The ladies of bluegrass, proving their worth in a historically male genre
February 22, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Bridget Law was getting into the music industry 15 years ago, things were different.
"There weren't as many women around. Sometimes I had to make sure the men in charge knew that I had experience and that I could really play," she said. "I don't find that anymore."
Law played fiddle and sang in Elephant Revival from 2006 until last November.
"I'd say that bluegrass is already a pretty progressive movement, and music in general tends to be a fairly progressive social scene," Law said. "I don't feel like we need to demand it or be really loud about (gender equality), because there's not a lot of mistreatment going on anymore."
Mimi Naja is on vocals, mandolin and electric and acoustic guitar with Fruition, an otherwise-male group that doesn't identify as bluegrass, but has found a home in the jam and bluegrass community. She's experienced the current climate of the music industry differently.
"Being a female in this scene feels just like a microcosm of the greater world. A dude doesn’t have to prove himself as much," she said. "I walk into a venue, and they assume I’m the merch (andise) girl or tour manager. Not until my dudes speak up for me or the crew hears me shred am I put on an equal playing field."
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Bluegrass is historically a mostly male genre, reaching back to its earliest roots as "mountain music" in the American South. Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys and Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt's Foggy Mountain Boys were two of the first groups to be labeled "bluegrass" in the 1940s; from early on, female musicians were present in the scene, but generally as the sole woman in the group, as vocalists or bassists.
Last year, the late pioneering bluegrass player and coal miner advocate Hazel Dickens' induction in the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame marked the first female to receive that honor for her own independent musical accomplishments; other women who'd been honored had been part of a group.
Also in 2017, the flat-picking, Nashville-based Molly Tuttle was the first woman nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Association's Guitar Player of the Year.
The past year was also obviously significant for national and international gender-related movements not limited to the music scene, including the Women's March and the #MeToo movement.
"The awareness around women’s equality has made it less socially and professionally acceptable for women to be treated disrespectfully," said WinterWonderGrass partner and marketing director Jennifer Brazill. "We have a long road to still travel, but it's so exciting to see such activism and this movement is inspiring a whole new generation of young girls."
"Being the sole female in an all-male band, there are a lot of conversations that are happening," said Bevin Foley, fiddler and vocalist for Trout Steak Revival. "I think there's a lot of things good guys don't know that happen in the world for women. They're like, 'What?'
"So, it's been eye-opening to be talking about these topics — which is cool, because that's something we've (women) have always lived with."
Foley joined Trout Steak six years ago.
"I think that our group, when I joined, had made a conscious decision (about the gender balance)," Foley said. "There's a different vibe that happens in a mixed band than in an all-female or all-male band. That balance was something our band really wanted to have.
"There are definitely different ways men and women communicate,” Foley continues. “In all-women bands, there's a lot of talking to each other and checking in and making sure everyone's doing good. The jams I've played with all women, it's a lot more listening, it's quieter and mellower. Everyone wants to hear what everyone else is playing. All-male jams are louder and more aggressive. I like both of those things."
Law has watched that same idea of balance evolve during her time in the music business.
"What I've witnessed over the past decade is the recognition of the importance of balancing masculinity and femininity within the music, and I think that's brought a lot of women into the scene," she said. "Festivals want to make sure there are women musicians represented in their lineup. I think there's a lot of openness there."
Foley recalled a week-long festival on a cruise that Trout Steak Revival was voted onto last year, the Cayamo Cruise.
"The interesting thing was, the lineup was almost 50-50 male to female musicians. It was shocking how surprising it was to see that," Foley said.
"Although the bluegrass world is still mostly dominated with males, the women that represent the genre are powerful," Brazill said. "They are often the leaders in their bands, and come to the stage with strong beautiful voices."
When Law departed from touring with Elephant Revival, she was aiming to live a more home-based lifestyle.
"I think that's pretty indicative of why there's not as many women in the industry," she said. "We get to be in our mid-30s and start to feel a lot more family-oriented, whereas men can generally leave for chunks of time (to go on tour), but the women can't. Well, they could, but it's not as easy."
Law, who went to school for music business, now works with Bonfire Entertainment to produce WinterWonderGrass and other festivals, as well as plays more locally in a band, Tierro with Bridget Law, with her husband. She's seen the number of women working in the industry increase since her days in school.
"Women are nurturing and big-picture oriented and are naturally good at things like lodging, logistics, coordinating for festivals," she said. "Most of who I'm working with in logistical staffing are women.
"I think there's been recognition that women can do a great job at these things,” Law added. “Not only are there more women working in the business, but they're also more appreciated for their abilities."
Naja also has thoughts about appreciation within the business.
"You band together with the good dudes that treat you like an equal, and they are a-plenty," she said. "Women have to prove that worth double-time for an equal playing field, just like everything else in life. Luckily, it’s achievable in this community, and fellow female players know this and raise each other up."
"I feel like women are in the minority and have to work a little harder and be a little stronger to keep up especially on the management level," Brazill said. "It's all about who you surround yourself with, keeping aligned with a team that respects and supports you is the key to success."
Foley has been having more conversations with female friends about these issues lately.
"I think everyone has examples of being treated slightly different because they're female, but they're not in the norm in day-to-day life," she said. "So much has changed in the last 50 years that has paved the way for my place in this career and in the music scene. The women musicians in the generation or two before me really paved the way for the current generation. They opened doors for us that I try not to take for granted."