“Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass” by Murphy Hicks Henry

Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass
Murphy Hicks Henry
University of Illinois Press
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Murphy Hicks Henry has devoted a considerable portion of her recent life to writing this first history of women in bluegrass. Coming in at almost 400 pages, along with another hundred of notes and references, Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass is comprehensive and informative, expansive in its breadth and mostly captivating in its execution. The book is not without fault, and whether these are substantial deterrents will vary depending on perspective.

This is a largely scholarly examination of women in bluegrass, although Henry doesn’t hesitate to lighten the mood to include opinion within biting slabs of irony when such befits the argument. Henry utilized various methods to gather information about the women, both well known and those who had less prominent roles.

Generalizing because there is in evidence a wide variety of information gathering methods alluded to within the volume, Henry gathered questionnaire responses from women who played and sang bluegrass. She followed up with interviews, both with the subjects and with those who knew them, and she surveyed the pertinent bluegrass publications for mentions, reviews, and features; while many sources are noted, the bulk appear to have been drawn—as one would expect—from Bluegrass Unlimited, Muleskinner News, and the Women in Bluegrass newsletter. On the lookout for interesting tidbits, Henry also examined album liner notes, concert posters and handbills, band bios and press kits, and the popular press.

The resulting book serves as an amazing reference volume for those who research and write about bluegrass. Simultaneously, Henry has written a credible collection of stories that are simply enjoyable: the voice of these women come through in almost every instance—their challenges, their joys, their bitterness, their honesty, their elation, and their wisdom. All who enjoy bluegrass will benefit from knowing the stories of the women featured.

Segmented into decades, this substantial tome examines the women who were involved in pre-bluegrass and bluegrass from its earliest days beginning with those we should all know: Sally Ann Forrester, Wilma Lee Cooper, Rose Maddox, and Ola Belle Campbell Reed. While those more versed in the minutiae of bluegrass history than I may not learn as much, one suspects most who come to this text will benefit greatly from Henry’s research into these true pioneers of bluegrass.

The first hundred pages, which takes us through the 1950s and previously under-known (and for me, under-appreciated) performers including Grace French and the ladies from the Lewis and Stoneman families is filled with revelations, previously unknown connections, and the significance of the substantial role many of the women played within their (usually) husbands’ and family bands. For example, while I already knew (or, thought I did) much about Ola Belle Reed and Bessie Lee Mauldin, Henry considerably adds to my understanding. She brings the struggles faced by Patsy, Donna, and Roni Stoneman to the fore, making their challenges and sacrifices tangible, and fleshes out the details of Vallie Cain’s and the Lewis ladies’ lives.

Through her examination of the 60s, Henry sent me searching for music of folks I had hardly or never  heard of such as Jeanie West, Dottie Eyler, Wendy Thatcher, and Bettie Buckland, while providing additional insight into the lives of familiar legends including Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, and the ladies of the Whites.

How I wish I had known as much about Gloria Belle when I met her at World of Bluegrass many years ago, and she so graciously handed me two of her albums: I had no idea who she was, and feel more the fool in light of reading Henry’s vibrant account of her rich and significant role within bluegrass history.

While providing a foundation for the history of women playing bluegrass—names, dates, places, and recording sessions—perhaps more importantly Henry highlights the contemporary reaction to those women. She highlights the sexist and dismissive  comments found within reviews and features, and almost as frequently notes the absence of mention of the women’s contributions.

Henry peels back the film of time to reveal the recollections and experiences of women such as Suzanne Thomas, Susie Monick, Martha Trachtenberg, Katie Laur, and Lynn Morris who found themselves continuing the female journey—sometimes near accidentally—in bluegrass. Each chapter provides additional context. The stories of Markie Sanders, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, and other California-based performers are of special interest.

Beyond the details and anecdotes, what becomes most apparent within these pages is how often, and well into the 80s, women playing bluegrass felt they were reinventing the wheel by assuming a position in the music. There seems to have been little cross-pollination of experience, the next generation seldom knowingly building upon the experiences of those who came before: a sense of isolation as a musician, as a singer, and as a performer is palatable within almost every story.

Lessons in leadership learned from Bill Monroe find their place within Betty Fisher’s story, and other aspects of Monroe’s character are found in Alison Brown’s. Musical epiphanies are found in Laurie Lewis’, as are lessons of business and the paying of dues. Ingrid Herman Reese’s (misspelled Reece) unabashed honesty, Ginger Boatwright’s strength, and Alison Brown’s vision should leave all readers impressed.

The book contains several typos that even I—with my limited knowledge of bluegrass and English sensibilities—identified. John Duffey’s surname is misspelled, a not unusual occurrence within the bluegrass press, but troubling in such a substantive publication. Could other details and facts also be questionable?

The New Coon Creek Girls, Vicki Simmons, and Dale Ann Bradley have their histories summarized in less than three pages, an obvious oversight. Whether Simmons and Bradley did not make themselves available to Henry, or whether she didn’t feel their contributions deserved little more than passing mention within a chapter on all-female bands is unclear, but this is a puzzling lapse.

Later chapters involving Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Cherryholmes, and even the only marginally relevant Dixie Chicks provide valuable information, but Henry’s style here becomes little more than an itemizing of each new album or DVD release with relevant quotes from participants and excerpts from reviews mixed in with dates of high school graduation, marriage, divorce, and children’s births: the life and color Henry brought to the pioneering women’s journeys is missing from this final quarter of her book.

Finally, while she painstakingly references her sources in appendices, I would have preferred direct attribution within the text; with so many references to ‘the Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer felt’ or ‘Muleskinner News wrote,’ I would have appreciated the comfort of knowing exactly who was writing what about the females under discussion as I read.
Murphy Henry, herself a prominent woman in bluegrass music, has produced a book of significant value. The stories she gathers are invaluable, her research obviously substantial. Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass is a comprehensive if imperfect account of the roles women have played in the evolution of bluegrass as a music, as a community, and as a cultural artifact. It is highly recommended.

Pretty Good Girl

“Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir” by Josh Graves, edited by Fred Bartenstein

Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir
Josh Graves (Edited by Fred Bartenstein)
University of Illinois Press
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

If you made a Mt. Rushmore for bluegrass music instrumentalists, there would have to be six faces—not five as Bill Monroe originally intended—and that sixth face would have to be the smiling visage of Josh Graves. Burkett Howard Graves, known professionally as “Buck” or “Uncle Josh,” was born in Tellico Plains, Tennessee (Monroe County, oddly enough) in 1927 and popularized the use of the Dobro, or resonator guitar, in bluegrass music.

Others, including yodeler Cliff Carlisle and his Hawaiian steel guitar and Bashful Brother Oswald, who played Dobro with Roy Acuff, had made the slide guitar sound part of country music, but when Monroe’s new brand of music called bluegrass branched off just after World War II, the Kentucky bandleader brought with him only guitar, upright bass, fiddle, and his own rapid-fire mandolin. Joined with Earl Scruggs three-finger banjo style, the new style became a separate and distinct form of country music.

In a series of recorded interviews that Fred Bartenstein has shaped into Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir, Josh Graves tells us how his Dobro playing was able to cut in and become a partner in what quickly became a highly stylized dance. First with Mac Wiseman and, starting in 1955 with Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Graves’ tone-rich, loud Dobro sound—the right hand influenced by Scruggs’ picking style, the left hand by Lightnin’ Hopkins and other black blues players—cut through the other noise to become an accepted part of a music played by hard-headed men whose main innovation was to tweak and then codify tradition.

At 176 pages (including a foreword from Neil Rosenberg, an introduction from Fred Bartenstein, and 16 pages containing 41 great black and white photographs) Bluegrass Bluesman is a slim volume, but that’s one of its virtues. The effect is that of spending a a day on the bus with a genial host who has lots of great stories not only about himself, but of many of the founders of one of America’s unique contributions to world music. Some of portraits are less-then-flattering, but there’s nothing vindictive or gratuitous, just the confirmation that our musical heroes are people too, and that their foibles and faults sometimes had important effects on the music just as their incredible talents did.

About 20 pages are dedicated to short tributes and remembrances from well-known colleagues, friends, and acolytes, and there’s a short appendix from Bobby Wolfe about Graves’ best-known guitars that will be of great interest to many.
Bluegrass Bluesman belongs with Can’t You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music, and Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story as essential portraits of musicians essential to the history of bluegrass music.

“The Rounder Records Story” by Various Artists

Various Artists
The Rounder Records Story
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I got bit by the bluegrass bug in November 1997 when I heard Bob Dylan sing the Stanley Brothers song “I’ll Not Be a Stranger” in concert in Columbus, Ohio. Less than two years later, I was training to take over the hosting job on Bluegrass Breakdown, a Saturday-night, four-hour live radio show on WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

In the interim I had been listening to host Steve Allen, whom I was to replace, been listening to CDs from the library and from the Borders Books & Music record section in which I worked, and had been reading up on bluegrass music, most notably Bluegrass Breakdown by Robert Cantwell and Bluegrass: A History by Neil V. Rosenberg. Allen was impressed at the amount of bluegrass history I had absorbed.

But when I took the helm of Bluegrass Breakdown in December 1999, I was still nervous about what songs to pick, fearful that more knowledgeable fans would bombard me with calls belittling my choices.

However, I had a plan for whenever I wasn’t sure what next to slide into the disc player: just pick a Rounder CD and cue it up to any sing title that sounded cool. It always worked, and I always grabbed more than a proportional share of those CDs with disctinctive, uniform spines when I was doing show prep. Other labels soon became trusted as well, but Rounder was always, as Jim Eanes would say, my old standby.

This four-disc, 87-track set, complete with exhaustive liner notes, shows not only that Rounder has been an impeccable source of bluegrass music for 40 years, but for all kinds of Americana, roots and even pop and rock music. From the old-time strains of George Pegram and Ed Haley, to the blues of Charles Brown and Gatemouth Brown, to the Cajun of Beausoleil and D.L Menard and the Louisiana Aces, to the rock of Robert Plant and Rush, Rounder has covered it all.

Rounder’s approach has been the opposite of labels from the past like Atlantic, Motown or Stax, which pumped out high-quality product that all bore the unmistakable stamp of their in-house studios, producers and songwriters. They instead have sought affiliations with uniquely individual artists and, for the most part, let them create.

The result is that this varied boxed set is a tossed salad of great music, each bite with a different combination of flavors, but great taste in every one. Some great, sometimes unexpected morsels for this taster include: “Killing the Blues” by Woodstock Mountains Revue, a perfect song picked up by Rounder artists Alison Krauss and Robert Plant for their album Raising Sand more than three decades later; “Jula Jekere,” a haunting groove from Alhaji Bai Konte; the yodeling bluegrass of Joe Val’s “Sparkling Brown Eyes;” the original version of “Mama’s Hand” from Hazel Dickens; Jimme Dale Gilmore’s mournful “One Endless Night;” and Linda Thompson’s lush “Versatile Heart.”

Del McCoury and his band, who recorded a handful of classic albums for Rounder in the 1990s, are absent from the collection for some reason, and I could have stood for more bluegrass on the later discs, but this set is a perfect gift for anyone who truly enjoys good music and will serve as a jumping-off point for many a fruitful explorations into a vast catalog of treasures.


“Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story” by Tim Stafford & Caroline Wright

Tim Stafford & Caroline Wright
Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story
Word of Mouth Press
5 stars (out of 5)

Several years ago, when the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass week was still held at Louisville’s delightfully seedy Galt House hotel, I was heading toward the elevators on the ground floor when Tony Rice walked through the door leading down to the parking garage. He was tall, gaunt and looked a little frail, but had a regal bearing and was dressed impeccably, suit and tie as usual. He was alone and carrying his guitar and no one else seemed to notice him.

Though I usually disdain going out of my way to meet famous people, especially for an autograph, which seems so contrived and invasive, I had to do something. This was Tony Rice. So, making an exception I have since made for baseball heroes Johnny Bench and Eric Davis, I simply asked to shake his hand. He offered that hand—the right hand known for its peerless picking technique—barely smiled, shook, said thanks and kept moving.

Until this remarkable book by Tim Stafford (a great guitarist, singer and songwriter in his own right) and Caroline Wright, I knew little of the man who has stood as the master craftsman of the bluegrass and acoustic guitar for about 40 years, taking time to also carve out a niche as one of the finest bluegrass lead singers ever.

I didn’t know of his childhood playing in a band with his brothers in California under the tutelage of their father, a legendary welder, part-time musician and sometimes drunk. I didn’t know how he ended up in J.D. Crowe’s legendary New South lineup that cut Rounder 0044, why he left to play more progressive styles with David Grisman and others, or why he came back to traditional bluegrass with the Bluegrass Album Band. And I didn’t know what had happened to that formerly clear, cool voice that has made it impossible for him to sing over the last decade or so, or about the physical toll that a lifetime of hard work has taken on those hands. All of those questions are answered in this book, which also gives detailed insight into Rice’s character, personality, hobbies, instruments and playing style.

The book’s format took a chapter or two to get used to, as it’s not a straight-ahead third-person biography. After a brief introduction by the authors, each chapter contains a section of Rice’s reminiscences of the period in question, followed then by a section of relevant comments from friends, family members and colleagues. Interspersed throughout the book are dispatches from time spent with Rice on the road, driving to and from shows.

The result is that, sometimes, material is repeated. But this usually serves to flesh out the story, as Rice’s recollections are reinforced, shaded or supplemented by others. Thus the book seems a lot longer—a good thing—than its 272 pages of text before about 40 pages of reference material, including a discography of his work on albums by Rice and a host of others.

In short, this book—which is exceedingly well-made and attractive—is everything you ever wanted to know about a musical giant, with the material presented clearly and readably by Stafford and Wright. It will send you to your record collection for the Rice that you do have, and to eBay, County Sales or the record store for what you don’t. It’s a major piece of bluegrass and acoustic music scholarship that belongs on any music fan’s bookshelf.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison” by Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus
When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison
PublicAffairs
1 star (out of 5)

Like the book it covers, this review will be short and not comprehensive. I’m just going to pump the shotgun and let a couple of rounds go in the general direction of a profoundly bad book.

First of all, there are lots of instances where Marcus gets a lyric or song title wrong. “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” is rendered as “Linden Arlen Stole the Highlights” several times, even in a chapter title in big bold print. The song “Caravan” starts with the line “And the caravan is on its way,” but Marcus insists on saying it starts with the word “now.”

He says it’s Pee Wee Ellis on the cover of The Healing Game with Van, but it’s actually Haji Ahkba, who also happens to be the voice at the end of A Night in San Francisco asking the crowd if they had been healed. Ahkba was a vital part of that band, but Marcus can’t be bothered to find out who he is.

You may think these are little details, but if, in the title of your book, you are claiming to be “listening to Van Morrison,” you should get little details right. If not, what else are you missing?

Marcus also claims the song “Burning Ground” is about disposing of a body. Any research among Van fans who have parsed that dark song would have told Marcus that that’s emphatically not what’s going on in that song, but, again, he just doesn’t bother to look into things closely. (The song actually seems to be about casting off your old self in favor of a new beginning.)

Marcus also waves off every Morrison album from 1980 to 1996 as pointless navel gazing, even though Van fans find plenty to love about that long period (which is actually two or three periods). It also doesn’t jibe with Marcus’ main thesis to write these off. Marcus says that Van is all about reaching transcendence, which is true, but if Van can’t talk about himself, how can he transcend himself.

I’ve liked Marcus’ Mystery Train and his The Old Weird America: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, but now I’m thinking I may have just been dazzled by his cross-genre comparisons. Now that I’ve read a book whose subject I know better than Marcus, I’m thinking he might be always full of crap.

by Aaron Keith Harris