I wanted to mark International Women’s Day with a short salute to the many fantastically talented, powerful, independent and hard working female musicians that I know and admire. I was prompted by the emergence in recent days of a new all-female Anglo-Irish bluegrass “supergroup” Midnight Skyracer over here in the UK. I know most of the band and was aware that they were all seriously top-notch musicians, so it was no surprise to me that they would be absolutely blistering as a collective. Check out their inaugural video below!
Just as in many walks of life, women in music have often been sidelined or overlooked, or had to deal all sorts of crap that men generally aren’t subjected to. Just last week fiddle ace Laura Cortese and her band tweeted about being asked “can you play that thing?” when walking down the street with an instrument case. While bluegrass in particular has historically been male dominated (as many genres were, particularly in decades long past) recent years have seen female artists coming to prominence as some of the most celebrated talents on the broader American roots scene. Certainly some of my personal favourite artists are women – Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Brittany Haas – and that’s not for some ideological reason, it’s just that they are simply outstanding music makers.
Some of the most vibrant and interesting bands of the moment are also fronted by or feature female musicians and songwriters – Front Country, The Railsplitters, the UK’s own Jaywalkers to name a few. While it’s great to see “mixed” male/female bands, it’s still a sad reality that all-female bands are sometimes regarded as something of an oddity/novelty, and there has been extensive evidence presented that such bands are unfairly disadvantaged by programmers of festivals etc. (The “there’s already a girl band on the bill” phenomenon, when there never seems to be an equivalent “there’s already an all-male band” rule in play). I believe that this is more prevalent in the pop/rock world, and certainly my own experience of performing on the bluegrass/old time/roots scene in the UK is that bands are booked on talent and personal contact (organisers already knowing that individuals in the band can sing/play well) which leads to be a range of bands of all ages and both genders playing on festival bills. My own band The Reckless Abandoners is made up of three gals and three guys and we have an absolute hoot playing and performing together. However I have heard quite a bit of evidence of top notch pro bands like Della Mae being affected by this bias.
There’s clearly still a long way to go – the latest IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Awards in November 2016 saw female winners of the fiddle (Becky Buller) and mandolin (Sierra Hull) instrumentalist categories for the very first time. Sierra was also shortlisted for a Grammy this year, while renaissance woman Sarah Jarosz (singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist on mandolin, guitar, banjo and octave mandolin) triumphed with two Grammy Awards.
Like I said, it just so happens that many of my favourite artists and musicians are female, and in my own small way I’ll continue to champion both female and male musicians when booking bands for True North Music concerts in Yorkshire. About half of my gigs to date have featured female bands or artists, including the aforementioned Sierra Hull, Jaywalkers, Anna & Elizabeth, Jane Rothfield, The Railsplitters, April Verch and many more. I’m looking forward to more of the same in 2017 with a programme that’s shaping up nicely – four or five concerts which I can’t yet announce, but starting off with a spectacular double bill gig in Sheffield on 26th May which will feature the awesome Evie Ladin (singer, songwriter, clawhammer banjo ace and step dancer) with her duo partner Keith Terry, as well as male-female quartet Foghorn Stringband with Nadine Landry on double bass and vocals and Reeb Willms on guitar and vocals. I’m looking forward to that one immensely and to soaking up the music of all the band members. It’s all about quality music at the end of the day. Women music makers, I salute you!