like. So the bluegrass sound itself is a male sound; it was played, sung, and written by men. Up until the mid-1970s all the major players and singers were men. Since I play banjo I'll use the banjo as an example. Earl Scruggs is the founder of bluegrass banjo. Following in his  footsteps are Ralph Stanley, Don Reno, Sonny Osborne, J.D. Crowe, and many others. No widely known women appear on the list until the late '60s and early '70s with Roni Stoneman, Alison Brown, Murphy Henry and Lynn Morris. Still today when the average bluegrass picker or fan thinks of "great" banjo players, no woman will come to mind. So, as a woman banjo player, I, and all the other women, are following in the footsteps of men; we are trying to play like men.


Along with the male legacy that women players have to contend with is the character of bluegrass itself. The music is often fast, intense, aggressive, and competitive, characteristics which are associated with masculinity in our culture. People expect "good" bluegrass to have these features. People also expect women to possess the opposite of all these qualities (demureness, deference, politeness) and that those qualities will come out in their playing. Thus the term playing "like a girl" to describe wimpy picking. Women playing in jam sessions both have to prove that they can perform on their instruments, defying bluegrass's male legacy, and have to field comments about how they play good "for a girl" simply because they play competently and are not too shy to prove it. In order to be judged a decent picker by the other players a woman has to overcome cultural stereotypes of femininity and project male characteristics in her playing, a sort of musical gender bending.


To bring all these generalizations down to the specific, one jam session in September 1997, at the Bass Mountain Bluegrass Festival near Burlington, NC, demonstrates many of these stereotypes and difficulties which women face. I drove to the festival Friday morning by myself because I wanted to see some of the bands who were playing and did not have anyone to take with me. That night I found myself a decent picking session in the dark campground near a roaring bonfire. I approached the session, banjo in hand and stood, as etiquette demands, waiting to be asked to join. All the pickers in the circle were men, and I did not know any of them. Most of the women present in the surrounding listening audience were, no doubt, the significant others of the jammers. I approach these types of sessions assuming that they expect me to play inadequately, or that they will ask me to play more out of curiosity—to see whether I really can pick—than because of anything they hope I will bring to the session. I know that they are judging me on the basis of my gender and, as a woman who plays banjo, I have a particularly (stereotypically) masculine role to fill on the loudest instrument.


Before long someone asked me to get out my banjo, so I did and joined the circle. They already had one banjo player, and generally jam sessions do not need more than one. They would not have asked me to play if I had looked like I was going to take over the session from the other banjo player, which many male pickers (the rude ones) tend to do. Their quick invitation in this case leads me to believe that, just because I am a young, fairly good looking female, they were either testing me out, or wanted the pleasure of my company. They were all older men, and I've rarely met a man who didn't prefer a young attractive woman player who is competent, or not, for that matter, to just another man. I may have gotten invited to join because of my looks, but I had to earn my place to stay by my picking.


The first thing they asked me to do was pick a banjo tune. This is the polite thing to do and it signals that the other players had accepted me into the circle. The first tune is also a convenient way to judge the new participant. What you pick and how you pick it are very important. It is your one chance to prove that you can cut it, or not. I feel that the first tune is especially important for me as a woman because I am fighting against the expectation that I cannot really play. I feel, whether this is really true or not, that I have to play twice as well as the average man to be accepted on the same level. Fortunately, at the average campground jam, I am pretty obviously better than most of the pickers there, so they have little choice but to accept me. But I still had to prove myself to them on the first tune so I chose a fast, hard-driving, canonical tune, "Shuckin' the Corn," by Earl Scruggs.


Choice of tune is important in a situation like this. I knew that this was a traditional bunch of players, so an instrumental from one of the three bluegrass banjo founders would be appropriate: Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, or Ralph Stanley. Stanley's best known tune, "Clinch Mountain Backstep," is getting to be fairly common, so if you really want to be impressive this is not the best choice of tune. Many of Don Reno's tunes are complicated and impressive, but they are not generally as well known as Scruggs's and it is best, at first, to choose something everyone knows. "Shuckin the Corn," is standard three-chord bluegrass, but it is very fast and not easy to play, if you play it right. It can be impressive or it can be a real disaster. When I kicked it off, hard and fast, I got the usual reaction: surprised, impressed looks. I always feel like saying, "Yes, I really can play, so get over it and let's pick."


I think my choice of instrument, not only my level of talent, has a lot to do with the reactions I get in jam sessions. If I had wanted to join the session on bass or rhythm guitar, or even rhythm mandolin, they may or may not have let me in, but it probably would not have elicited much comment either way. Since I played a lead instrument and insisted on becoming an active, contributing participant, taking breaks and singing, I was taking a role not expected of a woman. To determine why bass and guitar are more common and less surprising for women to play involves looking at the roles that the instruments themselves take in playing the music.


In bluegrass, each instrument has a specific role to play, and these roles do not vary much at all, especially in jam sessions. The upright bass and guitar are mainly rhythm instruments. The bass lays down the one and the five of the chord while the guitar adds the fullness of a boom-strum (bass string, then strum the higher strings) rhythm pattern. Recently the guitar has taken more of a lead role, but lead is not its main purpose. The mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and sometimes dobro (resonator guitar) play solo breaks, kick off songs, and play back-up or rhythm while the singer is singing or another instrument is soloing. These lead instruments get to take the flashiest roles, have the chance for variation and improvisation, and get the most attention from the audience in a performance situation and from the other players in a jam. Since bass and guitar play the rhythm, they function to support the lead players and rarely get to step out and gain attention by taking a lead break.


These roles that the instruments play correspond rather well to the stereotypical social roles of men and women in American society. The people playing the lead instruments get the attention, get to make the decisions about what songs to play, and get to direct the jam by designating who is to take the next solo (with a look). The bass and (non-lead) guitar players get to support the lead players from the background and they generally get ignored, but the music needs them there or it couldn't exist. The lead players have the stereotypically male social role, and the rhythm players have the stereotypically female social role. And, not coincidentally I think, the great majority of the women who have played bluegrass in the past, and who play it now, play the rhythm instruments.


The few women professional musicians who were around in the early days of bluegrass played bass. If you wander through campgrounds or watch the stage at festivals today, of the few women performers you see, most will be bass players. This phenomenon would seem incongruous if you tried to explain it from a physical standpoint. Most people would expect pickers to play instruments suited to their size and strength. Men, who generally have more upper body strength than women, should be playing bass, which is the biggest, heaviest instrument and takes the most strength and endurance to play. Women, who are generally smaller, should predominantly play fiddle and mandolin, the smallest and lightest instruments, which require the most manual dexterity. But this arrangement is not the case at all. More women play bass because its role in the music most closely replicates women's social role; likewise men play lead instruments because their roles correspond to men's role in society. From a social standpoint the arrangement makes perfect sense, unfortunately.


Given that gender is so closely associated with choice of instrument, people are surprised when I can play banjo better than the average campground picker. But after they get over their surprise, usually they accept me as an equal and get down to the business of jamming. This was the case at Bass Mountain where our jam lasted almost four hours. It was a good session and there was a good singer who knew a lot of songs, which is the key to keeping a jam going. Throughout, I was the only woman playing or singing, so the gender differences in the way that men and women tend to act in jams were not too apparent (and, to tell the truth, I had not yet started studying them, so I did not notice at the time). But I will draw on my experience at numerous other jams to demonstrate how men and women's behavior in jam sessions often replicates their behavior in society at large.


In my experience and from my observations, men and women tend to reproduce their culturally-assigned social roles in the context of jam sessions. Men often approach jam sessions as a contest. The general point of jamming in their eyes is to make themselves look good and to prove that they have the most bluegrass knowledge. They would never admit that this is the point, saying instead that the point is to make good music and to have fun, but it is evident from their actions that there is a contest happening. One of the most obvious signs of competition is men's tenency to just start into a tune without announcing what it is or what key it is in. One man starts and expects everyone else to join in. It is partly a test to see if the other pickers can figure out what the song is, and partly an assumption that they are the leader of the jam, at least for the time being, whom everyone will join.


Men also have a tendency to want to play everything just like the record. Since bluegrass is learned mostly from recordings and by imitation—transmitted aurally instead of by written music—the original recording of a song is the authority, the assumed template to which all the other versions of a song are compared. The act of jamming is like a game for which the original recordings are the rules. The ones who can play a song closest to the record win. If you do not know the songs, the repertoire, you lose, and if you know the songs but don't play them anything like the record you also lose. The goal is to sound like the record. This standard puts women at a disadvantage to begin with. Although women may be able to sound like the records when they play, if they are good enough, they will never be able to sound like them when they sing, because all of the singers were male. It is not that women lose the game from the beginning, but that they are excluded entirely. This makes it hard for women to compete and be accepted, in this particular situation, because they would need to redefine the rules if they wanted to beat men at their own game. Some women like me, though, happen not to want another game, so they tag along with the men, hoping that they will make exceptions to the rules.


Sometimes women do succeed in redefining the rules within the context of the bluegrass jam session. This happens most often with the jam is composed of all or mostly all women. In these cases women use the jam session as a way to build a little community. Instead of competition the point is to have everybody participate. When suggesting songs women ask if everybody knows the song and then wait for confirmation from everybody before proceeding. If there are one or two people who do not know it then, more likely than not, whoever suggested the song will choose a different one until she hits upon one that everyone knows. It is more important for everyone to be able to join in than for any particular song to be played. A common pattern in mostly female jam sessions is for everyone to go around the circle and each choose and "lead" a song (by kicking it off, singing it, and designating who is to take the breaks). That way everyone gets an equal chance to participate and the jam has no one leader. This pattern rarely occurs in mostly male sessions where there tends to be one leader who will choose the songs, or designate who is to decide on the next one. The male way is more hierarchical than the democratic female way.


Since both the male and female behavior at jam sessions was developed around having a male canon, it would be interesting to speculate if men and women would act the same way if there was a female canon. With more women emerging as major bluegrass artists—Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis, Lynn Morris, Rhonda Vincent—will women start to want to play their tunes just like the record, or, rather, the CD? Or will women develop a different jamming etiquette? I know from that experience that women have made Krauss's tune "Steel Rails" into a jam session song. I do not know if they were trying to play it like the record or not, but they played it nonetheless. If women start to try and replicate the sounds on women's recordings, men will then be pushed out of the game, just like women are now, because men cannot sound like women just as much as women cannot sound like men.


Another question that arises when considering the new female artists producing popular music is: will playing "like a girl" come to change meaning? All the above-mentioned women are masters (for lack of a better word) on their instruments. If playing "like a girl" means playing like Lynn Morris, I don't mind being told that at all. The term "girl," though, needs to be changed to "woman." If she is under the age of twelve "girl" is okay. Otherwise the bluegrass world needs to recognize that we are really adults. I look forward to the day when somebody asks me to describe my playing and I can answer with,  “Strong, aggressive, and supportive. I play like a woman."

PS - Congratulations if you made it all the way to the end. This is the longest blog post EVER!!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Since Casey and I are holding our first-ever Women's Banjo Camp soon (July 19-21), I thought I would reprint my second Banjo Newsletter column. This blog also celebrates (again!) the publishing of my long-awaited book about women in bluegrass, Pretty Good for a Girl. As you will see, I've been writing about women in bluegrass for many decades. I guess that's because, as the old joke goes, I are one!


Thirty years ago, in June of 1983, Banjo Newsletter published my first article, "A Day of Banjo Teaching." With my next column in July,  "For Girls Only," the cat came out of the bag as I boldly announced that I was a banjo player and a woman! That surprised many folks who assumed that a banjo player named Murphy had to be a man! I took advantage of that combination--woman and banjo player--to offer some advice to my banjo-playing sisters in bluegrass. (Totally oblivious to the fact that most of the subscribers to BNL were men!)


I now present that entire column for your edification and reading pleasure! (This column was first reprinted in my book And There You Have It.)




Okay. We might as well get this settled straight off: I am a girl. Oh, yes, I know. “Murphy” is a strange first name for a girl, and “Murphy Henry” is practically unbelievable, but there you have it.  I am here today to offer some comments on learning to pick the banjo as a girl, and to give some tips, particularly to you aspiring female banjo pickers.

Let’s face it—bluegrass has historically been a male-oriented music, and the banjo has been a male’s instrument. To quote Nat Winston, MD, who as we all know, wrote the foreword to the Scruggs book:

“The five-string banjo has, so far as it’s known throughout its history, been a man’s way to music. It’s a rare woman who has known this instrument understandingly enough to become a virtuoso.” 

Actually, it’s also been a rare man who has become a banjo virtuoso, but he doesn’t mention that. I quote him to show you what you’re up against—his is not an isolated attitude. You can learn to pick the banjo, and here are some tips that I hope will make it easier for you. When you are alone by yourself studying Earl and doing your “woodshedding,” it makes no difference whether you are male or female. It’s when you get into a group of people that are playing music that the fact you are a girl will make a difference. It’s in the attitude of the pickers toward you, and your attitude toward yourself in a jam session. Now, you’ve got to understand that I’m talking about learning to play bluegrass banjo—your hard-driving Scruggs style banjo. I don’t think anybody would quarrel with the idea that that is where you need to start, regardless of where you go after that. Okay. That brings me to my first tip:

Tip 1: Be aggressive. If hard-driving bluegrass is being played (or even attempted) it is ninety-nine times out of a hundred going to throw you in with a group of macho good old boys. At ease! Don’t be offended. Just think for a minute and see if it’s not true. Young or old, there is a definite sort of male camaraderie that exists among bluegrass musicians. They are liberated enough so that they won’t exclude you entirely, but you’d better show them pretty quick that you can get down on it.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I mean be aggressive with your banjo playing,  not with your self. Jam session etiquette is very specific, and a jam session’s balance is delicate enough to be destroyed by one person who is out-of-step with the jam. Just play quietly until you’re offered a break—and you will be. If you’d like to take it, take it. If it’s entirely out of your range, just shake your head, “No.” Once you’ve got a break, don’t be fancy. Keep it simple. Play hard. I know, I know. There are opposing schools of thought on this.  Sonny Osborne doesn’t play hard; J.D. doesn’t play hard. But I say, as a beginner and as a girl,  you need to pick hard to get attention, to get respect, and to get good tone. Better to start out picking hard and decide to lighten your touch later on, then to start out picking lightly, and never even be heard in a jam session Male or female, the bluegrass banjo is an aggressive instrument.

Tip 2: Don’t be a hostess. This is important. (We’re assuming here that there are no kids—we’ll talk about this later.) Whether the jam session is at your campsite at a festival or in your home, concentrate on one thing only—picking the banjo. Don’t be hopping up and down getting beer for people. Let them get their own damn beer. Don’t be fixing snacks and serving food. Don’t spend the hour before a jam session cleaning house—spend it practicing. Get your priorities in order at a jam session. Picking banjo is number one!

Tip 3: Don’t let anybody take your banjo away from you. I have never seen this happen to a guy. But it has happened to me, and it’s the worst feeling in the world. There you are, struggling along, trying to play, —maybe the jam’s over your head, and you’re having to hang back—just trying to figure out the chord sequence to Little Rock Getaway or Sweet Georgia Brown—that’s okay, you’re enjoying it and you’re learning. Then, somebody says, “Hey, mind if I pick your banjo?” like it’s in the case or or something. So you say “Okay,” because you want to be nice, and then you never get it back, and the jam goes on without you. Don’t do it! Just politely refuse. Remember, any picker worth his salt wouldn’t have asked to borrow it.

Tip 4: Kids. I told you we’d get around to kids. If you’re serious about your music, learn to play first—then have kids. Girls, this really applies to you only. Somehow, even in this liberated age, it’s not the same for the guys. It’s hard to concentrate on Earl at 16 rpm when your kid is pulling all your books off the bookshelf, or is about to fall off the bed, or is screaming her head off because to keep her from pulling all the books off the bookshelf or falling off the bed you have put her in her playpen. And it’s hard to justify the expense and hassle of putting her in a nursery just so you can practice banjo. And even when she’s older, it’s “Mama, look at this cake I made. Mama, I want something to drink. Mama, don’t play. Mama, Mama, Mama...” And if you think you can wait until evening to practice when the kiddies are all safely ensconced in their little beddies, think again. You’re too tired. Maybe when the kids are grown...

Tip 4a: Kids at jam sessions. I’m talking about your kids. Your little kids, who do not belong at a jam session if you are seriously trying to pick. Farm them out. Kids at practice sessions: Ditto.

Kids at festivals: Not if you are playing on stage there. People ask me all the time if I bring my kids (ages five  and two) to our shows. I always answer, “Are you kidding? Do you take your children to work with you?” Playing music is a demanding profession. It takes all of my concentration. If my kids are around, I cannot give my playing 100%. That’s not fair to me or to the audience. Leave your kids with a babysitter you have lots of confidence in.

Just last week, I broke this cardinal rule of mine. Well, it was a private party, and the kids were invited especially to play with the other kids there, and frankly, I felt it would be a breach of social etiquette to refuse. But, never again! The videotape they made of the party showed me, in the middle of Shucking The Corn, breaking away from the mike and fiercely whispering, “Christopher! Christopher! Don’t you touch that fiddle! Don’t you touch it! Put it down! Put it down! ” And playing Flint Hill Special was a disaster because Christopher was prancing around in front of the band balancing a potholder on his head. I was in stitches, and completely flubbed the ending by detuning the second string instead of the third. Never again!

Tip 5: Don’t use being a girl as an excuse for anything—good or bad. Especially don’t use it as an excuse for mediocre picking! Carry your own banjo case.

And finally, ignore all Slack-Jawed-Bimbos who have the audacity to try to strike up conversation with the comment, “You’re pretty good for a girl.” I don’t guess that we’ll ever stop hearing that, but a calm “Thank you” would be a sufficient answer. Don’t simper. After nine years of professional playing, I heard one of the standard variations on that again this week-end: “You’re the best lady banjer picker I ever heered.” What can I say? We were twenty miles from the nearest flush toilet, so maybe I was.

Sometimes the best compliments are the ones you don’t hear at all. Just being accepted into a group of good pickers is a supreme compliment. You don’t have to prove anything, just pick and enjoy. My own personal favorite compliment is one I never heard.

We were playing a festival down here in Florida with the Johnson Mountain Boys and, typically for that spring, it was cold and pouring rain. So, to entertain the loyal fans who were still sticking it out, the Johnson Mountain Boys and Red and Murphy & Co. got on stage for a jam session—no microphones, mind you, it was too wet—just a good ole acoustic jam session, where you usually can’t hear anything but the banjo (fortunately not the case that day). Dudley Connell (guitar) and Richard Underwood (banjo) had just put the finishing touches on their tuning when Dudley launched into his terrific, ninety-mile-an-hour rendition of John Henry Was A Steel Driving Man. I was standing there vamping, trying to make my fingers move in that cold, wet air, when I got the nod from Dudley to take a break. I jumped down into first position and let her fly, just hoping I wouldn’t break a string, drop a pick, or forget how to do a forward roll.

I needn’t have worried. After the first phrase I saw Dudley look over at Richard, and Richard look back at Dudley, and Dudley was grinning,  and Richard was grinning, and I felt like I wanted to burst wide open, but I didn’t. Instead, I just finished up my break with a few Ralph Stanley chokes (in Richard’s honor) and led into the next verse. That was one of the greatest compliments I’d ever received about my picking and they never said a word.

(July 1983)


Note: [I added this note to book And There You Have It .] This was the second article I wrote for BNL.  I remember that aggressive, bright-eyed, hell-bent-for-leather, excited, determined, yet vulnerable little banjo player. She was very  young. An older, calmer, slowed-down version of her is editing this book. I suppose now, the title of this column would be politically incorrect. But back then, I felt like a girl.


PS: Adding this note right now, June 5, 2013: Wow! How fascinating to realize that all these thoughts, ideas, and feelings would eventually become part of my new book, Pretty Good for a Girl.

PPS: Careful readers will note that I FINALLY changed the gender in Tip 4: Kids. As originally written and reprinted in my first book, I'd used the default gender which was male. I just now realized how stupid it was for me to be talking about MY KID, Casey, who was a girl, using the male gender! As you can see, I was as caught up in the cultural stereotypes and "norms" as anyone. It took me a long to break old habits! DUH!







MusicTomes.com published this excellent interview with Murphy a few days ago (written by Eric Banister) and has graciously given us permission to reprint it (reblog it?). You can read the original here.

Murphy Hicks Henry Is Pretty Good. Period!

May 24, 2013

In the history of music, the contributions of females is often overlooked or minimized. Murphy Hicks Henry aims to help correct that in bluegrass music. In her fantastic new book, Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass takes an entertaining and informative look at the contributions of women to the history, and the future, of one of America’s original forms of music.

Music Tomes: This book is already being compared to Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A Historyand Bob Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown as far as its importance to the ongoing study of bluegrass. How do you feel about those comparisons?HenryS13

Murphy Hicks Henry: I am blown away by those comparisons! I feel like I’m on cloud nine. I own a well-marked copy of Neil’s book, Bluegrass: A History purchased when it first came out in 1985. It actually falls open on page where he talks about Louise Scruggs! I learned so much about the history of bluegrass by reading his book, and often used it as a reference for other writing projects before I starting writing my book. Then, when I first got to work on my book, I set Neil’s book up in my mind as the “gold standard” I wanted to reach. I wanted my book to be as good as Neil’s. I wanted it to be that detailed, that thorough, that “authoritative.” Neil is so insightful and had done so much research and was actually THERE when much of this history was happening. Finally, of course, I realized I couldn’t be Neil, I couldn’t write my book like Neil wrote his. I had to write my own book. But I still have the utmost reverence for his book and I consider Neil a good friend. He was always available, by email, to answer any questions that came up during my own research and writing and was always gracious. Having said all that, I did grow to realize that there were few women included in Neil’s book. And, to his credit, Neil has told me that he wished he had included more women. So, adding these women back into the history of bluegrass was one of my goals in writing my book.

I also have a copy of Bob Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown. It, too, is marked up, although less so than Neil’s book. Bob’s book was harder for me to digest simply because he delved so deeply into the technicalities of the music itself and, as a “by ear” player I found his explanations hard to follow. It was less about people, and more about the esoteric aspects of the music. Still, it offered many insights into the music which I enjoyed reading about.

MT: How does a genre, or more specifically its practitioners, go about moving away from a climate that discourages by inaction the participation of females?

MHH: Oh my! This is a tough question! And I’m glad you noted that the discouragement of women in bluegrass is “inactive,” rather than an active, visible discouragement. This “inaction” is often hard to see, which makes it harder to rectify. One answer (out of many) would be for the “practitioners” to keep an open mind regarding women’s participation especially when it comes to the singing. Women don’t sound like men when they sing bluegrass–keep an open mind about this. Women sing in different keys from men–keep an open mind about playing in those keys. Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent have done a great job of getting people to accept women’s voices in bluegrass. Another answer is to think outside the box about ways to encourage women to participate in bluegrass. My banjo-playing daughter and I are putting on an All Women’s Banjo Camp this July. It has been our experience that most attendees at bluegrass camps are men. We hope that if we offer an all-female space that women will feel more comfortable about their playing. No one likes to fall on her face when learning a new skill but women seem to feel particularly uncomfortable doing this when men are around. For many reasons.

Other short answers : Festival promoters could hire more bands with women in them. This makes women more visible to other women (and to the men, too). Radio DJs could play more songs that feature women as singers or pickers. Do you have to dig deeper to do this? Yes, you do. Again, you have to think outside the box! Steve Martin could give his $50,000 banjo prize to a woman! Players who are members of the International Bluegrass Music Association (our professional trade organization) could think outside the box and vote for more women for our annual awards. Yes, you do have to think harder, but there are plenty of women out there on the road working just as hard as the men are! They just often aren’t as visible. (On radio or at festivals. It’s a Catch-22.)

MT: I found your discussion of the “rare female” very interesting. Did you find that feeling in other musicians you interviewed?

MHH: Yes, I did. The other women didn’t use the words Rare Female, but over and over I heard the phrase “I was the only one” or, as Jeanie West put it, “I was it.” But then, interestingly enough, later in the interview almost everyone would go on to mention other women who were out there playing. They would say, “Of course, there was Gloria Belle.” Or Wilma Lee. Or the Lewis Family sisters. Even Sierra Hull, who is a young mandolin player in her early twenties, said she felt like she was the “only female around” in jam sessions. Clearly, we were not “seeing” each other. But I also think that the whole culture of bluegrass is so “male” (at least that was the way I experienced it) that women felt very lonely. I know I did. Even as I tried to “macho” my way through by being as “male-like” as possible. That became much more difficult when I was pregnant! I do feel like this is changing some nowadays, although perhaps today I simply choose to play music in situations where I feel more comfortable.

MT: Was there anything in your interviews or research that surprised you?

MHH: Honestly, it surprised me that there were so many women out there so early on. Their presence simply hadn’t been documented before. And I think there are many more out there still waiting to be found. I had to limit my own research to finding women who had recorded (and were thus “visible”) or who had been mentioned in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine which didn’t start publication until 1966. I hope someone else will undertake the gargantuan task of looking for the women who played locally and never hit the “big time.”

The other thing that surprised me was how many women used the expression “I was eat up with it” to describe their passion for bluegrass, especially when they first discovered it and were in the throes of learning to play. Again, I thought I was the only woman who felt that!

MT: What are you currently working on?

MHH: Publicity and promotion for Pretty Good for a Girl! I haven’t yet started another book project. I will be curious to see if any offers come my way.

MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?

MHH: Oh yeah! One of the books that inspired me during the writing of my own book was Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s by Sherrie Tucker. Few people believed her when she made the claim that there had been hundreds of all-women swing band in the 1940s. She found them! And, although she was writing about swing music, she made me aware that bluegrass texts, too, are not “gender neutral,” they are “histories of musical men.” Another much-loved book is Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music by Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann. It, too, is copiously underlined and falls open at the chapter on women in bluegrass! I also loved Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg. Great story of Sara and Maybelle Carter!

Other favorites include Ramblin’ Rose: The Life and Career of Rose Maddox by Jonnie Whiteside;Pressing Own: The Roni Stoneman Story by Roni Stoneman as told to Ellen Wright; The Stonemans: An Appalachian Family and the Music That Shaped Their Lives by Ivan Tribe; Country Music U.S.A  by Bill Malone; A Good-Natured Riot by Charles Wolfe; Pickin’ On Peachtree by Wayne W. Daniel; and, I have to include Peter Guralnick’s biographies about Elvis, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. I could continue on….I love the history of music and musicians!

Pretty Good For A Girl CoverLook!! It's the first review of Murphy's new book "Pretty Good For A Girl"! And it's a good one!  Read it here:


And, of course, you can order the book right here!

Bluegrass Today

Bluegrass Today

On April 29th our friends over at Bluegrass Today published a nice little interview with Murphy about her new book Pretty Good For A Girl: Women In Bluegrass. You can read it right here.