March is Women’s History Month—so let’s celebrate bluegrass music’s founding mothers! It’s hard to pinpoint the exact year when bluegrass began, but it certainly wouldn’t have been without the contribution of the earliest female performers of the nascent genre, like Mother Maybelle Carter in the 1930s and Olla Belle Reed in the 1940s. In the 1950s and 1960s, performers like Donna Stoneman, Rose Maddox, and Hazel and Alice helped cement the sound of the genre—and ensure that the female voice had a prominent place in it. In the 1970s and 1980s, some of today’s legends emerged as well—like Laurie Lewis, Claire Lynch, and Alison Brown—helping to usher in a new era of bluegrass. Enjoy this playlist of the Founding Women of Bluegrass!
Good choices David. Not trying to be “completist” about a list of women in bluegrass, but I really believe one of the early powerhouses was Molly O’Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks in the 1940s. She was a BIG star at the time, carrying a band very similar to Roy Acuff’s, plus she played some clawhammer banjo. But her singing really earned her a place of honor. Clear, trumpet-like, musical, emotional, yes all of these. But stylistically she added a little short yodel/yelp at the end of many words or phrases, that was adopted by many female country singers (and Hank Williams, and Jimmy Martin too). It made her singing even more “anguished”. She gave Mac Wiseman his first job, as her bass player. She was the first to record Hank Williams compositions. The Lilly Brothers worked for Molly before they “went bluegrass”. She recorded on Columbia. She retired from music and dedicated herself to the church in the early 1950s, and only did a couple of “comeback” records and appearances for the rest of her life.
A sample of Molly O’Day from YouTube. There is more there.