The Women of WinterWonderGrass

Eve Panning, Melly Frances, Becca Bisque, Lindsay Lou, Julie Gusaroff, Megan Letts, Mimi
Naja, and Tiffany Christopher performing at the first Winter-WonderWomen in Steamboat Springs, Colo.; Courtesy WWG

WinterWonderGrass | March 29-31
Village at Squaw | Olympic Valley

“I grew up in an era with a lot of firsts,” says WinterWonderGrass administrator Bridget Law.

She remembers being there when Danita Hartz of Meridian, Idaho, became the first woman to win the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest. That was in 1998. It had only taken 45 years since the founding of the festival.

“When you have all the right elements coming from women’s bodies and energies, it’s pretty damn special.”    –Bridget Law

While radical women from Hazel Dickens to Rhonda Vincent have blazed the way for female-fronted bluegrass bands during the decades, the media spotlight is only now beginning to shine on talented multi-instrumentalists in a contemporary bluegrass scene being led by the likes of Mandolin Orange, Molly Tuttle, Della Mae, The Wailin’ Jennys and I’m With Her.

“I’m super grateful that there are more women in this scene than when I started,” says Law. “I think it makes the music better.”

Upstate | Patrick Capriglione

Last month in Steamboat, Colo., Law coordinated the first three sets of WinterWonderWomen, featuring ladies from the road crew and string bands involved in the festival. The musicians rehearsed primarily on their own and just ahead of show time, then delivered a stand-out performance to a captivated Colorado crowd.

“The audience really appreciated that we took it out on a limb,” she says of a setlist that featured everything from Loretta Lynn to Beyoncé. “When you have all the right elements coming from women’s bodies and energies, it’s pretty damn special.”

If the lineup for Squaw Valley this year is any indication, the future of bluegrass, newgrass and folk music is unquestionably female. In fact, this year’s festival will feature more than one dozen ladies from at least nine different groups.

The three-part harmony singers of Upstate have been riding the WonderGrass train all season performing on the main stage in Stratton, Vt., in December before joining the ranks in Colorado.

“Sometimes I think bluegrass and festivals are a boys’ club and it’s kind of hard to stand out other than with your gender as a women,” says Mary Kenney. “But female is not a genre; it’s a social construct. However, unless they come from a musical family, girls are not told to be musicians when they are young. Instead, they are taught how to shop, how to do makeup and take ballet lessons.”

Kenney references those adorable moments on tour when the sound technician automatically assumes “the girls” don’t know anything about engineering.

“There have been some people who’ve thought of us as dumb,” she says. “Sure, we all don’t know a lot of things, but you don’t know what I know and what I don’t know.”

She and bandmates Melanie Glenn and Allison Olender are scheduled to join the March 30 iteration of WinterWonderWomen, alongside members of Pixie and The Partygrass Boys, Driftwood and more.

“I think that there is an appeal to seeing a women on the stage,” says Claire Byrne of Driftwood. “It doesn’t mean I’ll like them more. It’s just because it’s not entirely the norm yet. Years ago, it wasn’t exactly considered ladylike for a woman to be wailing on an instrument.”

History notwithstanding, the WinterWonderWomen sets in Steamboat were by all accounts anything but effeminate, dainty or modest.

“I think it’s easy to think that when a bunch of female musicians get together, it’s going to be soft and gentle,” says Katia “Pixie” Racine. “But this was boisterous, loud, in your face and unapologetically fun,”

Amanda B. Grapes began her picking at storefront jams in rural Kentucky before joining Pixie and The Partygrass Boys.

“I learned to play fiddle from an old man with no teeth while his friend whittled wood beside him,” she says. “I always felt welcomed and encouraged. Part of what makes bluegrass great is it is so inclusive. We may be under-represented, but we’re doing alright.”

Law and her sister folk feel that WinterWonderWomen might become a yearly tradition as the popular festival in Squaw Valley enters its fifth year with more ladies on the lineup than ever before.

“I think the idea behind it is celebrating women in music,” says Lindsay Lou. “Years ago, female artists weren’t as visible. Now the tides are shifting. The narrative we are all telling ourselves has to change. Women are inherently as good at doing things such as leading, doing math and science and being instrumental artists. We need to start recognizing the equality. No more am I just a beautiful lady and that’s where my value lies. I’m an artist and musician and I want you to call me that and start putting me into the story.” |