Keynote Address at the IBMA Trade Show

Thursday, October 22, 1998
By Murphy Henry

Lynn Morris introduced Murphy. The bracketed audience responses were added by Murphy so that you could get an idea of how the crowd reacted.

Thanks, Lynn. I appreciate those kind words. It’s an honor for me to be addressing the membership of the IBMA today. I’ve never really considered myself to be a public speaker, in spite of the fact that I do feel very comfortable on stage. I tell you right now, I’d be a lot more comfortable if I were up here with my Stelling banjo slung across my shoulder and a set list on the floor in front of me. Or I’d be even more comfortable if I were back in Winchester in our studio at the house where we make our Murphy Method videos. Where my husband Red can edit out any mistakes I might make or take out what he likes to call "excess verbiage." [Chuckles.] I hope there won’t be much excess verbiage today. Or I’d feel the most comfortable in the world if I were sitting down and giving a banjo lesson to one of my students because all my students think that every word that comes out of my mouth is the gospel truth [chuckles] which, of course, is the primary reason I teach.

But I’m sure that you’re not going to take every word that I have to say as the gospel truth today, and one reason for that is that I’ve picked a little bit of a controversial subject to talk about. And one of the reasons I know it’s controversial is when I was mentioning this talk to my friends in Winchester, they were all saying things like, "Well, Murphy, if you’ve got to talk about this, do it nicely. Don’t tick anybody off."

You know, the other day, Andy Owens called me on the telephone. And he said to me, "Murphy, whatcha doing?" And I answered truthfully, I said, "Well, Andy, I’m listening to a Rose Maddox CD." And Andy says, "Murphy, don’t you think you’re carrying this women in bluegrass thing just a little bit too far?" [Light laughter.] He says, "Don’t you ever listen to any men?" And I said, "Sure, Andy, I listen to men all the time. But don’t tell anybody because I don’t want to ruin my reputation." [Light laughter.]

Well, what Andy didn’t realize is that the first twenty years of my bluegrass career I spent listening to nothing but men playing bluegrass music. It was all-male bands and the Lewis Family. That’s who I was listening to. So I feel like I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Now, some of you might remember at the Awards Show last year, Laurie Lewis got on stage to present a Certificate of Merit to Vern and Ray. And Laurie said she’d learned a lot about playing bluegrass music from Vern. And Vern had told her that if she wanted to play bluegrass music and do it right, that she had to learn to spill her guts on the stage and then walk in them. [Light titters.] Perhaps that’s a little graphic for lunch. Sorry. [Laughter.]

Well, I kind of feel like that’s what I’m going to be doing today because I’m going to be talking about a subject that is near and dear to my heart, and it’s a subject that I think is really important for the bluegrass community, for IBMA, and for all of us if we want to grow and prosper as an industry, and as we move into the 21st century. So my topic today is Women in Bluegrass. I guess you’re not surprised. [Light applause.]

Right here at the beginning I would like to say that I think IBMA has done some good things for women in bluegrass. And I would like especially to thank Dan Hayes and Kitsy Kuykendall for that. It was through their encouragement and support that last year at the Fan Fest women in bluegrass had a forty-minute set on the program. We put eight bands on stage--eight all-female bands--each band playing one number, and then we all congregated at the end for a great big jam session led by the magnificent Katie Laur. We sang Banjo Picking Girl. And the thing that I was most impressed with was after we got finished picking, a lot of people were coming up to me and saying, "I was so impressed by the level of the musicianship of all the women on stage." And that’s a wonderful thing. I’m very proud of that.

Two years ago, when we were at Owensboro, at the Fan Fest on the river, we had the world’s largest all-female jam. We put 73 women on stage to pick three numbers. Of course, we did have to do it in the supper break, but that was okay. I was proud that we were up there. And I can tell you right now, that I have never felt so much estrogen in one spot. [Laughter.]

And the thing that was interesting about that is, after we got finished with that jam on stage, some of the guys were saying things--they were kind of saying this tongue in cheek--but nevertheless they were saying, "Okay, we’ve had the world’s largest all-female jam. When do we get to have the male jam?" And what they were forgetting was that for the first 25 years of the history of bluegrass music, almost every time there was a finale on stage or a jam session at the end of a festival, it was almost always all men. At least that’s the way it was down in the southeast where I was raised in bluegrass. I understand from the work I do with my women in bluegrass database that things are a little bit different out in California. [A few chuckles.]

But if you think that that’s just history, that it’s past and that things have changed significantly for women in bluegrass, then we only have to look at our own IBMA Awards Show to find out that things have not changed as much as we would like. Now I know a lot of you get caught up in the Awards Show. And so do I. It’s a wonderful production. We’re excited to see our friends and fellow musicians on the stage. But this is what I’ve noticed.

Last year we had a finale on stage. It was great. We had Earl Scruggs on stage picking the banjo, we had Uncle Josh on the dobro, George Shuffler on the bass fiddle, Kenny Baker on the fiddle. We had one woman on the stage for that grand finale. Rhonda Vincent--playing the rhythm guitar. The year before that was the year that we had a tribute to Bill Monroe and were remembering Chubby Wise. When we had the last number on stage, everybody was gathered together to pick Rawhide. No women on stage. About halfway through the song, Laurie Lewis came bounding out from the side with her fiddle, but she stood in the back, and she didn’t take a break on the fiddle.

The year before that, Jimmy Martin was inducted into the Hall of Honor, and for the closing number, present and former members of Jimmy’s band joined Jimmy on stage to pick. One woman--Gloria Belle. Thank goodness for Gloria Belle. Where would we be without Gloria Belle? She stood in the back of the band and played her heart out on the mandolin, but she didn’t get to sing, and she didn’t get anywhere near a microphone. Gloria, thank you just for being there. [Applause.] It was an inspiration to me.

I feel like the IBMA is not sending a good signal to the women pickers who are members of IBMA. We’re not sending a good signal to potential women players, and we’re not sending a good signal to the world at large, who, if they only saw our IBMA Awards Show, could come away with the perception that we’re still an all-male industry. And we know that is far from being the truth.

Sometimes the IBMA is guilty of simply not thinking. In 1993, the focus of our Trade Show was on youth in bluegrass. And it’s a wonderful focus. Youth in bluegrass is very important. But, again, as part of our Awards Show, we put a band on stage that was the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars. And I was sitting in the audience when the curtain went up on this band. And the announcer said, "Ladies and gentlemen, the future of bluegrass music!" And I watched the curtain go up on five young men standing on stage playing instruments. This was a put-together band. And it didn’t have to be that way. And it shouldn’t have been that way. Because I’m here to tell you that the future of bluegrass music is not five men standing on stage playing their instruments. The future of bluegrass music simply must include women on stage playing their instruments and singing! [Loud applause and a whistle.]

It was this episode at the Awards Show that led me start my database of women in bluegrass. Because I wanted to have a list of names, if this ever came up again, so we could get in touch with women, young and old. And it’s from the database that I did start my Women in Bluegrass newsletter. We’re starting our fifth year in December. I wanted somebody to be in a position to address issues that were facing women in bluegrass and to talk about us and some of our stories. And I’ve kind of adopted the motto for the newsletter "We’re little, but we’re loud." [Small chuckles.]

Today, as you know from being here at the Trade Show, we have more women in bluegrass than ever before. But old attitudes about women and old attitudes about women in bluegrass are still around. And I want to give you an example.

Like a lot of you, when the old bluegrass is reissued on CDs, I like to buy the boxed sets. So when Columbia Records came out with a boxed set called The Essential Bill Monroe, I bought a copy of that. And this was two CDs of Bill Monroe’s music from 1945 to 1949. And I opened the booklet that came along with the boxed CDs, and I was reading about Bill Monroe. It’s a very fine-looking booklet and very well done. I got to the part where the author was talking about Bill Monroe and the mandolin. And he was telling a story that most of us know pretty well--how Bill Monroe came to play the mandolin. You know that Bill Monroe was the youngest of his family, so when Birch took the fiddle, and Charlie took the guitar, Bill Monroe was left with the mandolin. Well, there’s nothing gender related about that story.

But this author chooses to inject gender into this little story. He points out that if we look at family band photos from that era, that the mandolin is usually being played by a kid or a girl. [A few light chuckles.] And the way the guy has written this up, it’s like, nothing could be worse--the mandolin is a girl’s instrument--isn’t that awful? [More light chuckles.]

And in the next paragraph he goes on to talk about how Bill Monroe spoke proudly of the times when he played the guitar. And he did. He spoke about playing the guitar behind Uncle Pen, when he would play dances. And he spoke about playing the guitar behind Arnold Schultz. And this author says, and these are the author’s words, not Bill Monroe’s, the author says that Bill Monroe liked to play the guitar because it was a man’s instrument. And then he speaks about how Bill Monroe had some of his early Opry photos taken with the guitar. And how Bill Monroe played the guitar on the original bluegrass cut of Muleskinner Blues. And then the author says, "Did Bill Monroe harbor some fear that the mandolin, a kid’s instrument, even a girl’s, was not fit for the image he would project as an adult band leader?"

Oh, my goodness. What could be worse than playing a girl’s instrument? The author concludes by saying that Bill Monroe would create a "ferocious and hell-bent man’s music on an instrument disparaged as a kid’s or even a woman’s."

A "ferocious and hell-bent man’s music." [Small chuckles.] Well, I’m here today to tell you that Bill Monroe did not create a ferocious and hell-bent man’s music. It might have been ferocious at times. And it might have been hell-bent at times. But it was not then, and it is not now, a man’s music. Bill Monroe created a music for anybody that wants to play it--any gender, men and women. [Moderately loud applause.]

And history shows us that Bill Monroe himself was both inclusive and supportive of women who played bluegrass, and I’d like to give you a few examples of that.

In this very boxed set that I’ve been talking about, the Columbia reissues, the first eight cuts that Bill Monroe made for Columbia Records featured a woman playing the accordion. Sally Ann Forrester. [Applause.] Sally Ann sang tenor on two numbers, and she took an accordion break on Bluegrass Special. She was with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys for at least three years, which is quite a bit longer than many of the Blue Grass Boys stayed with Monroe. [Laughter.] She was a professional musician in her own right, and she added to Bill Monroe’s show. I always find it interesting and curious that when we mention Sally Ann Forrester and the accordion, everybody chuckles a little bit. And I’m not sure if they’re chuckling because we don’t consider the accordion to be a bluegrass instrument anymore, or because, in the past, we didn’t consider women to be bluegrass players.

Many of you are familiar with Bessie Lee Mauldin, who played the bass and recorded with Bill Monroe for a number of years. [Light applause.] But you’re probably not familiar with a woman named Juanita Sheehan. She and her husband Shorty were part of the house band at the Brown County Jamboree up in Bean Blossom, Indiana. And sometimes when Bill Monroe would come through, he wouldn’t have a full band with him to play a show. So Juanita would back him up on the guitar. And Neil Rosenberg says that Juanita was a wonderful guitar player. Bill Monroe didn’t have a problem playing in a band that had a woman on the guitar.

Many of you also know that when Bill Monroe went out on the road sometimes he wouldn’t carry a full band with him. He went to Washington State in the ’60s without enough musicians to fill out his contract, so he used Vivian Williams on the fiddle for two shows. [Applause.] The thing that Bill Monroe said about Vivian Williams was this. He said, "I have never heard a lady fiddler that could beat Vivian, and a lot of men fiddlers can’t beat her."

Bill Monroe was the one that encouraged Rose Maddox to record her landmark bluegrass album--the first bluegrass album ever recorded by a woman. Bill Monroe played mandolin on the album himself, he sang on the album, and Rose Maddox recorded a number of Bill Monroe’s songs. If you’ve ever had any question in your mind, any doubts about whether women can sing bluegrass, get this album and listen to Rose Maddox. Now, as a little aside about Rose Maddox’s personality, when she came in from California to do this album, she brought her steel player with her. And when she got in the studio, the folks said, "You can’t use a steel on bluegrass music." Rose Maddox had two words for these people. [Tentative laughter.] No, not those! [Loud burst of laughter.] Never thought of that. [More laughter.] Her words were, "Watch me!" [More laughter.] It’s a great album.

Just one more example. The first professional bluegrass band that I played with was a group called Betty Fisher and the Dixie Bluegrass Band. I played bass in that group. Bill Monroe was the one that encouraged Betty to start this bluegrass band. He gave her tips on how to recruit young musicians to play in the band, and he hired her to play his festival at Bean Blossom. Bill Monroe didn’t have a problem with women being bluegrass band leaders.

Today I am proud to say that we’ve got more women leading bluegrass bands than ever before. We’ve got Alison Krauss, Lynn Morris, Laurie Lewis, Claire Lynch, Kate MacKenzie, Dale Ann Bradley, and we’ve got Rhonda Vincent. It’s a great list of women. And slowly [hesitant applause], thank you, you can applaud those women [applause]. And slowly but surely we’re seeing some women move up through the ranks as side musicians in all-male bands. And, of course, Kristin Scott is a prime example of this. [Applause.] Kristin’s been playing with the Larry Stephenson Band now for three years. And I think we have to give Larry a lot of credit because some of you may not know that when Larry hired Kristin, he got quite a number of telephone calls from friends and acquaintances that said, "Larry, what are you thinking? It’ll never work. You can’t have a woman playing the banjo in an all-male band." Well, every time Kristin and Larry get on stage, they prove that you can have a woman as a side musician in a band. And Kristin plays great banjo.

We have women in bluegrass now that are great songwriters, following in the footsteps of the legendary and great Hazel Dickens. [Applause.] And we can’t forget the women who work behind the scenes in bluegrass. We have women who are event producers like Mary Tyler Doub and Jean Cornett. We’ve got women who are newsletter editors all over the country -- Elizabeth Burkett, with inTune magazine from California. We’ve got women who are magazine editors -- Julie Koehler, the associate editor of Bluegrass Now, and Sharon Watts, my boss down at Bluegrass Unlimited. We’ve got women who are association presidents, and we’ve got women who are booking agents. How can I stand up here and talk about women in bluegrass without mentioning Louise Scruggs, one of the first women to be a booking agent and a manager and one of the best. [Applause.] She delighted in putting Flatt and Scruggs into places that had never even considered having bluegrass music before. And if you like the Carnegie Hall album, you have Louise Scruggs to thank for that, because that was her idea.

But in spite of all the progress that we’ve made down through the years, we still end up with a situation like we ended up with this year with the IBMA Awards ballots. We have two women on the final ballot -- Missy Raines, nominated for Bass Player of the Year, and Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek, nominated for Emerging Artist. Of course, this is in addition to the five women who were nominated for Female Vocalist. And we can’t forget, of course, that Vicki Simmons plays the bass in Coon Creek. Also the Freight Hoppers were nominated for Emerging Artist, and they have Cary Fridley playing guitar. So a total of four women being recognized by the IBMA for their contributions. And we have nobody to blame but ourselves because we’re the ones that are doing the nominating from the ground floor up, and we’re the ones that are doing the voting.

And this is a problem. I don’t know what the answer to the problem is. But I do think the problem stems from the fact that we don’t have as many women in bluegrass as we do men.

So if we don’t have as many women in the organization, in the music, we don’t have as many women making records, and if they’re not making the records, they’re not going to get on the air. And if they’re not going to get on the air, they’re not going to get on the charts. And if they’re not going to get on the charts, then we’re probably not going to vote for them because we’re just not going to remember them when it comes time to make those nominations.

We need more women making records. We need more women making solo projects. So many of the men are coming out with great solo projects. Where are the women making solo projects? Of course, the example that comes to mind, the exception to that rule, as she is the exception to many if not most rules, is Suzanne Thomas, who has just come out with a solo project. [Applause.] We need more women making instrumental CDs. Missy Raines just came out with a great CD that features her bass playing. [Applause.] We need more women making group projects - -women that don’t normally play together. This year we’ll see a release from Hazel Dickens, along with Ginny Hawker and Carol Elizabeth Jones. They made a wonderful group project. And we need more women playing as side musicians on all the projects.

Part of the problem is that the women who do make records don’t get the airplay that they need. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve turned off my car radio because I was listening to a bluegrass program that plays all-men bands all the time. And if I am doing this--somebody that loves bluegrass music--what are other women in the radio audience doing? Are they switching to talk radio? What are the other people in the audience doing? One of the complaints that we hear about bluegrass music is that it all sounds alike to people that are not used to listening to it. Well, if you’d interject some women’s voices, some women’s bands, into the radio airplay mix, then all bluegrass would not sound alike. And I hope we can grow our audience that way, by reaching out to people that we have not reached before.

In closing, I’d like to mention just two things. Musicians, I’d like to offer a challenge to you to stretch yourselves musically. I was in a jam session with Bill Evans this summer at Augusta Heritage Center, and Bill and I were both playing banjo, and Bill said he thought that everyone in bluegrass should learn to play the old standards in the keys that they were originally written in. And I think that’s a good idea. It’s good training. But then Bill went further and said, "And then I think all musicians should turn right around and learn to play these same songs in keys where women can sing them." [Applause.]

And banjo players, right, that means you have to learn how to play Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms in D. [Laughter.] Fiddle players, what about Footprints In The Snow in G? And how about you folks who want to crosspick the guitar? How about Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone in the key of E? [More quiet laughter.]

And, ladies, when you’re out jamming tonight I want you to think about that. And if you get the urge to sing Uncle Pen in the key of C, and somebody says, "But you can’t do Uncle Pen in the key of C," I want you to remember what Rose Maddox said...[Laughter, starting small, and then getting louder as the audience remembered my earlier faux pas]...not that! Not that! I want you to remember what Rose Maddox said and just turn around and say, "Watch me!"

And, DJs, if I could just make one small suggestion. When May comes around and you do your annual program, the salute to mothers that a lot of you like to do, would it be possible to include some songs in your program that were not about dead mothers? [Loud laughter and applause.] I realize that in bluegrass music as it is today that may be a challenge. So I’d like to offer two songs for suggestions. Number one you are very familiar with. Our Song of the Year that Hazel Dickens wrote, the one called Mama’s Hand. Such a fine song. [Applause.] But the second song you might not be as familiar with. It’s a song that Kathy Kallick wrote. It’s called Don’t Leave Your Little Girl All Alone. And I’d like to quote just a little bit of that.

It starts out, in true bluegrass fashion, with a little girl begging her mother not to die. It says, "Don’t leave your little girl all alone / Don’t leave your little girl without a home /Mama, don’t go / Her cry was soft and low / Don’t leave your little girl all alone." Now, if this had been a traditional bluegrass song, of course, in the second verse the mother would be dead, and in the third verse, she’d be rejoicing with the angels up in heaven. [Laughter.]

But, Kathy’s a mother herself. And she has two little girls. So she took this, and she wrote it a different way. She put a different ending on it. She says, "When the mother heard her daughter’s little plea / Her fever disappeared so magically / Baby girl, don’t cry / I’m not about to die / Come and kiss your mama / Let me dry your eyes."

The mother says, "Baby girl, don’t cry / I’m not about to die." In bluegrass music? I didn’t think that was allowed. [Laughter.] Thank you very much. [Applause.]