women in bluegrass

The trailer for Murphy's new book is up! Watch her talk a little and play a little:

You can read more about the new book here and you can order it here.

Murphy Henry

My book is out! My book is out! My book is out!


Ok, it’s not quite out but you can pre-order it on Amazon, or from The Murphy Method! It is quite mind-boggling for me to go to Amazon and search for Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass and see my name and my book come up! This link will take you right to it: Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass (Music in American Life). I don’t think we can beat their price ($19.37) and we do get a little something if you follow the above link to order it, but you can also order directly from us right here, and all of our copies will be autographed (and personalized if you like).

Pretty Good for A Girl Cover


And now the trailer is up on YouTube.

I gave my first talk about the book at our Intermediate Banjo Camp this past weekend and I was appreciative of the interest and the enthusiasm for my 10-year-long labor of love!

The book turned out to be an amazing 469 pages long, of which 383 pages are text. The rest are sources, bibliography, and index. It has three sections of quality black and white photos which have pretty much not been seen before. I am SO grateful to the photographers who let me use their photos free of charge. As I said to Dan Loftin, “I’m calling to ask to use some of your photographs for free and you are going to let me.” “And why am I going to do that?” he replied. “Two words,” I said. “Rubye Davis.” Of course he had to let me after hearing that. Dan loved Rubye’s playing and I quoted him in the book saying, “I went to hear Hubert Davis play the five but got blindsided by this tall, dark-complected woman singing bluegrass standards with soul like I’ve never heard. I always thought of Rubye as being the soul of the Season Travelers. That’s the way I remember her: singing her heart out to a crowd of fans that knew she was singing just to them.”


The book is arranged chronologically in six sections beginning with Sally Ann Forrester, who played accordion with Bill Monroe in the 1940s, and ending in the 21st century with the Dixie Chicks and Cherryholmes. There are 44 separate chapters documenting the lives of over 70 women (with many more women mentioned for their contributions).


Why did I write the book? Primarily to show, with historical documentation, that bluegrass is not, in fact, a man’s music, as so many people believe it is, or was. As is frequently the case women have always been there—they simply haven’t been “seen,” much less written about. But I also wanted to tell the stories of these incredible women who bucked enormous cultural resistance (much of it subtle) to follow their own heart’s desire and play bluegrass.


I think it is telling that I chose the title for the book—Pretty Good for a Girl—because I heard that said to me so often. As did many other women. Rhonda Vincent even put that line in her song “American Bluegrass Girl,” singing, “All my life they told me / You’re pretty good for a girl.” As I said in the book, “You understand that the intent is to offer praise, but at the same time the compliment comes with the hidden dagger ‘for a girl.’ ” Someone told me that Bill Monroe had actually said that about Alison Krauss and her fiddle playing! Does it never stop? (Monroe himself was happy to use Vivian Williams as a fiddler with the Blue Grass Boys when he needed to pull together a band out in Seattle. Not to mention Bessie Lee Mauldin who was his bass player for years!)


I tried hard to write the book in an easy-to-read style because, more than anything, I want people to read it! I interviewed almost all the women featured in the book and used lots of quotes from my interviews as well as from other sources. Here’s one of my favorites from Ginger Boatwright who was talking about her mastectomy and her reconstructive surgery. She was telling Bluegrass Now how the surgeons had taken tissue from her stomach to reconstruct her breast. She said, “Now when I get hungry, my hooter rumbles!”


The women I interviewed were funny, candid, and, I think, glad to have their stories taken seriously. I hope you enjoy reading about them. I loved writing about them.


Murphy Henry

As you will be reading in our next Newsletter (coming soon!) Casey and I have decided to do a Women’s Banjo Camp.  It will happen next July 19, 20, 21, 2013, here in Winchester and we are really excited about it! It will be for all levels of banjo-playing women, beginners through advanced. We welcome younger women and we welcome older women.


(That reminds me of those T-shirts with the word GRITS printed on them: Girls Raised In The South. Those apparently proved to be so popular that they came out with a batch for older women: SEASONED GRITS! Love it!) But I digress....


Part of our reason for doing this camp is to make a real effort to get more women to attend banjo camps—any banjo camps, not just ours. We know there are women out there who are learning to play the banjo, but they don’t often show up at camps. A few do, but not many. So we thought perhaps a women-only environment would seem less scary. If you’re going to fall on your face playing the banjo, somehow it seems easier to do amongst a group of women! And we’re hoping if they have a good experience at our camp, this will give them the encouragement they need to attend other camps.


So, please help us spread the word! And feel free to write (themurphymethod@gmail.com) or call (800-227-2357)  us with any questions.


And, although we didn’t exactly plan it this way, the camp will coincide with the publication of my book, Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass, by the University of Illinois Press. (Which also published Neil Rosenberg’s classic work Bluegrass: A History.) My book is scheduled to come out in June 2013. As I’ve mentioned, I worked on it hard—but somewhat intermittently—for TEN years! So I am ecstatic to have it out of the house and in the hands of the publisher. I will really feel like it’s done, of course, when I’m holding my first copy! And, if all goes well, we should have copies for sale at our Women’s Banjo Camp next July!

Murphy Henry

When son Chris called tonight, March 28, to tell us Earl Scruggs had died, I knew I would want to write some sort of blog about him, but I had no idea what to write. Then it came to me. Casey and I had gotten to meet Earl and Louise, his wife, one time in their Nashville home. I later wrote about that experience for the University of Virginia alumni magazine. Trusting that I own the copyright for that article, I will reprise a part of it now:

Prelude: Early in the article I mentioned that as part of her application for UVA Casey had submitted an essay about the most exciting day of her life: meeting J.D. Crowe! She wrote that meeting J.D. was the “single greatest day of my life. Until a new single greatest day of my life comes along.”

Meeting J.D. got trumped when Casey and I—all by ourselves— got to visit Earl. In his house.

This is what I wrote:

After we had chatted for a while, Louise asked us if we would like to play Earl’s banjo. Would we? Would a blues lover like to play B.B. King’s beloved Lucille? [His guitar.] Would a fiddler like to play Itzhak Perlman’s Strad? I went first, boldly playing one of my own compositions. I sure wasn’t going to try to out-Earl Earl on one of his tunes. Then I passed the banjo—EARL’S BANJO!!—to Casey. She played a tune or two and then Earl got out the little banjo that he keeps beside his chair and started PLAYING ALONG WITH CASEY!!!

The hardest thing I’ve ever done as a parent [up till that point!] was to sit still and let Casey play the banjo with Earl. I’m sure I earned an extra star in my crown for not wrenching the banjo out of her hands. [I think they played Home Sweet Home and Silver Bells together.] If Casey can maintain her aplomb while playing banjo with Earl Scruggs, I’m sure she’ll do fine facing the rigors of life as a bluegrass musician.

Casey and Earl

Things I didn’t put in the article about visiting Earl: Louise offered us some iced tea, which we accepted. The only problem was, after drinking a tall glass of iced tea, I had to pee. Which meant I had to ask where the bathroom was (embarrassing) and then get up and go there (also embarrassing). And the whole time I’m in there I’m thinking, “I’m using Earl’s bathroom!”

Also when Louise asked us if we’d like to play Earl’s banjo my actual reply was, “I thought you’d never ask!”

Another interesting tidbit: Someone had just donated Mother Maybelle’s guitar to the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum so we were talking a little about her. And this is what floored me. Earl said he’d always admired Mother Maybelle’s playing and had tried to copy what she did on guitar but he could never get his guitar playing to sound like hers! Here is Earl Scruggs, disappointed in himself because his guitar playing—his wonderful, fantastic, gorgeous guitar playing— does not sound like Mother Maybelle’s. (Of course hers was all those adjectives, too.) I wondered at the time, “Does it never stop? Wanting to sound like someone else?”

And just one more thing. Here’s the reason I played one of my own tunes (which was Hazel Creek) for Earl when I had the chance to play his banjo. One year, at the IBMA World of Bluegrass, I’d had a chance to sit at a table in the hotel restaurant with Earl and Louise while they were eating supper. No one else was around. I had them all to myself! And, as part of our conversation, Earl said, “I get so tired of hearing the same old stuff all the time.” Right then and there I vowed to myself that if I EVER got the chance to play in front of Earl I would NOT play one of his tunes, but would play one of my own. And I did. And I am proud to say he perked up, took notice, and asked where that tune came from!

Oh yeah. While we were all sitting there, some man brought over something for Earl to sign. I think it was a license plate, but it might have been a banjo head. Earl graciously signed. The man said to me that he had some of my videos. I thanked him for that. Then the man said to Earl that he was getting all his favorite banjo players to sign. Louise nudged me and said, “You’re a banjo player.” But the man hadn’t asked me to sign! So what could I do? Besides, I knew Louise was just yanking my chain.

And the memories just keep on coming: The year I won the IBMA Print Media Award I got to be in an after-award-show media room where pictures were taken. Earl and Louise were in there too. So, naturally, I had my picture taken with them. But just before MaryE Yeomans took the shot Louise said, “Wait a minute.” Then in an aside to me she said, “I’ve got to hold my stomach in.” I wanted to bust a gut laughing, but of course, I couldn’t. I’ll try to find that picture. Casey also had her picture taken with Earl. I’ll look for that one too.

Murphy with Louise Scruggs

But for now, as you see, we are including a picture of Casey’s son Dalton with the Big Earl poster. The Big Earl was a product of the brilliant yet somewhat twisted mind of the Flint Hill Flash, who wrote an amazing column for Banjo Newsletter for years. Casey’s copy (formerly my copy, I believe) now hangs in her office. I thought it was fitting that we take Dalton’s picture in front of it. I just didn’t know at the time that we would use it in a blog in memory of Earl.

Dalton and Big Earl

Dalton and Big Earl

Rest in peace, Earl. Your banjo playing has inspired so many. Including Casey and me. And perhaps one of these years, Dalton.

Murphy Henry

Now that I’ve told you about content of the Harmony Singing DVD, let me tell you about the fun stuff! I picked Janet Beazley and Chris Stuart up at the airport on Saturday night about 7:45. I’d originally told them I’d meet them curbside, but of course by the time I’d made the almost two-hour trip (primed by a Starbucks Tall Americano and oatmeal cookie!) I needed the visit the “loo” as they say in Jolly Olde England. So I met them inside at baggage. I’d told them they could use our instruments, so all they had was two suitcases. (“And no merch!” as they both exclaimed.)

When we stepped outside the terminal, they were both stunned by the cold (22 degrees) which was made even colder by the brisk wind which was making the flags stand straight out. Yikes! We didn’t waste any time getting in the car and cranking up the heat.

I figured they would want to eat something so I told them they had three choices: eat junk food at the airport, eat fast food when we got to Winchester (about an hour’s drive), or wait till we got home and eat some of the food I had fixed. Bless their hearts, they opted to eat at home.

With Janet in the front seat, she and I talked all the way home, with Chris occasionally chiming in from somewhere in the back. She and I had met (and bonded) a few years ago at Mid-West Banjo Camp over a beer at a local tavern and the book Eat, Pray, Love. Deeply engrossed in conversation, we didn’t realize a huge summer thunderstorm had arisen and that we were due back on campus to perform real soon. The only thing to do was to make a dash for it through the pouring rain with lightning flashing all around and “thunder roaring, bursting in the clouds.” We arrived at our dorm drenched to the skin and looking liked drowned rats. We had just time to towel our hair day and change clothes before jumping on stage to sing Love Come Home as a duet. It sounded great. We’ve been buddies ever since.

Arriving back at the house, I warmed up bowls of a slow-cooker roast/stew I had concocted based on my friend Robyn’s recipe which included dumping in a bottle of beer and ¼ cup of brown sugar to the roast and adding onion, carrots, apple, apricots, prunes, and cranberries. By the time I’d added all that there was no room for the sweet potatoes! So it goes. They said it was yummy and I had to agree! (Could have used a tad more salt...)

Meanwhile Bill Evans was making his way to the house in his rental car. (He’d flown in earlier in the week to visit his sister in Richmond and to do a banjo workshop.) I called him and he said he’d be there at precisely 10:26. So of course, at 10:27 I called and told him he was late! He had a good excuse: he was almost in sight of the house when he found the road blocked and a “blue light special” (police cars) surrounding a truck which had run off the road and had “fetched up” with its front tires in the lake. The cops had rerouted him up the mountain which was taking longer than he had expected. I was aghast at the police cars because Chris and Janet and I had passed that same truck on our way in. (No police cars at the time.) I had laughed about it because there was a can of beer sitting by the truck and had said, laughingly, “Welcome to our hillbilly subdivision!” The truck looked abandoned and I certainly didn’t think anyone was in it. (And I hope to goodness I was right). But still, I realized as Bill was telling the story that we should have stopped to make sure.

Anyhow, Bill arrived safe and sound, and joined us in our evening meal and conversation. We batted around a few ideas for the DVD, talked about what time we’d like to start filming (11ish) and then....what do you think we four banjo pickers did? Did we rehearse? Did we break out four old fives and get down with some Earl? Some Ralph? Some Sonny Osborne (one of Bill’s favorites)? No, we did not. Sad to say, being the Baby Boomers that we are, we all went straight to bed. (Okay, Bill probably stayed up a while and did Facebook and email from his bedroom.) But, maybe, being Baby Boomers, we just realized that we had work to do tomorrow and that the RESPONSIBLE thing to do, was get a good night’s rest. I prefer to think of it that way!

And now, as my grandmother would say, “Mouse is run, my story’s done.” At least as much as I can tell now. Now it’s time to go record a few extra introductory clips for the DVD. When you get the DVD, you can check closely to see if you can tell which ones I added today! The clothes will be the same, the earrings and necklace with be the same, but the hair never turns out the same way twice!

Murphy and Casey are featured in this banjo-centric collection by photographer Darwin Davidson. Each month pictures a different player with her banjo. Casey is January, Murphy is May. We're not selling them through our site, but you can order them straight from the photographer for $20 each. DarwinDavidson.com

(Click on pictures for full-size images)

Murphy Henry calendar page

Casey Henry Calendar Page



Casey Henry

Here's a link to a post on the No Depression website about a project that both Murphy and I participated in. Previously we've posted the videos (here and here and here and here) that Dyann Arthur filmed of both of us, but this nice little article has an overview of the whole project as well as some of the clips of the other women that she recorded.

Dyann Arthur and the MusicBox Project's Americana Women

Casey Henry

Last week at the International Bluegrass Music Association conference our favorite clawhammer banjo instructor Lynn Morris received a Distinguished Achievement Award from the organization in recognition for her illustrious career in the bluegrass music business. From her early days in the City Limits Bluegrass Band through Whetstone Run and her own Lynn Morris Band, Lynn has always striven for perfection. That dedication paid off when she was the first woman to win the National Banjo Championship at Winfield, Kansas, and again a few years later when she was the first person ever to take the title twice. She was named IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year three times and her band put out five superlative albums. She was at the height of her career when she suffered a stroke, which robbed her of her ability to speak and play. Since then she has worked tirelessly, with tremendous strength and determination, to recover what she lost. She has regained so much ground; we are so proud of her. Currently Lynn works as the sound engineer on the road with Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie.

This video is of most of her acceptance speech at the Special Awards Ceremony at IBMA on September 30, 2010. I missed the first bit. (Sorry!)

Casey Henry

Last year
, Murphy listed the women who made it onto the second IBMA awards ballot in the instrumental performers category. There were eighteen, in contrast to a decade ago, when there were only five. Since I just filled out this year's ballot (and since she's busy working on her book and probably hasn't even looked at her ballot yet), let's take a look at who made the cut this year.

For Banjo Player of the Year

Kristin Scott Benson
Alison Brown
Cia Cherryholmes

For Bass Player of the Year

Missy Raines
Christy Reid

For Fiddle Player of the Year

Becky Buller
Molly Cherryholmes
Shelby Gold
Alison Krauss

(Same four people as last year, interestingly enough)

For Mandolin Player of the Year

Brooke Aldridge
Analise Gold
Sierra Hull

Twelve people, which pretty much splits the difference between last year and a decade ago. You'll notice that no guitar players or dobro players made it at all. New entries this year are Brooke Aldridge, who plays with her husband Darin, and Christy Reid, who plays with her husband Lou in his band, Lou Reid and Carolina. Congratulation to these gals, who are getting out, playing in front of people, and really making an impression.

And since we're talking about instrumental performers, here are the bands that include women who made it into the Instrumental Group of the Year category: Darin and Brooke Aldridge, Cherryholmes, the Grascals, Lorraine Johnson and Carolina Road, the Claire Lynch Band, and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Not a bad turn out!

The group I play with, The Dixie Bee-Liners, actually made it onto the ballot in a couple of categories: Vocal Group of the Year, and Emerging Artist of the Year. Go us!

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

There is an article in the most recent issue of Banjo Newsletter titled "Young Guns of Bluegrass." It profiles six banjo players between the ages of 16 and 22 -- all boys -- who are all playing with touring bands, and in most cases, have been for at least a couple of years. The introduction to the article does state that they didn't include Cia Cherryholmes because she has recently been profiled in BNL, but at 26 she's a little older than this group anyway, though she started playing at about the same time. As I looked at their pictures and read their profiles (they play with bands including Barry Scott and Second Wind, Kenny and Amanda Smith, Carrie Hassler and Hard Rain, and Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper) I thought, "where are the up and coming girls?"

Let me say right off that I in NO WAY intend to take anything away from these guys. They're all great players and deserve the recognition, and will no doubt keep the banjo flame burning long into the future. But I wondered, since Kristin Scott Benson has now won Banjo Player of the Year twice and plays with one of the top bands in bluegrass, where are the girls coming up in the following generation?

Are the girls really not there? Or (as Murphy is finding out as she works on her history of women in bluegrass) are they there and people just don't notice them, don't recognize them? Do our cultural constraints make it harder for girls to become "young guns" with all the aggression, assertiveness, mastery, self-confidence, and even violence that that implies? Would these bands, who seem to have no problem taking teenaged boys on the road with them consider taking a girl of the same age? Are the girls, as is so often the case, playing with family bands and thus discounted or ignored? Or are the girls taking a more cautious approach and going to college before looking for a job with a touring band? Kristin was in college the whole time she was playing with Larry Stephenson and managed both quite nicely.

I now know what I'm going to pay attention to, maybe even do interviews for an article, while I'm on the road this summer: female banjo players, from the ages of 16 to 22, in bands who are out there playing, on stage, for money. I can't wait to see what I find. If y'all know any names, feel free to throw them out.