Pretty Good For A Girl

Pretty Good For A Girl CoverWe've just crossed into summer, so we thought it would be an appropriate time to direct you to this Summer Reading List over on Banjo Cafe. Murphy's book "Pretty Good For A Girl" graces it, along with three other banjo-centric books, and one about the Louvin Brothers.

Check it out!

5 Summer Must-Reads for Banjo Players

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

Check out this youtube link to see Sally Ann Forrester, who played accordion with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys back in the 1940s, playing accordion with Tommy Scott. This is wonderful footage and really shows off her playing!!!!! And she is a gorgeous woman!

The opening chapter of my book, Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass, is about Sally Ann.

Or here's a link if that embed doesn't work:

Pretty Good For A Girl Cover The good reviews keep streaming in. Here is one from independent reviewer Donald Teplyske on his blog The Lonesome Road Review. He really likes the book, but doesn't pull his punches when pointing out typos and things he thinks should have been done differently. A very fair evaluation.

Read the review right here.

Buy the book right here.

Or buy it for Kindle right here.

Hey look! There's a new review of Pretty Good for A Girl: Women In Bluegrass up on Bluegrass Today today:

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!



 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!