Tag Archives: women in bluegrass

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

Casey and I are excited and proud to say that our first-ever women's banjo camp was a tremendous success! We had 18 women and 4 of these were young teens. I came away with a new nickname--AJ--for "Alpha Jammer" and Kathy Hanson was tagged "AJ Jr" for her outstanding leadership in the late night jams (which went on until 1 am on Friday and ended earlier, midnight, on Saturday!).


I was dubbed "AJ" after Casey and Janet and I did a Friday afternoon session on How To Jam. (This will become a standard Friday event at all our camps from now on.) This was more than just a "jam etiquette" session. We talked about "friendly" or "nice" jams and demonstrated what might happen there and we also talked about "not-so-nice" jams or "unfriendly" jams and demonstrated what might happen there.


Note: Many jams are not "unfriendly" on purpose--these are higher-level jams, often with seasoned players, who most always play fast, who know harder songs, and who don't cut newcomers any slack because they don't want the jam to be anything other than "top notch." Players assume other players will know the material so songs are often not even named--they are simply kicked off. You are expected to know what the song is AND THE KEY IT IS BEING PLAYED IN.


I got my nickname when I was demonstrating this "fast jam" procedure. I kicked off Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms as fast as I could play it without announcing the title. It was in the key of A which caused Janet to have to scramble for her capo. (Note: if a major player starts putting on her--or his--capo in a jam, it's a safe bet you are going to be playing in a different key! Get ready!) Of course, Casey knew the drill so she was totally able to come in singing the chorus with me right after I finished the kickoff. I also might have gotten the nickname because I admitted to actually liking some aspects of these fast jams! And for saying that I always wanted to be the only banjo player in a jam!


Casey and I mentioned that, in our experience, jams that featured mostly all women tend to be a bit more "touchy feely" with the drill being something like this. Everyone in the picking circle gets a chance to select a song. So the conversation often sounds like this:


It's your turn to pick a song, Casey.


Ok, what about Shenandoah Breakdown? Does everybody know that?


No, I don't play that one.


Okay, what about Daybreak in Dixie?


What key?


I do it in A.

(Mandolin player): Oh, I learned it in G. I can't do it in A.


Casey: Well, I can do it in G. Is that okay with everybody else?


Nods all around and the song gets played. And afterwards, the next person picks the song.


Some of the jam rules we mentioned were:


Whoever kicks the instrumental off is the one who ends it and puts on the ending lick. For anyone else to do this is rude.


For singing songs, most jams want only the three basic vocal parts: Lead, tenor, baritone. Don't sing along if the part is already covered.


If you are new to the jam and you get the nod to take a break, DON'T PASS IT UP. Even if you can't play something very good, at least play something! You might get one more chance, but if you pass up a break twice you are not likely to get asked again.


After our demonstration (which also included some jam session "role playing" by Martha and Susan), Casey and I were both worried that we had scared everybody off with too many rules and regulations! And these "unspoken" rules can be confusing when thrown at you all at one time. But afterwards, the women said they had really enjoyed the session and almost all of them felt it was better to be forewarned!


Of course our jams at the camp--with 18 banjos--were completely different from what we took to calling "real" jams. We usually had all the banjos playing the breaks together and we WELCOMED everyone singing all the time on whatever part they could sing.


Another highlight of the camp was our Harmony Singing Workshop which we did Sunday morning. Based on what I had learned about teaching harmony singing from the magnificent Janet Beazley (who is on our Harmony Singing Made Easy DVD), Casey and I were able to demonstrate all three vocal parts-- lead, tenor, and baritone--and have the women learn to sing each one. We all agreed that baritone was the hardest! We will definitely make this a part of our Women's Camps but it's almost impossible for women to teach harmony singing to men. (That's why Bill Evans and Chris Stuart are on our DVD!)


Lynn Morris was kind enough to drop by for lunch on Saturday. She mixed and mingled with the women there and I everyone was honored by her presence. We gave her one of our "Pick Like a Girl" T-shirts and she put it on and had her picture "took" with the rest of us. I gave her a copy of my book Pretty Good for a Girl because she has a whole chapter in it. She is truly one of the pioneers in bluegrass and I admire her so much.


banjo campers

Murphy Method Women's Banjo Camp Campers

Friday night Casey and I showed off the playing of our local women with an hour-long concert. Participating were: Kathy Hanson, Kathy Holliday, Kristina, Kasey Smelser, Barbara, Janet, Casey Henry, and moi. Did it go off without a hitch? No it did not, but the hitches were small (although I'm sure they didn't seem small to the hitchees) and I was so proud of everyone for being willing to be up there in front of a crowd giving it a shot. The audience responded enthusiastically and I thought Ben Smelser was going to swoon with pride when Kasey was singing I Saw the Light. Kasey said she even got a compliment from her brother who said, "Good job." She was ecstatic over that!


Saturday night mandolin player Tracey Rohrbaugh joined Casey and me for a concert. After only 7 minutes of rehearsal (!) we managed to pull together 9 or 10 songs that sounded really good. Tracey is an awesome singer and we were able to get some really good three-part harmony. Casey's Skype student, Sydney, one of our teenagers, was our special guest. She kicked off and sang Rocky Top and Blue Moon of Kentucky and did a fantastic job. Sydney actually has some stage experience because she plays in a band with her father and uncle. But I believe she said this was the first time she'd played with any other women. (I did notice Kasey watching Sydney like a hawk, so I'm thinking Rocky Top is likely to be a singing request soon!)


I'm totally out of time to say more if I'm gonna eat my oatmeal and take a shower before my teaching day starts.


Let me close by saying THANK YOU to all the wonderful women who came to the camp. Thanks for making it a success. I think there was a whole lot of bonding going on, and being a woman myself, I liked that!


And a special thanks to my totally awesome daughter Casey who came up with the idea for these camps to begin with and who shoulders the lioness's share of the detail work which I abhor. Couldn't do it without you, Case! You are the woman!


See all y'all next year. And don't forget our Mixed Gender Beginner's Camp October 25-27, 2013.



Murphy HenryBelow you’ll find part of a longer email from a new student, Marty. He bought one of the last banjos, a Gold Tone, sold out of Brill’s Barber and Musicians’ Shop when he came up for a lesson in November. I’m gonna give you his credentials before I tell you what he said that is blog-worthy. He is an eminent cardiologist who used to be the head of the cardiology department at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He’s still in practice although he’s slumming now somewhere deep in South Carolina. <G> He’s originally from Jacksonville, Florida, (so he’s got little bit of the Southern Gentlemanly good-old boy thing going) and I think he told me he went to the same high school that some of the Lynard Skynard band members did. (Bluegrass content in last remark: Larry Cordle did a whole bluegrass tribute CD to Lynyrd Skynyrd, called “Lonesome Skynyrd Time.” I just adore that song that goes “Give me three steps, give me three steps, mister, give me three steps to the door.” Larry’s CD was the first time I was able to understand the words! I’d always loved the beat!]

Anyhow, when you see what Marty had to say, you’ll know why I am absolutely tickled to post this:

I spent practically my whole adult life raising two girls, so I really like to play Casey’s CD "Real Women Drive Trucks" because they have always been of the opinion they could do just about anything a man could do. They laugh though when I tell them I just want to learn to pick like a girl since I admire so many woman banjo players.

Thank you, Marty!

And just to remind you all of a few of the fabulous female banjo pickers:

Roni Stoneman
Lynn Morris
Alison Brown
Kristin Scott Benson
Gina Britt
Pam Gadd
Robin Roller
Cia Cherryholmes
Casey Henry (!)
Julie Elkins
Janet Beazley

Janet Davis

[Editor's Note: Murphy Henry (duh!)]

I would list more but I’ve got to quit so Red and I can start watching the first volume of the Harry Potter series. Mount your brooms!

Murphy HenryHere’s another banjo poem, this one written by Edward Morris who now writes for CMT.com. He says it was written “some time ago under the spell of Pete Seeger.” Thank you much, Ed, (as we say in the Shenandoah Valley) for letting us post it.


The banjo is a rube,
long-necking into town,
slick-headed and
defensively keyed-up
to glib impertinence.

It is the village infidel,
wise-cracking the bowed heads,
plucking from crinkled knees
to tapping toes,
the Sabbath zombies into sin.

It is a guerilla
starved down
to the desperate energy
of stretched nerves,
sniping at fat pianos in full dress.

It is a pensioner,
retired to dusty corners,
pin-striped and stiff,
humming at night
an agile frolic.

Edward Morris

I must tell you that I got acquainted with Ed last year via email when he posted an article about Rhonda Vincent (January 22, 2008) for the CMT.com Blog. Titled “Deep in the Bosom of Bluegrass,” the article quoted something I’d said about Rhonda when I was on a panel about Women in Bluegrass way back in 2003. Ed and I exchanged emails about his quote, that event, and his prodigious memory and from then on have been, ahem, bosom buddies! Ed is a wonderful writer, so check out the article. It’s still online!

NOTE: In case you read the article: No matter what I said back then (and I think I was just popping off without thinking, trying to be funny) I totally support Rhonda Vincent’s attire and her music!

Murphy HenryFrom time to time here I’ll be including some posts with feminist leanings. There will almost always be a bluegrass connection, but I realize some of you may not be interested and might rather scoot on over to visit with our buddies at the Banjo Hangout, so I’ll try to remember to give you a heads up. So, heads up!

Today I want to shine a spotlight on the 2008 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Awards Final Ballot which I received a few weeks ago and promptly marked and mailed back. It’s rare to see female performers nominated as Instrumental Performers but this year THREE women are nominated and I want everybody to know that this is Big News. (Okay, not as big as Sarah Palin being nominated for Vice President, but still and yet big for the world of bluegrass!)

So, who are these brave and bold women who are carving out new turf?

Kristin Scott Benson—nominated for Banjo Player of the Year, her first nomination.

Sierra Hull—nominated for Mandolin Player of the Year, her first nomination. And she is the first woman to be nominated in this category!

Missy Raines—nominated for Bass Player of the Year. Her 16th nomination!

Congratulations to all of you! You’re doing all us womyn proud!

Now, in case you’d like to put this into perspective, I did a little digging.

Since the IBMA Awards were instituted in 1990, only two women have won Instrumental Awards. Alison Brown was the first, winning Banjo Player of the Year in 1991. Missy Raines became the second in 1998, and has since won six more times. (Go Missy!)

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