Tag Archives: women’s jam camp

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

Women's Jam Camp 2015

Women's Jam Camp 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dozens there will join the throng

With them we shall be

Singing bluegrass all day long

Jam Camp Jubilee!



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

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

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


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

I've taught at many bluegrass camps down through the years, and one thing I noticed early on is that the various instruments have little common ground when it comes to tunes. Tunes that are easy for the fiddle or mandolin, like Liberty or Soldier's Joy, are not easy for the banjo. Many lead guitar players start with tunes like Red-Haired Boy or Salt Creek, which are ADVANCED-level banjo tunes. (And even the chords are beastly.) Guitar players cannot usually take breaks to Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Fiddle, mandolin, and banjo players can sometimes find common ground with Cripple Creek or Boil Them Cabbage, although capoing to A for these can be a struggle for beginning banjo players. But these aren't great tunes for lead guitar players.

This disconnect is frustrating. How can you get a jam off the ground if no one knows the same tunes?

For years I dealt with this by having fiddle and mandolin players play their tunes, banjo players play their tunes, and guitar players play their tunes while everyone else scrambled to find the chords or just sat and watched. THAT, friends, is not a jam session. That is an organized practice session. A jam session is where everyone gets a shot at participating in the tune.

It took me a long time to realize that the common ground for student jams has to be singing songs.

ASIDE: I just remembered that this idea initially came to me forty years ago when I was discovering bluegrass at the University of Georgia where I was in the Pre-Med program. (That would last only a few more shaky semesters until "the lure of the honky tonk" wrecked my young life!) When I would come home on weekends I wanted someone to play bluegrass with, and who were better candidates than my four musically talented younger sisters. Argen, our middle sister, was particularly keen on it and she played guitar. But, really, what's the fun of playing only banjo tunes when neither you nor the guitar player is very good or very fast? So, early on, we all started singing bluegrass songs together. That way everybody could participate and I still got to take all the banjo breaks!! Win-win! Our early bluegrass repertoire was eclectic, since we were newbies and had barely heard of Flatt and Scruggs: Delta Dawn, Bugler, Let The Church Roll On, Brush Arbor Meeting, How Mountain Boys Can Love (gender flipping even then!), I'll Fly Away, Farther Along, They Baptized Jesse Taylor, Brethren We Have Met To Worship, and lots of other hymns. I started songwriting early so we also sang Grandmother's Song, There's A Frog In the Pond, and The Florida Song. The point was everyone participated.

BACK TO THE BLOG: Is this focus on singing songs a perfect arrangement? No, it is not. But even if you can't play a break, the chords themselves are not hard to follow and even bashful singers can "pour out their hearts in song" and make a joyful noise! And, with some basic improv skills, three-chord bluegrass songs are flexible enough to accommodate very very very simple breaks. Some of my lead guitar students can pick out the melody to songs like Do Lord and I Saw The Light and Worried Gal on the spur of the moment. It's pretty amazing. My one fiddle student can play about anything as long as she knows the song in her head. Banjo players are learning to do "roly polys" to easy songs. Mandolin players? I'm working on something for you!

The point is, with singing songs you don't have to know a preconceived break to be able to make a stab at playing something! As my friend Marty Bacon points out, "Bluegrass may not be easy, but it is accessible."

Of course, making a stab at playing something requires a great deal of courage. You have to take that leap of faith and accept the fact that you're gonna screw up. Just like learning to walk, you're gonna fall down, you're gonna scrape your knee, you're gonna bump your head. But does this embarrass a kid? No way! It may piss her off and bring on some tears, but she gets right back up and tries it again. And pretty soon: WALKING! RUNNING! Skip, hop, and wobbling!

So, especially to all you wonderful womyn coming to our Jam Camp in July: bring your courage, your singing songs, and your big girl panties, and get ready to jam!


Susan Morrison at our Women's Banjo Camp

Susan Morrison at our Women's Banjo Camp

Howdy, folks,

Casey and I are really getting excited about our upcoming Women's Jam Camp! This is a new venture for us and we're looking forward to jamming with women on all the bluegrass instruments, not just banjos!

NOTE: We are offering two scholarships to the camp. These will cover the cost of the camp and the meals there, but will not include the hotel. Call or email Casey for more details.

Singing and learning to harmonize will be a BIG PART of our weekend. Most women don't sing in the "typical" bluegrass keys of G or A, and because these are the "default" keys for most jams, often women don't realize that they CAN SING BLUEGRASS. They just need to find the right key, which is usually C or D or E! We'll be talking about all that.

We will also explain and practice a lot of harmony singing. Bluegrass uses two harmony parts called "tenor" and "baritone." (Not to be confused with men's vocal ranges of the same name!) Casey and I will be showing you how to find the tenor and baritone parts when they are higher than the lead, and when they are lower than the lead. You will learn by doing so we'll be doing a lot of singing!

On a non-playing note, it sometimes takes ovarios to be a woman in bluegrass. It can be awkward in a jam to insist that you need to sing a song in the key of C, even if it means taking time to capo. Especially if the other jammers are saying, "That ain't where Monroe done it!" And it was always painful to me to sing a song in my key only to find out that no one (read: none of the men I was jamming with) could sing the harmony. That often kept me from suggesting some of my favorite songs. I had to get over that. (Still not quite over it....) [By the way, Red could always find the harmony part, so I wasn't talking about him! But sometimes even great players can't sing harmony with a woman. Sad.] And sometimes it's just not fun to be the only woman in the jam circle. It can take courage to even suggest a song. We will talk about always choosing a song or tune you can flat nail to the wall. Sometimes, in Rome, you gotta act like a Roman!

As Casey and I discovered at our first Women's Banjo Camp, it's a wonderful experience to work with a room full of women. An estrogen high! We love you menfolk, but it's a completely different vibe when it's just us womyn. We don't get to experience that often. (Yes, there are risque jokes!)

To sweeten the pot, on Friday night we will feature a concert by Linda Lay and Springfield Exit from right here in Winchester and on Saturday night we will present Marteka and William Lake from Hacker Valley, W. Va. Both Linda and Marteka are outstanding performers and musicians.

If you've been thinking about signing up, now's the time. We still have some slots open. We are expecting those slots to fill up once July rolls around.

Dates for our Women's Jam Camp are July 10-12. It will be held in Winchester, Va., at the Courtyard Marriott. All bluegrass instruments are welcome: Scruggs-style banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, bass, and Dobro. We also welcome all skill levels except for those of you who are just beginning to play. You can come next year! For more information and registration: consult the website.

PS: If you can't come to camp due to conflicts (or gender!), please help us spead the word by forwarding this blog! Thanks!