Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass review

pretty-good-girlIt took me a couple weeks to read, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading Murphy Henry’s history of women playing bluegrass. Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass is almost excellent, and examines the long history of women playing the music some of us love.

It is replete with fascinating stories and little known facts. I’ve followed bluegrass pretty closely for 20+ years and I learned something from each and every page, and occasionally entire chapters were completely new to me. Names that I had only skipped across prior became connected to other personalities and events I had previously been aware of…dang me, dangling participle!

I very much enjoyed this book and recommend it to all who want to know more about bluegrass.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald


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.

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