The First Ladies Of Bluegrass
Photo: Shannon Kelly
First Ladies Of Bluegrass Make History At IBMA Wide Open Street Fest
There is a strange moment that happens at the end of the annual International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass convention in Raleigh, N.C. A surreal transition takes place on Friday afternoon. After a week of business being done, seminars and workshops taking place, and bands doing late night showcases for talent buyers, record label reps and DJs from all over the world, the mood changes abruptly.
Once the IBMA Awards show on Thursday night is over and the free-form jams that last until dawn have died out, the streets of Raleigh are blocked off, stages are set up and the vendors get ready for the Wide Open Street Fest.
Beginning at noon on Friday, tens of thousands of festival goers show up to enjoy eight stages of live music with some of the best musicians in the world playing for who really counts: the general public.
A big part of the Wide Open Bluegrass Street Festival is the performances at the beautiful 5,500-seat Red Hat Amphitheater located in the heart of Raleigh. This year, on Sept. 28, the headliners are the First Ladies of Bluegrass, an amazing group of women who have bursted through the ceiling of the bluegrass genre to rightfully claim their place in history.
The First Ladies of Bluegrass include Missy Raines, the first and only female musician to win the IBMA Bass Player of the Year award, Alison Brown, the first woman to win the IBMA Banjo Player of the Year award, Sierra Hull, the first and only woman to ever win the IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year award, Becky Buller, the first and only woman to ever win the IBMA Fiddler of the Year prize, and Molly Tuttle, the first and only female to ever take home the IBMA Guitar Player of the Year honor.
Raines and Brown’s breakthroughs happened in the 1990s, but Hull, Buller and Tuttle’s awards came about within the last two years. The times are still changing.
The impetus for this lineup came from the recording of Raines’ new album, Royal Traveler, a year ago. Produced by Brown for Brown’s label, Compass Records, an idea was hatched to bring in Hull, Tuttle and Buller for the recording of the song “Swept Away.” From there, the all-star collaboration that would grace the stage at Wide Open Street Fest was set in motion
To add to the excitement of the show, two special guest musicians were added to the First Ladies of Bluegrass bill: Rhiannon Giddens and Gillian Welch. Both Giddens and Welch are GRAMMY-winning artists, and Giddens gave the IBMA World of Bluegrass Keynote Address a couple of years ago.
Before the First Ladies of Bluegrass band takes the stage, however, lightning strikes for this special lineup of female talent when on the evening of Sept. 27, exactly 24 hours before their headlining show, Raines, Brown, Tuttle, Hull, and Buller won the IBMA Recorded Event of the Year Award for “Swept Away." Additionally, Hull earned another IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year title and Tuttle won her second IBMA Guitar Player of the Year award in a row. Backstage at the Fest, we talked to Raines, Buller and Giddens about this historic grouping.
When Raines was growing up near the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia and going to bluegrass festivals as a kid, she was inspired by watching the Katie Laur Band perform. Laur was one of the first females to lead a bluegrass band of men that were not related to her in any way.
“I think about Katie Laur a lot because, even though I wasn’t imagining leading a band when I was a teenager, she stood out to me because she was in stark contrast to a lot of the women I saw playing music at the time,” said Raines. “It was Katie’s group and she was leading it and fronting a band of men, and that was something you didn’t see much then. And, there was a style about her while onstage that I really liked. She would talk to people like they were in her living room, and I was very influenced by her presence and what she was doing onstage as much as her music.”
Giddens grew up listening to all kinds of music as a kid in North Carolina. While her own style is more on the old-time, African-American blues and old-school country side with modern sensibilities and a little funk thrown into the mix, bluegrass music was in her ears for as long as she can remember.
“Bluegrass is probably the genre that I have had the longest relationship with because my uncle was a bluegrass musician and evidently my grandfather was one as well, though I never met him,” said Giddens. “It was a part of my upbringing and a part of who I am. I don’t play it, but I sure appreciate it and have my favorite sound in it. I am drawn to the older stuff. Newer bluegrass is very virtuosic and the modern pickers are amazing and they can do all kinds of things. But, I like my bluegrass a bit more gritty. One of my favorite mandolin players is Mike Compton, who plays a style that is real. He just digs in there and does it. I’m not really into the clean, fast picking, even though it is amazing to see.”
Giddens is also well-aware of the history being made with Raines’ group.
“The image of bluegrass music is still, to a certain extent, a bunch of guys in suits playing onstage,” said Giddens. “Image doesn’t always reflect reality. That is why things like this First Ladies of Bluegrass show are important so people know that women are playing these instruments and have been influential going back to the beginning. It is like, ‘We are here, and we kick butt and have been kicking butt for a long time, so we’re letting you in on a little secret.”
Buller grew up in Minnesota before making her way south to the wonderful Bluegrass, Old-time and Country Music Program at East Tennessee State University. Now, even as a performer who has won some big awards, she gets emotional thinking about standing beside and playing music with such impressive women.
“I still think of myself as a bluegrass picker from Minnesota who grew up playing with my family,” said Buller. “I never dared to dream that I would get to do this at the level that I am getting to do it now. I look over and I think, ‘Whew! It’s Alison Brown. Wow. And, I’m playing with her.’ Each and every one of these ladies is a hero of mine. All of these women are so nice and it is just a joy to get to spend time with them, and then to get to create music with them as well."
With all of this history and excitement mounting around the First Ladies of Bluegrass' special IBMA Wide Open Street Fest appearance, the anticipation is palpable – especially for Buller.
"I imagine that at this show a part of me is going to be flipping out," added Buller. "But, the other part of me is saying, ‘Yeah, man! Let’s pick!’”