Emmylou Harris performing at Tanglewood in Lenox MA on September 4,1977.
Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Today's Women of Bluegrass Reveal Their Biggest Musical Influences

There's no shortage, now or historically, of women who've impacted the course of bluegrass— whether they broke new ground from the inside (see Bill Monroe's accordion player from 1943-1946, Sally Ann Forrester) or influenced today's pickers through their contributions to country or folk music.

To further shed light on this ongoing trend, Wide Open Country talked to several of today's top women in bluegrass and Americana about their greatest inspirations. Answers ranged from a broad overview of how women shaped the very foundations of roots music to tributes to heroes spanning from Cousin Emmy to Sierra Hull.

The Local Honeys on Their Musical Forebears

Allied Kentuckians Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs create a broad pastiche of Appalachian folk sounds as The Local Honeys. Pulling that off requires consideration of a wide range of influences— predating recorded music and spanning the folk revival and the rise of home state treasure Loretta Lynn.

"The idea that bluegrass/traditional music is a male-dominated genre is honestly silly," shared The Local Honeys in a joint statement. "Many prominent bluegrass players who found a bit of fame credit their mothers, sisters and aunts for teaching them the style. Hence, the high lonesome sound— these men learned to sing from women who had a higher singing register. And who better to sing the woes of the mountains and rural living than a woman?

"It's been confirmed that there were far more women banjo players in the Appalachian Mountains than men," the statement continued. "Acts like Molly O'Day, Martha Carson, The Coon Creek Girls, Loretta Lynn, Ola Belle Reed, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard carved out a career in bluegrass/old time music whereas their maternal predecessors were tasked with keeping up the home and raising the family. These women were pioneers in their time and one would be remiss to count them out of country music history. Because of them, we've been given the space and the responsibility to carry on their legacy. Singing and writing and sharing what comes out of these mountains. The grief, the sorrow, the pain and the joy. And who better to tell it than a woman?"

Becky Buller on the Women of Bluegrass

Becky Buller earned her own place in history in 2016 when she became the first woman to win Fiddle Player of the Year from the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association). To take nothing away from that accomplishment, a long line of women walked so Buller and other award-winning peers could run.

"All along the way, there have been women in all aspects of the bluegrass music industry," Buller said. "I feel like I've had it pretty easy as a female band leader, but I'm standing on the shoulders of people like Lynn Morris, Missy Raines, Claire Lynch, Laurie Lewis, Alison Krauss, Ginger Boatwright and the Stonemans. I know that they had it harder than I've had it."

Martha Spencer on Emily Spencer

Singer, songwriter and flatfoot dancer Martha Spencer preserves the music of her Blue Ridge Mountain home in her own voice: a mindset she learned from a long line of kinfolks.

"I was inspired a lot by the women musicians in my family. One being my mother, Emily Spencer," Spencer shared. "She played a short stint with Asleep at the Wheel before joining with my dad and uncle in the Whitetop Mountain Band. She's a powerful singer and banjo player who knows so many songs. She recorded with several folks like Kyle Creed through the years and has also taught so many people to play music. Seeing her teach so many folks instilled in me the sense of passing on the music to others.

"My cousin, Audrey Hash Ham, was also a big inspiration: as a ballad singer and a wonderful luthier, hand-making fiddles and dulcimers," she continued. "She was also a generous, loving person. They both were strong women I looked up to in the musical world who helped inspire me to want to play, sing and keep on passing on the mountain music traditions."

Amy Lou Keeler of Mama's Broke on Cousin Emmy

The Cousin Emmy story predates Monroe detonating bluegrass' big bang by at least a decade. She became the first woman to win the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest (1935) and wrote "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?," a song further popularized by the Osborne Brothers and Buck Owens. Interest in old-time music during the 1960s folk revival pushed her back to the forefront and introduced what can best be described as proto-bluegrass to a young audience.

Naturally, Mama's Broke —the Canadian folk duo of Lisa Maria and Amy Lou Keeler— revere Cousin Emmy as a trailblazer for multiple genres.

"Cousin Emmy was one of the first American banjo players I listened to," Keeler said. "Her arrangement of an old English ballad 'Pretty Little Miss Out in the Garden' made a big impression on me, not to mention her original 'Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?' is one of my favorite bluegrass songs. She was an extremely hard-working, hard-touring, self-made performer, writer and multi-instrumentalist who influenced and even taught many peers in the old-time, bluegrass and country scene who went on to be more well-known than she did."

Laura Orshaw on Alison Brown

Elite fiddler and Po' Ramblin' Boys member Laura Orshaw studies the multi-talented Alison Brown's bluegrass blueprint.

"There's always more to learn and ways to expand and improve your musicianship," Orshaw said. "For some people, this involves overcoming stereotypes of what you and your instrument are capable of. The tough part is, sometimes it can be hard to recognize these kinds of boundaries and then have the curiosity and determination to push past them. When I need that kind of inspiration, Alison Brown is who I look to. 

"Her banjo playing combines several genres and far-reaching influences, yielding a renewed-sounding musical hybrid," Orshaw continued. "She's also a Harvard-educated MBA and co-founder of Compass Records. From her banjo playing to her music business work, she is so expertly skilled in all areas of her musical career. As a kid, I remember being mesmerized by her banjo playing on Alison Krauss's album I've Got That Old Feeling.  When I moved to Boston, I heard from local musicians about her time at Harvard and the impact she had on the New England music scene. In 2019, I got the chance to meet her when we both were playing the Mountain Stage radio show.  We introduced ourselves backstage and then she said, 'Let's play a tune', so I kicked off 'North Carolina Breakdown.'  Experiencing the power and ease of her musicianship in person brought me right back to when I first heard her recordings years earlier."

Amanda Gore on Rhonda Vincent

Bluegrass, gospel and country veteran Rhonda Vincent's a guiding light for such rising stars as the Georgia-based band leader of Amanda Gore & the Red, White & Bluegrass.

"I believe Rhonda Vincent is a true inspiration for the young women of bluegrass, like myself," Gore shared. "Every time I have seen Rhonda, she has always simply been herself. She's a wonderful singer, songwriter and person in general. I'm definitely a huge fan, and she's a big role model for me."

Brooke Aldridge on Emmylou Harris

A mix of Emmylou Harris' undeniable talent, her career longevity and her pliability to different strands of roots and country music have made her a surefire inspiration to a very broad range of artists. Take for instance Brooke Aldridge of bluegrass and gospel duo Darrin & Brooke Aldridge.

"When it comes to my biggest influence among women in music, I'd definitely have to go with Emmylou Harris," Aldridge shared. "Emmy's voice is so versatile. One minute she's singing baritone, the next she's jumping up to that high angelic tenor voice that's distinctively Emmylou. Aside from her incredible vocal range, Emmy's delivery wraps you up into a song in such a way that you feel like you're living with her in the timeless moment of the lyric. I've always loved that Emmy can sing any song, in any genre, and make it her own. Her music is so unique, so undeniably Emmylou, that she always leaves you wanting more."

AJ Lee on Sierra Hull

Blue Summit band leader AJ Lee looked to a peer when asked for a musical role model. She selected Hull: a leading force in modern bluegrass and a mandolin player in the same stratosphere as Mike Compton, Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush.

"I really admire Sierra because in my opinion, she's the best female mandolinist," Lee said. "And not even female mandolinist. She's up there with everybody, pretty much. She's a great songwriter, and not to mention, she's just a really nice, fabulous person. 

"She has a great personality," Lee continued. "She just seems so nice all the time. When you're on the road, sometimes you have bad days. At least in the times I've interacted with her, she's always been so sweet. So not only is she fantastic as a musician. I want to aspire to be like her in the sense where I always want to keep getting better. But you can just tell that she's in it because she loves it."

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