The Great Equalizer

Anna Culver

Often when playing music, I am struck by how sharing music with one another mimics conversation or the range of human vocal expression. As well as the range in human experience. Tonalities of instruments, including the voice, often mimic tonalities of speaking, crying, laughing, moaning. When making music with others, we communicate with one another as in deep conversation. We sing songs with themes of heartbreak, loss, joy, hardship.

One thing I appreciate about bluegrass is how our culture of jamming and collective music-making helps us learn to be better musical “conversationalists.” We learn to be better listeners, we learn to help each other shine, we bond over harmony-singing, we are humbled by the great equalizer that is playing music in a group setting. The practice of strong respectful connection is, at its best, at the heart of jam etiquette.

I’m also struck by how, just like in everyday conversations, musical settings sometimes exhibit unhealthy or unhelpful communication as well. Too often, in “regular life” or in music, this unhelpful communication falls along categories of privilege and oppression. Just like we talk over each other, we sometimes play over each other. Just like we so often value talking over listening, we also forget the vitally important role listening plays in music-making. Just like already-marginalized voices are more likely to be unheard, passed over, minimized, not listened to, the same is far too often true in group musical settings.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the tools often discussed in nonmusical settings for encouraging connection across difference, and noticing any parallels with music. I got to thinking in particular about “community agreements” that are set in some social justice communities that I’ve been involved with at different times to establish norms of behavior.

Here’s a list of community agreements I found from the Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (I highly recommend checking out their website at; it’s full of useful content!):

Here’s some community agreements that can be helpful in meetings, to get you thinking:

ONE DIVA, ONE MIC Please, one person speak at a time. (It can also be useful to ask people to leave space in between speakers, for those who need more time to process words, or are less comfortable fighting for airtime in a conversation.)

NO ONE KNOWS EVERYTHING; TOGETHER WE KNOW A LOT This means we all get to practice being humble, because we have something to learn from everyone in the room. It also means we all have a responsibility to share what we know, as well as our question, so that others may learn from us.

MOVE UP, MOVE UP If you’re someone who tends to not speak a lot, please move up into a role of speaking more. If you tend to speak a lot, please move up into a role of listening more. This is a twist on the on the more commonly heard “step up, step back.” The “up/up” confirms that in both experiences, growth is happening. (You don’t go “back” by learning to be a better listener.) Saying “move” instead of “step” recognizes that not everyone can step.

WE CAN’T BE ARTICULATE ALL THE TIME As much as we’d like, we just can’t. Often people feel hesitant to participate in a workshop or meeting for fear of “messing up” or stumbling over their words. We want everyone to feel comfortable participating, even if you can’t be as articulate as you’d like.

BE AWARE OF TIME This is helpful for your facilitator, and helps to respect everyone’s time and commitment. Please come back on time from breaks, and refrain from speaking in long monologues...

BE CURIOUS We make better decisions when we approach our problems and challenges with questions (“What if we…?”) and curiosity. Allow space for play, curiosity, and creative thinking.

NOTE: There’s a few community agreements that participants often bring up that we don’t tend to use or bring with us. Two of the most common ones are “assume best intentions” and “default to trust.” The reason we don’t use these is because when someone is unable to do this (say they’re feeling untrusting of someone, or unsafe), having a community agreement telling to do so isn’t going to change anything. Put short, these agreements aren’t always possible, especially when we take into consideration that when people have been harmed by sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, they/we build up necessary tools to take care of and protect themselves/ourselves. Agreements we offer instead that capture the spirit of these are “we can’t be articulate all the time,” “be generous with each other,” or “this is a space for learning.”

(Source for this worksheet: x)

Looking at this list, I’m reminded of jam etiquette and the community agreements we have as bluegrassers. I’m reminded of our own norms of behavior. And also, this list speaks to other dynamics that go unchecked in any group setting, including music. It seems to me that anti-oppressive behavior is highly related to practicing good jam etiquette.

As we work to create more inclusive musical spaces, at jams and elsewhere, how can we make our bluegrass etiquette specifically anti-oppressive? What are ways that we can practice some of these skills and stick up for one another when we are in a musical setting? How do we respond when we get skipped in a jam? When we witness another woman getting skipped in a jam? How do we ensure women or other marginalized groups aren’t carrying the burden of responsibility for addressing these questions? How do we include this in the jam etiquette conversation?

Bluegrass has set a powerful precedent for democratization, for fostering good listening skills, for teaching how to play music with others, for gathering with others to connect over a song, for community-building. When navigating our questions, we can look to these values and see that we all have a place at the table—or we should, and it’s something worth fighting for.

Handsome Ladies—What’s in a Name?

by Vickie Posey

In the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the heroine says, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Her point is that her love, Romeo, is still the same person despite the fact that his last name is Montague, the family with whom Juliet’s family has had a long-standing feud.  She is trying to convince herself that a name doesn’t matter.  But we all know it does. 


In 2018, my daughter Lee Pike, and I started the Raleigh chapter of “The Handsome Ladies,” an organization supporting women in bluegrass.  From the beginning, I wondered about the name, how it came about, but didn’t ask.  From the beginning, Lee and I both liked the name but didn’t know exactly why.  Maybe it was the juxtaposition of the usually male adjective “handsome” alongside the usually feminine noun “ladies.”  We’ve gotten lots of questions about the name, Handsome Ladies.  My own mother loved the idea of a women’s bluegrass group but questioned the name.  “I’ve always used the word “handsome” with men,” she told me.  Exactly, I thought. The name makes you think.  At our first all-inclusive jam, one of our older male friends searched for the right term and then said, “It’s ‘The Pretty Women, right?” Nope. 

Finally, in the fall, during IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) week in Raleigh, Lee and I were able to get some insight into the name when Gina (one of the co-founders), and Jill (a board member) came to town. Lee and I had both talked, skyped, and communicated with Gina a number of times, but had never met her. We had seen Jill’s picture and read about her from the Handsome Ladies website.  But, this year for the first time, as part of their plan for diversity, IBMA sponsored Handsome Ladies along with Bluegrass Pride, and Gina and Jill came to Raleigh.  So, Lee and I finally met these two incredible women, and one of our first questions was about the name, “Handsome Ladies.” 

Like lots of good names, this one came up and just seemed right.  Gina told us that after a group of women had a jam, they felt so good about playing together that they wanted to form a group and had to come up with a name.  When someone mentioned “Handsome Ladies,” they decided to go with it.  Lee and I talked with Gina and Jill about the idea of “handsome” meaning more than just appearance.  The first definition listed in most dictionaries does relate to appearance:  “having an attractive, well-proportioned, and imposing appearance, suggestive of health and strength; good-looking:  a handsome boy; a handsome couple.”  But there are other aspects of the definition: “ample, gracious, generous, graceful.”  The Oxford dictionary defines handsome as “striking, imposing” and mentions “dignity” as one aspect of the word.  As Lee and I talked with Gina and Jill, we agreed that the name had something to do with behaving in a “handsome” manner.  “What would a handsome lady” do in this situation?

The name, “Handsome Ladies” also has an air of nostalgia, something that fits right in with the bluegrass world that values tradition.  In a time even more nostalgic, Jane Austen used the term “handsome” frequently.  In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy refers to Elizabeth Bennett as “handsome,” and Austen uses the term to describe both male and female characters, as well as houses and rooms.  During Jane Austen’s time, and until the twentieth century, the word “handsome” was commonly used to describe women as well as men. 

Lee and I embraced the name, “Handsome Ladies,” and came to understand it much more during IBMA in Raleigh.  First of all, we met Gina and Jill, two very “handsome” ladies who represent the organization but also the philosophy behind the name.  Later that night, we had a magical experience when the final act of the night came onstage.  It was certainly the highlight for us.  The group was composed of women who were the first to win “best of” bluegrass awards for their instruments:  Becky Buller, fiddle; Molly Tuttle, guitar; Missy Raines, bass; Sierra Hull, mandolin; and Alison Brown, banjo.  One thing that struck me was that these awards were so long in coming, several in the last few years.  I did a little research and learned that the first woman to ever win one of these bluegrass awards was Louise Scruggs, wife of Earl, who won for managing, not for playing or singing.  While she certainly deserved the award, I thought it ironic that the first IBMA award for a woman was one for supporting a man in pursuing his art.

The group onstage that night was called, “First Ladies of Bluegrass.”  Another group of “ladies,” I thought.  After a long day, Lee and I sat in the Red Hat amphitheater under a clear black sky filled with stars and were thrilled to witness the enormous talent of these women. But there was more.  One of our favorite singers, Gillian Welch, came out toward the end, one of two special guest stars.  She joked with the band and the audience that she’d never played so fast.  Finally, Rhiannon Giddens, the second special guest, came on stage and said that she’d had a vision about singing with these women, doing a sort of chant or round from one of her songs, “At the Purchaser’s Option.”  Lee and I were familiar with the song, one from her “Freedom Highway” CD.  Its title comes from an ad, reproduced as part of the CD cover, and is from the time of slavery.  It advertises a 22-year-old woman who is for sale.  Then it says, “She has a child about 9 months old, which will be at the purchaser’s option.” 

As the night at Red Hat cooled, Lee and I wrapped up, waited for the final songs, and thought about the week of IBMA.  We also thought about issues in our nation that week which included hearings about sexual abuse.  It had been an exhilarating week but also a challenging one.  Then Rhiannon Giddens began to sing with the other women. Over and over, the voices said, “You can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul.”  Lee and I looked at each other, knowing that we were witnessing something extraordinary.  What a blessing, I thought, to be there at that moment, sitting beside my daughter.  And we knew that those women onstage were “handsome ladies” indeed.   

When only women are in the circle

by Claire Levine

Years ago, I would occasionally go to a small jam at a local pub. I was a pretty solid rhythm guitar player, could sing ok (at least as well as any of the guys), could nail the tenor parts and knew jam etiquette. I was usually the only woman in the group.

After a while, I stopped going. I told a friend who regularly attended that jam that I felt invisible. Whether it was because I didn’t take leads or because I was a woman or maybe I just wasn’t good enough, I felt like I never got acknowledged.

My friend said, “No, it’s not any of that. We (men) never acknowledge each other, either.”

That was a big learning for me. It played into some other things I was learning about gender differences. (Around that time, I friend told me how much he enjoyed the previous night’s poker game. I asked what was so great about it, and he said, “Nobody talked. We just played poker.” Ugh. Sounded awful to me.)

I’ve been reading that one of the things that discourages women from pursuing physics and engineering careers is a lack of feedback and acknowledgement. Their male colleagues, bosses and professors don’t expect to receive these things from each other, so they don’t bother providing this soft stuff to women. And too often, highly skilled, intelligent women assume that because they’re not getting positive encouragement and support, they must be inadequate.

Back to jamming: All these years after I stopped attending that jam, I have more confidence, some more instrumental skills, and a wonderful musical partner (male) who is super supportive. I find myself in lots of mixed jams. But sometimes, I just want to play with other women. 

What draws many people to bluegrass is the opportunity to sit down with other people – anywhere on the globe – and share a Bill Monroe song. While for Monroe, bluegrass was for making money, most of us amateurs see music as a social activity, hearkening back to when people used to play with their families on the front porch.

But unlike other social activities, playing music with other people means you’re often ripping open your chest and exposing your heart, your nervous system and every neurosis you have to the people in the circle. Jamming is not for the faint of heart.

In general, I find that women are more conscious of these social – and vaguely frightening – aspects of jamming than are men.  When we jam together, we’re more likely to compliment each other, to ask questions about the source of the music, to suggest going over a song a second time or working out the harmonies. 

In short, it’s often much more interactive, much more collaborative – and for me, often more fun. There’s usually more giggling, sometimes some crying, and frequent hugging upon arrival and departure.

Over the years, I have come to know many male musicians who made it a point to encourage women. The late Chick Rose, who started one of the early Portland jam classes, used to prepare individualized tapes of songs by female vocalists that he thought his women students might like to learn. Since Chick passed, I have met a number of men who set about to help women become full participants in bluegrass.

And the nature of jamming has changed. Male-only jams are a lot less common, and there are lots more opportunities for musicians of different levels to jam.

But still, sometimes nothing will sooth my soul like singing with other women.

This is far from bluegrass, but I want to share this clip with you.  I love it not only because of the song and the quality of the musicianship, but for the joy on these women’s faces.  They are loving the music – and to me it seems they are loving singing with each other.

I hope you enjoy it – and are having as much fun with Handsome Ladies jams as I am.

Handsome Ladies Boston: How to Avoid Being a Jam Buster

by Cindy Thames, Chapter Ambassador, Boston, MA

Joe Val workshop jambuster skit

Joe Val workshop jambuster skit

Few of us were born knowing the ways of bluegrass jamming. Many of us learned the hard way—by being jambusters. Usually no one tells us explicitly what we’ve done wrong, but we kind of get the idea and then we are a little embarrassed. But we come back because it’s so much fun and everyone is very nice. Maybe at one point we Google “bluegrass jamming” and find something by Pete Wernick on Dr. Banjo’s site or the Etiquette page on The Handsome Ladies site and daylight dawns over Marblehead, as we say in eastern Massachusetts.

The Handsome Ladies of the Boston area conducted a Workshop Jam at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, in part because our jam at JamVember attracted quite a few people who were new to the concept. We figured, although none of us have been to Harvard, except to busk, that we were qualified to do some educating. But no one wanted to sit up front and lecture. So we decided to do a Jam Buster skit, to illustrate how to do bluegrass jamming wrong. The following is our script, with the swearing edited out. 

At the end of the script is a key to the Buster moves and a list of others not covered. By the way, when the skit was over we had a fun jam!

The Jam Buster Hat

The Jam Buster Hat


Cindy: Let’s start with Pancho and Lefty. I think I do it in G. [starts strumming, joined by mando, fiddle, guitar, bass and loud out-of-tune banjo]

Cindy [looking at Colleen]: What on earth is that?!

Colleen: Oops! I forgot to tune.

Fran: Give her the Buster hat!

[Colleen puts on hat and tunes. Cindy starts strumming and singing Pancho and Lefty. After two lines hits chords that don’t work with melody and starts garbling the lyrics. Stops and looks around as everyone else quits playing.]

Cindy: That’s all I know. Does anyone else know this song?

[Colleen hands over the Buster hat.]

Gwen: Pancho and Lefty is not even a bluegrass song! I’ve got a bluegrass song. How about Moonshiner. It’s in D, just 1, 4, 5. The first and last line are the same, they go 1, 4, 1 5, but in the middle it goes 1 5 1 …..

[Cindy gives Gwen the Buster hat.]

Gwen: Okay, I know. Let’s do Jambalaya. In G. Very easy, two chords, just the 1 and the 5.

[We start. Sound great! Cindy starts whacking away on a tambourine. Gwen stops playing.]

Gwen: What are you doing?

Cindy: Playing the tambourine.

Gwen: Well stop it. No percussion allowed in bluegrass! No spoons! No washboard. No bones. And certainly no tambourine! [Gives Cindy the Buster hat.]

Fran: I’d like to do All the Good Times are Past and Gone, in C. [Starts on chorus and all goes well but Natalie keeps singing loudly on the verse. Fran stops.] She’s singing on the verse! Give her the Buster hat! [Hat goes to Natalie.]

Colleen: I’d like to do Blue Ridge Cabin Home. I have music for everyone. [Starts handing out papers, the rest of us mutter and grumble. She pulls around a chair and puts her paper on it. Bends over it and starts playing and singing. We try to follow. She gets to the end of the first chorus, starts playing over the verse, then looks up surprised no one is taking a break.] Who wants to do a solo?

[Fran gives Colleen the Buster hat.]

Natalie: I’ve got a song I’d like to try. Good-Bye and So Long to You. I think I can do a kick-off. I think it’s in G. [Starts and stops and restarts.] Maybe I do it in D. [Starts again. Stops and restarts. Colleen gives her the Buster hat.]

Cindy [addressing the rest of room]: Join us if you want to! [Natalie successfully leads the song, we all play, distributing some breaks to willing players in the audience, and then we round up the circle and jam.]

Joe Val workshop jambuster skit

Joe Val workshop jambuster skit

A poster made by Jambuster Gwen

A poster made by Jambuster Gwen


Buster moves, from the top.

1.     Being out of tune.

2.     Calling a song you don’t know.

3.     Calling a song that’s hard to follow, especially if you are not playing guitar. (Gwen plays fiddle.)

4.     Playing percussion. A traditional bluegrass jam should uphold the expectations of the tradition. Arguments can and are made that Bill Monroe’s early band had Sally Ann Forrester on the accordion, but the band that defined bluegrass had five instruments: mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle, and bass. Individual jams may vary, but be wary of being *that* individual.

5.     Singing along on the verse

6.     Leading from sheet music (iPhone, etc.), especially if doing so keeps you from managing breaks. A jam should be where you bring your polished materials and push yourself free of the training wheels. 

7.     Treating a jam like a performance. The business at hand is playing music together.

Other Buster moves:

1.     Playing too loud against singer or solos.

2.     Noodling.

3.     Failing to notice that only harmony singers join the chorus in the jam you are in.

4.     Not keeping eye contact with the leader to accept or decline breaks.

5.     As leader, failing to make eye contact with players and offer breaks.

6.     Talking too much, especially about politics or showing off what you know about music.

7.     Showing off. A jam is a collaborative effort to make music, not a performance (bears repeating).

8.     Not keeping tempo (not listening to other players).

9.     Dragging or speeding.

For more about what to do right, check the Handsome Ladies etiquette page:

Wintergrass….warming up in the winter with music and friends.

by Jessica Furui

February’s event was another great time. We wonder how it ever could not be a great time!? Across the pond from Seattle, the stark winter silhouette of Bellevue offers a respite from the doldrums of winters embrace. Almost like plum blossoms whispering a breath of spring, Wintergrass is a beautiful reminder that winter is almost over and camping festival is almost here.

This year we were happy to host a meet and greet/book signing with Barbara Martin Stephens, author of “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler.” This incredible lady was Jimmy Martin’s common-law wife and mother to his children. In addition to that great feat, she was his booking agent and manager for a number of years. Oh, if the walls could talk! But we don’t need them to because she wrote an intimate memoir of her years with the self-proclaimed King of Bluegrass. Get your copy!

Barbara Martin Stephens, author of “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler.”

Barbara Martin Stephens, author of “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler.”

Our fabulous Portland ambassadors, Christine Weinmeister and Linda Levitt hosted a ladies jam in the Oregon Bluegrass Association suite. We had a lovely turnout for the jam and lots of people hanging out to observe, support and heckle. One of the most common observations about our jams is that they are well organized, open, welcoming and fun! I guess the mission is working!


Hotel festivals are an interesting type of festival. Especially this one probably because the hotel is so nice…Hyatt Regency…fancy pants! So the folks that you’re holed up with in the wee hours of the morning at camp, not having brushed teeth for 12-15 hours…well now your doing the same thing except the lighting is too bright! Random mirrors in hallways appear and all of a sudden you’re surprised by a face and realize it’s your own. Hello! 

I never tire of telling non-bluegrass people about the elevator jams. The look on their faces when I explain the premise: several people crammed inside a standard size elevator playing music together for sometimes hours at a time going up and down and up and down. I love it when you can hear the sounds getting louder and louder and the jam approaches. It’s especially hilarious when there’s a crowd of folks needing to use said elevator with an expression of both frustration and envy as they wait for another to come.


As a lover of breakfast, one of my favorite parts of hotel jams is the classic breakfast with way too much butter. Give me salt, give me coffee. Give me a Bloody Mary! And someone else can do the dishes. Which reminds me, these festivals can be more expensive than your regular camping festival, not including transportation costs. But when you take into account that you can spend a whole weekend inside playing music with your friends amongst tacky carpeting and random hallway mirrors at all hours of the day/night, getting room service (or not), watching and listening to world-class musicians, the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

If you haven’t been to Wintergrass, I highly recommend you add it to your list of winter events. But be forwarned, the fest is so popular that the special room rates will sell out within a few days of them posting the availability. You must be vigilant! The early bird gets the bluegrass worm!! 


 Other great winter hotel jams:
The Great 48 put on by the California Bluegrass Association
Joe Val Festival put on by the Boston Bluegrass Union

 Also, not strictly bluegrass but amazing nonetheless: Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Tools of the Trade

by Jill Robbins


All you really need to make some music is your instrument (and some motivation), right?!  This is true, but we’re gonna talk about some helpful tools that may make playing, practicing and learning a little bit easier.


Do you ever find yourself at a jam trying to remember the chord changes to a crooked fiddle tune? This app can help. It’s a bit pricey for an app ($12.99) but packs a lot of punch. It may be used on a phone, ipad, android or mac. Through the app, you import playlists and songs into your library. Once a song is in the library, when you access the song, it gives you the chord chart. You can easily transpose the key with a couple of clicks.

The song can be played (backing track style), and you have the option of playing the track in many different styles (bluegrass, pop, glam funk, disco, jazz, latin, etc). The tempo can be set from 40-360 beats per min, and you can control how many times the song will be played back to back.  This isn’t just for bluegrass- you can import jazz, blues, pop and rock songs also.

Personally, this app has been my cheat sheet at jams for those tunes with 1000 chord changes, and is also a great practice resource. It’s much more fun than playing along with a metronome!


Tunefox is an app/website for banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass players. All instruments are included in a subscription, which is $14.99/month. On the app are many songs and exercises, with tablature written out.

The banjo songs often include a Scruggs version, melodic version, back- up, and/or single- string version. The guitar and mandolin songs each have beginner, intermediate and advanced versions. The bass tunes have both solo and backup versions. Within the song, you can switch the licks around, play the tune with a full band or stripped down backing track, loop measures, change the key in the playback track, and you can hide some notes to help with ear training.

I have only been playing for a couple of years and still have a ton of songs to learn; I have found this app very helpful in learning new tunes, and to practice tunes I already know.

While we’re talking about practice and backing tracks, this is a website is fantastic:

Free Bluegrass Backing Tracks-

It’s so valuable, yet it’s free to use!


When I first started playing banjo, I wanted to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. I joined Tony Trishka’s Banjo School on and devoured the lessons. Artistworks is a membership based online music school. There are over 30 different music schools available, from French horn to flatpicking guitar to bluegrass banjo to drums and most instruments in between.

The teacher for each school has developed and recorded hundreds of lessons, organized from beginner to advanced. Watch the lessons at your own pace. When you are ready, you video yourself playing the song/exercise taught in the lesson, and submit it to your teacher. Within a week or two, you have a video response from the teacher.

There are also forums where you can ask the teacher questions, or connect with other members of that school. How cool that my first banjo teacher was Tony Trishka!  I give the lessons and video exchange concept a thumbs up, and really loved the fact that I could go back and watch videos over and over again for any concepts that needed to be refreshed.


I think everyone who has access to the Internet knows how much valuable content can be found on YouTube, but I thought it was worth mentioning. It is such a treat to be able to watch videos of the masters old and young playing. It’s hard to beat those old Flatt and Scruggs videos! There are some pretty good teaching videos out there, too.

Speaking of teaching videos, I’d like to give a shout out to The Murphy Method.

Here you will find instructional DVDs/digital downloads for guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo, dobro, fiddle, jamming and singing.  The Murphy Method uses no tablature; everything is taught by ear. I own several of their DVDs and have found that learning with The Murphy Method really sticks.

The Hangouts






The hangout websites are fabulous resources. There are forums, videos, user-submitted tabs, and classified sections. They are a great place to ask questions, buy or sell instruments or search for a new song to learn. Some of the sites also hold regular giveaways.

There are SOOO many websites, apps, instructional videos, podcasts out there that can help you improve or get through a jam session. I’ve mentioned only a few. What are your favorite tech tools for the bluegrass world?

Top 10 Jam Songs from 2018

by Michelle Haft

One of our Handsome Ladies jam traditions is writing down a song list of what was played and submitting it into our website. Each of our seven chapters participates in this, and over the past year we’ve documented hundreds of jam songs. We did a round up of all our jam lists across all of our chapters and pulled out the most commonly called songs of 2018. Have a look below!

Top 10 Jam Songs:

  1. Angeline the Baker

  2. Bury Me Beneath the Willow

  3. Sitting on Top of the World

  4. Your Love is Like a Flower

  5. Will the Circle be Unbroken

  6. Salt Creek

  7. Arkansas Traveler

  8. Old Joe Clark

  9. March Winds

  10. Wildwood Flower

Social Justice, Community, and Bluegrass Music

by Rachael Snyder

Anti-oppression and social justice issues have long been a part of my guiding morals. As a child of hippies, I grew up listening to Bob Dylan’s protest anthems and John Lennon’s songs of peace. (My mom was also a big fan of Dolly Parton and bluegrass, so it wasn’t all hippy-dippy rock). Music shaped my development in that I was always deeply concerned when I perceived people being treated unfairly or bullied. The political punk rock and, later, hip-hop music I listened to as a teen/young adult echoed these sentiments. Jello Biafra, The Clash and Dead Prez were able to articulate my anger at injustice in a way I didn’t know how. As I got older, I attended a hippy-dippy college and became more actively involved in anti-oppressive efforts and education. I became cognizant of the areas in which I hold privilege, and, to this day, I try to live as an ally to those who experience oppression. Music continues to be the common thread that weaves its way through my social growth.

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz

During college, I started playing guitar and got involved with musical communities. I became reacquainted with the bluegrass music of my childhood. It quickly became my very favorite music to play and sing. Initially, (and honestly sometimes even now) I had some serious internal qualms about loving a music that is so traditionally dominated by white men (despite being deeply rooted in black culture). Even still, I was drawn to the sense of community around the music. I was welcomed into jams with open arms. I formed close bonds with women in the community and was introduced to bluegrass and old-time powerhouses, like Alison Krauss, Hazel and Alice, and Ola Belle Reed. The words of these women in history and the women I connected to through bluegrass have brought me so much comfort growing into adulthood.

As I’ve become increasingly troubled by events in the news and the apparent resurgence of white nationalism in the world, I have gotten more and more uncomfortable with ideas of “traditionalism” and “the good old days”. These ideas always tend to leave out the unpleasant aspects of older times i.e. a lack of civil rights for women and minorities. I also get uncomfortable at bluegrass jams when strict adherence to “traditional” bluegrass music seems to exclude songs by women and people of color. These limitations have always been in stark contrast to the feeling of welcome that I am accustomed to. To me, the tradition of bluegrass music is the spirt of inclusion. I love bluegrass and the community of rad, radical women I have surrounded myself. I want this community to be accessible and enriched by anyone who wants it, whether or not they are represented in “traditional” bluegrass.

Over the last year or so, I have become more diligent in supporting bluegrass musicians and organizations that break that mold. I don’t get cranky when a bluegrass band incorporates clawhammer banjo (heck, Ralph Stanley himself played plenty of clawhammer banjo). I am delighted that The Handsome Ladies has a kinship with Bluegrass Pride. I love when artists like Molly Tuttle, Rhiannon Giddens (and the Carolina Chocolate Drops), Carl Johnson, and Sam Gleaves get the public recognition they deserve. Intersectionality in music communities is the key to making bluegrass accessible. That accessibility will be what ensures that bluegrass endures and continues to provide community for people, despite injustices that are occurring in the world.

Our Favorite Moments from IBMA World Of Bluegrass 2018

Jill Robbins

The Handsome Ladies felt so honored to be sponsored by IBMA (along with our buddies Bluegrass Pride) for this year’s IBMA business conference and World of Bluegrass in September in Raleigh, NC. What an event! It was The Handsome Ladies’ first year with an official presence at IBMA. We shared a booth in the expo hall with Bluegrass Pride, hosted jams and co-hosted brunch and a showcase, and spread the message of diversity and inclusion in this beautiful bluegrass world.  We loved connecting with old friends and met so many lovely new friends from all over. It was heartwarming to see that folks were very interested in our mission of supporting and encouraging women in bluegrass.

The Expo Hall

The Expo Hall

The Thursday evening Awards Show, hosted by Hot Rize, was packed with amazing music. It was such a treat to see talented ladies win awards: Molly Tuttle won Guitar Player of the Year for the second year in a row, Sierra Hull again took home the Mandolin Player of the Year, Becky Buller won Gospel Recording of the Year and Missy Raines took home Recorded Event of the Year (which included the other ladies previously mentioned plus Alison Brown). All of these ladies comprise The First Ladies of Bluegrass, who put on one heck of a show!

Molly Tuttle and Tristan Scroggins visit the booth

Molly Tuttle and Tristan Scroggins visit the booth

Banjo Player of the Year (and my banjo teacher) Ned Luberecki stops by our booth, Kara Kundert, me, Gina Astesana

Banjo Player of the Year (and my banjo teacher) Ned Luberecki stops by our booth, Kara Kundert, me, Gina Astesana

We always love an opportunity to hug Barbara Martin Stephens!

We always love an opportunity to hug Barbara Martin Stephens!


On Friday, we had the pleasure of hosting a brunch and jam in the very popular California Bluegrass Association suite with Bluegrass Pride. Everyone enjoyed some nibbles, some bubbles, and we had a great jam! It was such a pleasure for us to meet and jam with our fellow Handsome Ladies from Raleigh and Florida!

The Lonely Heartstring Band looking good in the moody lighting

The Lonely Heartstring Band looking good in the moody lighting

On Friday evening, we co-hosted a “Share the Stage” showcase with Bluegrass Pride, which was the first ever IBMA showcase highlighting LGBQT artists. The bands were amazing. The Lonely Heartstring Band kicked off the night, followed by Che Apalache (**do yourself a favor and acquaint yourself with this incredible band from Buenos Aires**) and then an all-star band (Jon Weisbeiger, Brandon Godman, Ellie Hakanson, Brian Christianson, Gina Furtado, Julie Elkins, Ben Garnett and Tristan Scroggins) closed out the evening.

After the showcase, The Handsome Ladies hosted a late night jam for the rock stars that could hang until 2am. Sadly, I don’t have any pictures, but we had a great group and a lively jam!

If you have never been to IBMA, make plans for 2019! Your bluegrass cup will be filled and refilled. Music is everywhere! I was amazed at the sheer volume of events: shows/showcases, an amazing street festival, workshops, business conference, amphitheater shows and, of course, there is picking in every nook and cranny of the hotels at all hours of the day and night! It is a very well run production, and well worth the lack of sleep.

Gina and me at our booth

Gina and me at our booth

Kara, me and Gina, celebrating our successful week!

Kara, me and Gina, celebrating our successful week!

Obligatory photo with Sir Walter Raleigh

Obligatory photo with Sir Walter Raleigh


We Belong To Each Other

Anna Culver


“You are a stranger, and you’re a pal of mine.”
-The Carter Family

In so many contexts of my life, I have come back to this value of participating in communities of women. My mother modeled it for me when I was growing up, in her tight-knit circle of women friends. It has brought so much to her life, as it has to mine. I went to a women’s college. I’ve always had close groups of women friends. I participated in a quilting circle in Virginia (all women) that influenced my perspective about so many things, from feminism to the economy to how to be there for each other to friendship. Before finding bluegrass I searched high and low for women’s harmony that hit the spot. Then bluegrass gave me that in spades. Now I’m very involved in community-building for women in bluegrass via the Handsome Ladies and the local Seattle Ladies Jam.

To be clear, “women’s community” and the word “woman” mean so many different things to different people, which is one of the things I love and value about this family of topics. Everything is a spectrum. I can only speak to my own experience and what I share here is just that. I acknowledge that my perspective is limited as a white cis woman. 

Some of the values/beliefs I have about women’s community that I find energizing:

●      There is room for all of us.

●      Making friends with another woman is my favorite antidote to imposed competition between us.

●      I believe women.

●      Women are taught from an early age to highly value relationships, but the world often devalues relationships (especially between women). Valuing relationships with other women is subversive and affirming and world-changing.

●      “Women” means all women, including trans women and women of color.

●      As women we get to create space for each other to tell the truth about our lives.

●      On boundaries: We don’t owe it to womankind to sacrifice ourselves for each other, nor would that be helpful.


Here are some of the things relationships with women have brought to my life interpersonally:

●      Laughter

●      Showing up for each other

●      Intimacy/closeness

●      Feeling seen and heard

●      Safety to be myself

●      Literal safety

 I don’t want to act out of alignment in any area of my life. If I value these things and I play music I can’t be the only one, which is somewhat of a guiding principle when I seek out community. If I’m heartbroken, I’m not the first person to feel that way, and look, here’s a heartbreaking bluegrass song I can learn that will remind me that I’m not alone in my experience. If I want women’s bluegrass community, chances are someone else does too. If I write a lyric that is truthful, chances are someone else will be able to connect to it. If we women share our truth, chances are other women will say “me too.”

I started being involved with women in bluegrass because I needed it interpersonally. I needed a refuge, and a supportive place to build my skills. And wow, it helped immensely. It was the balm to my pain. Not to be facile about a complex topic (but I also like that sometimes it feels this simple), I needed my girlfriends. But I also had valued women supporting each other, in a more macro-level idealistic way, for a long time. Actively participating in women’s bluegrass community feels so highly aligned with my values that I can’t believe how lucky I am. It feels like (and often literally is) finding harmonies with someone—there’s nothing like the magic when it clicks into place.  

Of course, it doesn’t always feel like magic, nor does it have to. Obviously, relationships are hard work. Sometimes we disagree. Sometimes we’re human and we hurt each other. Sometimes we have different ideas about what it means to support one another, or we simply miss each other. It’s important to acknowledge that all this is an ideal—I want to feel seen and heard and to feel that I belong when I am in whatever community, be it bluegrass or music or a jam or the Handsome Ladies or any other community. That doesn’t mean I always do. I still think it’s worth it. We need each other personally and professionally, and to call that baritone part.

Bluegrass, She Wrote: Pick to Live

by Gina Astesana

As we all know, it takes a certain degree of commitment to be a bluegrass picker. Firstly and most obvious, you must learn how to play a stringed instrument or five. Secondly, you must constantly be working on your repertoire which will ultimately define your tastes. Thirdly and the most rewarding in my opinion, you must be picking. Of course, there are always layers to all lifestyles, as well as different degrees to which you choose to live your lifestyle, but for a picker, life is simple.  Eat, drink, sleep, play bluegrass. Like all walks of life, men and women often have completely different experiences as pickers. Being that women find themselves a minority in the scene, it’s easy to imagine that there are certain hurdles we must overcome in order to participate. That being said, there are plenty of advantages as well.

Learning how to play an instrument is much easier said than done. In fact, it is never done, which is part of the beauty. The instrument will be undyingly committed to you and it’s role in your relationship and will require the same from you. Like any relationship, the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. It will be a constant source of grief, but at the most unexpected moments, pure joy will arise. These moments of enlightenment, when the clouds part and your new lick suddenly ends on the right beat, allowing a timely entrance back into the rhythm of the song (one of my most recent successes as a beginner guitar player), will get you through the next mesa of practice sessions. These are the times when a musician needs inspiration the most; in between the victories. These are the times when I wonder why in the haystack I didn’t start playing this instrument when I was just a little sprout? Why wasn’t guitar an option in the school band?! Lastly, how is it that all guys know how to play the guitar already!? Was this what they were doing while I was learning how to roller skate backwards or sew a scrunchie? Of course, these are both valuable skills, but could my time have been better spent?  I know these deserts of practice can bend one’s mind and so I try not to dwell on the past too much, but I do find it interesting.

A picker’s repertoire is like a disc jockey’s record collection. Each song has its place in a jam. Like any record collection, there must be a little of everything. This comes naturally, I think, as a result of life and it’s day to day, inspiring the newest song to be learned. Sometimes, it’s the weather.  Sometimes, it’s the sadness.  Sometimes, it’s a train song. Each new song becomes a personal expression (moment of silence). At any rate, the majority of traditional bluegrass was recorded by men.  During my earliest research and development as a picker, I remember wondering where all the amazing female vocalists were hiding THEIR personal expressions of “Little Cabin Home on The Hill.” Thankfully, the key of a song can be easily changed and adapted to a woman’s voice, but this makes the discovery of a female bluegrasser who can sing the song with the same veracity and tension as the founding fathers, a true inspiration. This vocal quality is what drives my own cultivation as an aspiring singer. We should also take this time to recognize how well a woman’s natural vocal range lends itself to the most ferocious of tenor parts. Like my good friend always says, “communicate the tension!”

In my experience, the best jams are woven together by an exhibition of material that when the stars align, creates a seamless journey through space and time and suddenly it’s 5am. Better said, the jam becomes a machine. The pace (not necessarily the bpm’s) stays just out of reach, as if you are all working toward the same goal. Because you are. If built well, with just the right amount of lonesome and laughing, peppered with a variety of amazing one lined zingers (which surely deserve their own article), the jam rolls on. 

Here is where the dynamics of a jam get interesting for me. In a study about men and women in group settings done at Harvard University, it was found that men and women have very different styles of participation. Surprise, surprise. In groups that were primarily men, the discussion naturally became “competitive” in nature. In groups that were primarily women, the dynamic was observed as a “a rotating and participatory style.” Verrrry interesting. Being the minority in any group can be intimidating, especially when the group seems to be “competitive in nature,” but let it be said that this might be just what you need to jump your self expression to the next level.  Like all things in life, we need balance. With the right amount of competition and rotating participation, you’d be surprised at the balance... and harmonies a jam will bring.

There are always advantages and disadvantages to any situation. Ultimately, it’s what you do with them that defines their strength. Minority or not, it’s best to just get out there. Pick, fumble, sing, learn. Bluegrass will always be there to fuel your journey as a picker. And rather than be intimidated, let’s let our shredding counterparts inspire us.  It’s all for fun anyway. Pick to live. 

Editor’s note: This column was originally published in The CBA’s April 2015 issue of The Bluegrass Breakdown. Bluegrass, She Wrote is a column dedicated to women in Bluegrass.  If you want to read more or are interested in becoming a member of the CBA, click here

Happy Picking,

J. Rose

There’s Gotta Be A Song Left to Sing…

by Rachael Snyder

I am infinitely jealous of prolific and talented songwriters. The relationship I have with my songwriting muse is a fickle one. My muse is high-maintenance, flighty and inconsistent. If there was a Tinder for songwriting muses, I’d swipe left. But, she’s who I got so I tend to her carefully and try to keep her happy.

Charles-Antoine Coypel - La Muse Calliope From Wikimedia Commons

Charles-Antoine Coypel - La Muse Calliope From Wikimedia Commons

I started writing songs relatively late in my musical life. And for that matter, I started my musical life relatively late in my life life. (Unless you count the hours I spent in my teenage years listening to angsty punk rock and mosh-pitting at local shows). I first picked up a guitar in any meaningful way when I was in college. I was volunteering in the classroom of an elementary school music teacher as part of one of my college classes. I’d always wanted to learn and I figured that if that teacher could teach second graders how to sit still and play the guitar, there might be hope for me. Luckily, I was right and I fell in love with the guitar. Shortly after that I decided to try my hand at songwriting, which I expected to pick up as naturally as I had the guitar. After several of my precious baby songs fell flat with my audience of my patient and indulgent friends, I swore off writing for good. And I was serious.

Or I WAS serious until one night in my early 30s, I had a dream about a stage full of women dressed in old timey clothes singing this tune over and over. I woke up and couldn’t get the tune or the words out of my head. I knew this was important but I sure as heck didn’t know what to do this. So, I wrote down the words and sang those 2 lines over and over until my husband threatened to file for divorce.

As it so happened, I was getting ready for my annual week of heaven at guitar camp. In the past, I had most decidedly avoided any songwriting classes. That year, however, the stars aligned and Kathy Kallick, one of my favorite bluegrassing ladies, happened to be teaching a songwriting class. I resigned myself to signing up so I could finished my damned dream song. And wouldn’t you know it, but I finished that damned dream song. And then wrote another.

Since then, I’ve taken a few other classes from Kathy and some from other songwriters. The pearl of wisdom I’m constantly reminded of is that songwriting is just like any other skill. You have to practice it. You have to take risks and fail. You have to write trite and obvious lyrics. Sure, some songwriters have a natural talent but every songwriter has a bunch of crappy songs under their belt. Some have us have written predominantly crappy songs. For every song I’m happy with, I have about five that I’m embarrassed to call my own. And five more I’m lukewarm about. And then five fragments of songs that I just can’t break through the writer’s block.

But I keep writing. I have a day job and it’s easy to get swept up in my day-to-day life and forget to carve out time for writing. To mitigate that, I have semi-monthly songwriting Skype date with two other lovely women. I often dread it and sometimes I just come with one line. Sometimes I pull out old writing prompts from Kathy’s class. Sometimes I sing nonsensical lyrics loudly in the shower. Sometimes I dissect songs written by finer writers than myself to learn the anatomy and physiology of a successful song. Sometimes I have to leave my husband to take care of the cats and head out into the wild with my guitar to summon my muse. (She almost always shows up when I ask her nicely). And just when I’m ready to swear off songwriting again, I write a gem. The feeling I get when I perform a song and someone asks me who wrote it so they can go buy a copy and I get to say it’s mine makes all the strife worth it. And of course my muse smiles smugly.

Motherhood in Bluegrass

by Michelle Haft

With Mother’s Day just a week away I find myself pondering an interesting question: Who is considered to be the mother of bluegrass? After thinking about it for a minute I decided to ask Google. It brings me to a long thread on Mandolin Cafe entitled "If Bill Monroe was the father of bluegrass, is there a mother of bluegrass?” In follows a snarky back-and-forth between a conspicuously male list of commenters who seem to be having a hard time agreeing on who this mother might be. “It's a single parent family” suggests one commenter. Rose Maddox is mentioned a few times. Maybe Mother Maybelle Carter. Hazel Dickens or Sally Ann Forrester. One commenter offers "Bill Monroe in a wig.” Not helpful.

Screen Shot 2018-05-05 at 10.05.27 PM.png

For all the good intentions of the question-asker, I start to wonder why this is such a difficult question to answer. How can such a vast history of talented female bluegrass musicians throughout the years be both respected and revered, and yet emerge without the titular roles we so readily bestow onto the men of bluegrass like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs? There are a lot of avenues to explore here in answering this but my mind keeps coming back to something I’ve been thinking a lot about myself lately: the many competing roles of women.

We are wives, mothers, musicians, sisters, daughters, friends, bosses and employees. We are strong and yet nurturing, cooperative and yet individuals. We balance the demands of our home lives with our hopes and dreams, and often those forces conflict. I imagine the great women of early bluegrass struggled with these feelings too. Perhaps their circumstances did not afford them the same choices we have today. This is not to say men do not have their struggles of identity too, yet I feel the struggles of women and the roles we play in our society are uniquely obtuse and hard to distill. Perhaps this is what renders great women without one singular defining role to go down in history.

All these questions come as I am about to take on a new role in my own life: I’m seven months pregnant with my first child. I’ve been thinking quite a lot about motherhood these days and how it’s going to affect my life. I think about it in the shower, I dream about it, and I wonder about it while I play my banjo with my son in utero probably listening in. I can’t even begin to imagine the joys that come from having children. I already love this kid so much and I haven’t even met him yet! But there’s also a lot of fear that comes with impending motherhood—fear about being a good parent, about how it will change my relationship with my husband, how it will affect my career path, and about losing my sense of self and identity.  I also fear that with the loss of precious free time—and sleep—I will lose my connection to bluegrass music.

Bluegrass has been my baby for the past eight years, filling my soul with creativity, joy and confidence. I’ve made so many meaningful connections with other players through the music community, and have grown in ways I could never have imagined. I helped found the Handsome Ladies to support a cause I that care deeply about—advancing women in bluegrass—and am proud to represent. Our baby is going to have some big shoes to fill.  

In moments like tonight’s I have to reassure myself that I have a choice not give into these fears, a choice to create the life I want for myself and my child. I have a choice to hang onto this music I love so much. While I have no doubt I will experience massive change to my lifestyle as a result of becoming a mother, it doesn’t mean I’m not a willing participant in shaping what our family’s future will look like, and even more so, what the future of women in bluegrass will look like. And I can do this while maintaining my own sense of self.

When I think about that future I want to nurture for our family, I can’t imagine bluegrass music not being a part of that. Bluegrass comes from a great tradition of folk music which has persisted throughout time by being passed down from generation-to-generation, from fathers to daughters, from mothers to sons. I want to play my banjo for my son and sing him to sleep with old Carter songs. I want him to make lifelong friends through the bluegrass community with which he will one day play in future bands. I want to pass along to him the music which has been such a gift for me.

And I want my son, unequivocally and without hesitation, to know about and celebrate the great women of bluegrass past and present who have nurtured the music along the way without the need for any titles. I hope to model that for him by being a mother in bluegrass myself. In honor of our many mothers in bluegrass—Maybelle Carter, Rose Maddox, Sally Anne Forrester, Hazel Dickens, Wilma Lee Cooper, Louise Scruggs, Bessie Lee Mauldin, Alice Gerrard, Rhonda Vincent, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, Dale Ann Bradley, Elizabeth Cotten, Ola Belle Reed, the list goes on!—I’m choosing to say goodbye to fear and hesitation and welcome motherhood with open arms.

It's Festival Time!


Ahhhhh, April…..I look forward to April every year, because…..MERLEFEST! 

I. love. this. festival

This will be my 15th year making the pilgrimage to Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC, and just like every year, I am counting the hours until I roll into the campground, get the campsite set up and get the festival times rolling.  My sister and I have claimed this weekend as our own for the past few years- we get to escape family responsibilities (5 kids between the 2 of us) for a few days, and it is glorious. 

Merlefest began in 1988 as a tribute to Merle Watson, Doc Watson’s son, who died in a farm tractor accident. That first year, the musicians volunteered their talent, and played on 2 flatbed trailers that were rigged into a stage. 

The first year was a success. The festival has grown over the years to more than 75,000 attendees. Now, that sounds like a lot of people. That is a lot of people. However, there are 13 stages spread out across the campus of Wilkes Community College, and the festival is very well-organized. I typically prefer more intimate music experiences, but Merlefest always feels like home. Everyone is so kind, and glad to be there. 

So many of the greats have graced the stages of Merlefest: Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, John Hartford, and of course, Doc himself. The festival presents “traditional plus” styles of music.  You can find bluegrass, blues, country, old-time, rock, celtic, americana- all kinds of roots musicians play Merlefest. Headliners over the years have included Dolly Parton (one of my personal faves), Willie Nelson, John Prine, Levon Helm, Bruce Hornsby, Loretta Lynn, and many, many more. Many up and coming acts are showcased also, and it is always a treat to discover a new act. With over 100 artists on the bill, there is sure to be something for everyone. I often have a hard time deciding what to see!


Me, Flattop, and Leigh, 2016

Me, Flattop, and Leigh, 2016

On Friday, you can catch the songwriter contest, chaired by Mr. Americana, Jim Lauderdale. This contest has helped fuel the careers of artists such as Gillian Welch and Tift Merritt. Every year on Saturday afternoon, The Waybacks coordinate the Hillside Album Hour. They choose a classic album and play it in its entirety on the Hillside stage, with help from many special guests. They don’t announce what they are covering ahead of time, but give fans enigmatic clues on their facebook page to get people guessing. They have covered albums such as Eat a Peach, After the Flood and Abbey Road. 

Saturday night means the Midnight Jam. This is a great show that requires a lot of stamina and enthusiasm, as it happens in the indoor seated auditorium, and dancing in the aisles is not very well tolerated. I don’t know about you, but I need to be moving (or picking) in order to stay awake past midnight! I have gone to the midnight jam several times over the years, and inevitably, no matter how enthusiastic/amazing the music on the stage, I spot people sleeping in their seats. The music is spectacular, as many musicians and bands that don’t normally play together join on stage, but make sure to have some coffee (or tequila) beforehand. 

There are many food vendors from the community and many lovely artisans selling wares, as well as  a great instrument tent. I loved strolling through last year to find Alison Brown and Cathy Fink jamming out on Old Joe Clark--for at least 10 minutes. 

Mary Gwin (4 months) and me, 2010

Mary Gwin (4 months) and me, 2010

The festival is very family friendly. I have taken a 4 month old, and a couple of years later a 3 year old and 22 month old. Kids under 12 are free. There is a kids’ area with bouncy houses, a Little Picker’s stage, a playground, plenty of open space and a Flea Circus. There is no booze sold on the festival grounds, or allowed into the festival, which tends to keep the crowds calmer. (There are restaurants nearby, or you can tailgate if you crave a frosty beverage.)

The weather can be finicky. It rains at least a little every year. Some years it rains A LOT. Preparation is key. Pitch your tents accordingly! We are amazed when a canopy makes it through a whole weekend intact:) Mostly it’s not raining and it is that beautiful spring weather we are so looking forward to. 

This year I am stoked to see some lovely Ladies on the stages: MacArthur Genius Grant Recipient Rhiannon Giddens, Alison Brown, Lindsay Lou, Abigail Washburn, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer just to name a few.  Also on my must-see list are The Kruger Brothers, The Po’ Ramblin Boys, Robin and Linda Williams, Steep Canyon Rangers with Steve Martin, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, The Cleverlys (hilarious), Jerry Douglas and Tommy Emmanuel, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Bryan Sutton, and on and on. I may just have to clone myself to catch all of these shows. 

So, see, the festival is amazing. BUT, my *most* favorite part of Merlefest is the campground hangs. I’ve camped at this sweet family owned campground, Moravian Falls Campground, most of the 15 years I’ve been to the festival. There’s a beautiful waterfall and stream, It’s not too crowded, there are bathrooms and showers, and the jamming is great. The defunct swimming pool with a slide gives it some character. There is also a fishing pond, and the office has coffee, ice and biscuits for sale- great when you’re in a pinch.

I am a fairly green picker, logging just over 18 months playing the banjo. Although I’ve been enjoying the campground jams as a spectator for many years, last year was the first year I actually joined in and jammed...totally elevating the festival experience. I’m SO looking forward to jamming with our friends and camping neighbors this year, now that I know a few more tunes:)

Also exciting on the horizon is The 1st Nashville Handsome Ladies Sadie Hawkins Pickin’ Camp Out on April 14th. What a great Merlefest warm-up and opportunity to dust off the camping equipment! 

Do you have festival plans this year? What are your favorites?

If you’re also going to Merlefest, get in touch and LET”S PICK!!!

Neurotransmitters and Music

Anna Culver

These days I have grown increasingly interested in mental health and music’s role in affecting mental well-being. I’m fascinated by the idea that what goes on in our mental or emotional life is also a physical, biological process, and that these areas that we normally see as separate (mental, physical) are actually linked or even part of the same system. Psychologists say that everything psychological is biological. And every thought we have occurs in our neurocircuitry.

It’s worth mentioning that I am not a doctor or trained as a scientist. But as an inquisitive person, and as someone who anecdotally knows how music (and particularly playing music with others) has affected my life positively, I find this topic so interesting and have been looking forward to exploring it here.

So what are neurotransmitters? According to the trusty Wikipedia page 1 , neurotransmitters are “chemical messengers” that “transmit signals across a chemical synapse,” from one neuron to another neuron, muscle cell, or gland cell. There are more than 100 known neurotransmitters, but some well-known and oft-talked about examples include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin.

Our levels of different neurotransmitters have a major impact on our mental health; for example, low serotonin is correlated with depression, just as low dopamine is correlated with ADHD. Neurotransmitters have obvious implications for addiction, as well, since some substances severely spike and then crash levels of dopamine, for instance 2.

Research on music as it pertains to neurotransmitters is relatively new, but a few studies exist. For the purposes of this article (and based on available research), I’ll be focusing primarily on dopamine and oxytocin.

So first, dopamine. As a person with ADHD (and we know ADHD is common among musicians and other creative people) I am familiar with dopamine and its effect on the motivation so necessary for learning an instrument. I’m also familiar with the snowball effect that practicing music has on increasing motivation and maintaining attention and interest. So it is unsurprising to me that dopamine would be correlated with some intrinsic aspect of music.

At McGill University in 2011, a study was performed 3 to measure dopamine levels in participants as they listened to music that they enjoyed and that they felt neutral about. Using a variety of metrics such as PET scans, qualitative measures such as participants’ reports of pleasurable feeling, and also “chills” (as in the chills experienced when listening to music that moves you) this study was able to make a correlation between experiencing pleasure while listening to music, to dopamine production. But what is groundbreaking about this study is that the research found that dopamine is released often about 15 seconds before a “pleasurable” chord or sense of resolution. This speaks to something that is obvious to any musician; that music is a process of tension and resolution.

This study differentiated between two phases of dopamine production: the “wanting” phase and the “liking” phase. Or in other words, expectation and reward. Further, dopamine is highly adaptable to predictable stimuli. So the greater the anticipation, or the more unexpected the resolution/lack thereof, the greater the release of dopamine.

So for songs that hang on the V chord, or that have an unexpected turn before resolving to the I, there is a neurochemical reason why that suspension is exciting.

Now let’s get into oxytocin. This neurotransmitter is associated with social bonding and is known for being released during infant-parent bonding (in fact, recent studies have shown 4 that oxytocin is released after parent-child vocalization, not just physical contact as previously thought. After reading about oxytocin in the context of singing, I find this fascinating). Several studies have shown that oxytocin is released in group musical settings.

In a 2014 study about choral singing, oxytocin was shown to increase after group singing 5 , at a level markedly higher than after conversational chatting. Many of the study’s participants were amateur singers, many of whom had been singing non-professionally for most of their adult life. The levels of oxytocin released were not dependent on being a professional or an amateur singer. The researchers pointed out that this commitment may indicate a lasting strong social bond, which is present for singers regardless of professional ability.

Another 2015 study 6 (low sample size, but provided initial data) compared improvisational singing with arranged performances in a jazz vocal quartet. The participants were student musicians of varying skill levels, and some of them expressed that they had trouble getting into a “flow state” (i.e., lost sense of time, immersion in the present moment, effortless performance) due to not being experienced improvisors. But, the average oxytocin levels went up after improvisational singing and down after singing standard arrangements. In the discussion of this study, improvisation was framed as an interdependent activity that naturally leads to social bonding behaviors (listening, responding, eye contact, cooperation).

So. As bluegrass musicians, we get to experience social bonding whether we’re amateur or professional musicians, and our skill level at improvisation may impact our ability to “get in the flow,” but oxytocin is released at higher levels when improvising no matter what.

There’s a reason why playing music together creates such a close community. It literally has to do with chemicals in our brains. That may not sound particularly romantic, but I actually find it hopeful: music brings us together in a way that is beyond our control. Just as playing music together in a group setting such as a jam helps us bond, the tension and resolution embedded in music theory and song structure affects our brains on a chemical level, and increases our dopamine. Rad.

Music makes us healthier, happier and more connected to each other. We know this intrinsically, but it’s pretty cool to see the specifics of how music functions in our neurochemistry. I’m into it.

3. Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience (14), pp. 257-262.
4. Chanda, M.L. & Levitin, D.J. (2013). The neurochemistry of music. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(4), pp. 179-193. Pg 188.
5. Kreutz, G. (2014). Does Singing Facilitate Social Bonding? Music & Medicine Vol. 6(2), pp. 51-60.
6. Keeler, J.R., Roth, E.A., Neuser, B.L., Spitsbergen, J. M., Waters, D.J.M., & Vianney, J. (2015). The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 9(518), pp. 1-10.

News from the Seattle Chapter: SLJ vs. HL’s

by Gina Astesana
SLJ Fall '17.JPG

Upon arriving in Seattle, I was lucky enough to have been introduced to a local group called the “Seattle Ladies Jam.”  It was a fairly new, but thriving group of gals dedicated to regular ladies jams and general community support through a growing private Facebook page and a simple strategy of strength in numbers.  Sound familiar?  During those first few months in a new land, I tried to make it out to as many of the Seattle Ladies Jam (SLJ) events as I could.  I was anxious to explore my new community and found comfort in the familiar sentiment.  As a cofounder and board member of The Handsome Ladies (The HL’s), I knew that I would eventually begin taking steps toward starting a Seattle Chapter.  In order to do that, I needed to figure out where we would fit in.  As time went on, it became clear that not only was there plenty of opportunity for both organizations, but that their tandem existence would actually compliment one another.  

Because of the obvious overlap, there has been a fair amount of  confusion about the differences between the Seattle Ladies Jam and The Handsome Ladies.  See the following Q & A for some clarification!


Rachael Snyder is a Seattle local and one of the newest additions to the HL board. 
Anna Culver is a Seattle local, HL Board Member and co-founder of Seattle Ladies Jam.  
Gina Astesana is a Seattle local, co-founder and board member of The Handsome Ladies.

Find more information about all of our board members here.

Rachael:  What is the Seattle Ladies Jam, and how did it get started?

Anna:  Seattle Ladies Jam, or SLJ for short, brings women together for bluegrass jams, but it’s also a space on social media where we can share other women-centric bluegrass events or content. Right around the time I was trying to find my own niche in the bluegrass community here, a few of us had been talking about how great it would be to have a women’s jam. After we did the first one, it went so well that we kept having them. And then it just became easier to make a Facebook group, and now that group has been a way for us to connect in other ways.

Rachael:  Is it (SLJ) just bluegrass?

Anna:  SLJ was born out of the Seattle bluegrass community, but styles such as oldtime and swing are played at our jams too and are welcome.

Rachael: What kinds of things does the Seattle Ladies Jam do?

Anna:  SLJ developed organically to provide a mutual space to plan and announce all-women jams, and that’s still the main purpose. But the Facebook group in particular is used for a few different things. One of my favorite things we do is post a “song of the week” by women in bluegrass. It's been a really fun way to engage with a lineage of women artists. We also share articles, events, and shows with each other. It’s a great way to network with each other and it is a supportive atmosphere, for others too I hope.

Rachael:  What do you think are the most important differences between SLJ and The HL’s?

Gina:  The first thing that I always tell people is that The Handsome Ladies is specifically Bluegrass while SLJ welcomes all genres.  That’s the simple answer.  Secondly, when it comes to jams, SLJ jams can be hosted anywhere by anyone while HL jams must be hosted by a board appointed Ambassador.  Also, Handsome Ladies jams work hard to uphold standard bluegrass jam etiquette while SLJ jams are more casual, less structured.  

Rachael:  How do you think the HL’s and SLJ complement one another?

Gina:  Having both organizations is incredibly convenient.  If you’re a songwriter  and you want a safe and supportive place to share your song, SLJ is there for you.  If you’re obsessed with learning bluegrass harmonies and you want to talk about The Stanley Brothers all night, there’s an HL jam that you can go to.  Also, I think that getting to experience both scenarios in a safe and inspiring way offers a unique opportunity for new players to figure out what they like or what they want to work towards.  Additionally, most players just want to get out and play and having both the HL jams and SLJ jams to choose from is always a plus.



Anna: Agreed. I think having both organizations means we have more ways to jam, more ways to connect with each other, and ultimately a great network of women musicians to pick with and get to know on a deeper level. Sometimes a private jam, like a house jam through SLJ, is exactly what I’ve been needing. And the HL jams are so empowering because of how public they are and how we take up space. I’m a better musician because of both organizations, and having that community is such a big part of it.

That’s a wrap!  Thanks to my co-writers and fellow board members, Rachael Snyder & Anna Culver.  Let’s pick! 

Gina Astesana,:  signing off. 

We are all Handsome Ladies

by: Yennie Dee Brecheisen

You Are Welcome Here.

Besides Traditional Bluegrass, Community, Inclusivity, and Courage are the foundation of our values as an organization. We envision creating a cultural shift for all individuals seeking to join our community. Bottom line, we are here for you. Join us on your bluegrass journey, no matter your identity. In this community, we are all Handsome Ladies.


Our Vision

The Handsome Ladies strives to create a cultural shift in the bluegrass community in which more women participate in and feel welcomed at bluegrass jams, and where women feel empowered to rise to their desired level of musicianship.

Our Values

Traditional Bluegrass

How Does One Say "Howdy"?

In trying to communicate our inclusive position, we decided to make our stance apparent on our homepage. This touch point is easily the first place people go looking to learn more about The Handsome Ladies. Instead of it being left to wonder, why not clearly state our positioning just as we transparently tout our Mission, Vision, and Values? If our board members can't be the first to welcome you, at least our website can attempt to do the same.

In researching LGBTQ+ symbolism, I went searching for a way to display our alliance, acceptance, and welcoming message to anyone who identifies as a woman or desires to join our community. I wasn't able to find something that I felt communicated exactly what I was looking for, but did learn a lot about LGBTQ+ symbolism along the way. I also educated myself  further with other important terms and pronouns. I hope that I have become more aware, humble, and sensitive in this process.

Left feeling unsure of how to proceed, I decided to create a unique symbol that would draw from a blend of established representations. I did this with the utmost respect for those who identify as LGBTQ+ (or any form thereof), with modest observance of my ignorance of the realities, a heart filled with good intention, and open arms. 


Here is What I have Learned and What I Drew Inspiration From

LGBT Pride Flag

It's iconic. Just about everyone knows, or think they know, what or who it represents. The The Rainbow Flag is a long-standing symbol for LGBT community, created by Gilbert Baker, who passed away earlier this year. The original rainbow flag flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978. This first version had a band of hot pink on the top, above the red band, and also a turquoise band, but were later removed.

Did you know that the colors themselves represent individual concepts/ideals?

Red = Life
Orange = Healing
Yellow = Sunlight
Green = Nature
Blue = Harmony & Peace
Purple = Spirit
rainbow flag

Straight Ally Symbolism

I adopted the Λ (lambda) form from part of the symbolism for straight allies. The lambda is a Greek letter, which stands for liberation, represents unity, energy, and light shining into the darkeness of ignorance. How beautiful is that!? It has a full Wikipedia page dedicated to its extensive symbolism and meanings throughout science and history. The lowercase lambda was adopted by Gay Activists Alliance of New York in 1970. It was a way do identify fellow activists and blend in undisturbed in a hostile community as it could be mistaken for a college fraternity symbol.

I decided to remove the black and white stripes which represent the CIS gender/straight community. I felt we did not need to make any nod that "we" were, or were not, straight. It's not about telling anyone who we may or may not be, but showing our acceptance of and being allies for the marginalized.

Throughout history, many symbols have been used to identify homosexual men and women. As you can imagine, these identifiers were not used with good intentions. There has been much work done to reclaim once derogatory symbols and terms. The LGBTQ+ community has adapted them to use as their own.

Transgender Flag

The Transgender Pride Flag was created by American trans woman Monica Helms in 1999 and was first shown at a pride parade in Phoenix in 2000.

Here is her logic in her design:

"The stripes at the top and bottom are light blue, the traditional color for baby boys. The stripes next to them are pink, the traditional color for baby girls. The stripe in the middle is white, for those who are intersex, transitioning or consider themselves having a neutral or undefined gender. The pattern is such that no matter which way you fly it, it is always correct, signifying us finding correctness in our lives”

In my new design, I altered the colors to more reflect the pastel quality of colors found in the Transgender Pride flag.

trans flag

Just a little bit more...

With a  great suggestion from someone much smarter than I (i.e. Kara Kundert, who is also killing it with all things Bluegrass Pride related) and in alignment with the original band of pink on the first pride flag, I revised my initial design to add a pink band prominently on top. Really, the icing on the cake. With all colors in place, horizontal bars were turned into a smooth gradient, changing the hard division into a soft, fluid progression through the spectrum. One where we are all welcome to reside and to take space where we see fit. 


Here is the final outcome applied to our logo:

A small, but meaningful symbol, and important stance, to all of us who run this organization.

So, did you notice the symbol and wonder what it was about? What do you think of it? I welcome you to join in the conversation here in the comments! 

**The Handsome Ladies is for all Ladies. If you see us using the capitalized form of Ladies, this is also an intentional choice. We are choosing to use the term as an inclusionary proper noun, meaning to be a member of The Handsome Ladies collective, and not as a singular or specific gender identity.



by Yennie Dee Brecheisen

I was a lucky last-minute addition to the volunteer-run CBA Suite crew this past September at IBMA. I had never been to IBMA before and wasn’t sure what could be expected. I was warned that IBMA really meant “I’ve been mostly awake”, which sure held up to be true. 

Here is a summary of my favorite moments, of too many to count, from the whirlwind week in Raleigh:

Rhiannon Giddens' Keynote address on diversity and the truth about the history of bluegrass. I was in tears for much of her moving speech. Do yourself a favor, grab a tissue and watch these important 24 minutes:



Witnessing Molly Tuttle win Guitar Player of the Year at the IBMA Awards Show (which is also known as “Bluegrass Prom”). She was the first female nominated and first to win this title. The California crowd, and women particularly, let out a joyous roar for this historic win.

Photo-bombing Darby & Molly with my IBMA twin, Kara Kundert:

Slefie Molly.JPG


The same night, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. Largely overdue, these two icons have finally been recognized for their contributions to the genre of bluegrass music. Alice even personally nodded to our #brotherinbluegrass, Justin Hiltner, about his work in the Diversity Showcase, "Shout and Shine!"

Taking this picture of three legends checking out their selfie:



Bluegrass Pride Brunch!

Representing The Handsome Ladies and Bluegrass Pride, networking with other professionals in all fields of the industry.

Both HL’s and BGP were very well received and lauded. It was fulfilling to share them with the greater bluegrass community.



Wishing that I could learn banjo by osmosis.

Taking photos with all the banjo shredders that I could find at Bluegrass Prom. Just a small sampling here:

Marc Pruett

Marc Pruett

Jereme Brown

Jereme Brown

Looking forward to next year at IBMA, you can bet that the Handsome Ladies hope to have an even greater presence with more board members in attendance. Bluegrass Pride also has intentions of keeping the Bluegrass Pride Brunch an annual event at IBMA and we may even go in cahoots and share an Expo Hall booth!

While this event can seem so far away from us here in California, I found that it’s actually another home away from home, there is always someone you know around the corner and new friends to be made. A place where you can become involved with what matters to you, one that you can make a difference in, and of course one where there is a lot of pickin’ to be done.

The one and only, Bobby Osborne

The one and only, Bobby Osborne

Beck Buller Band in the CBA Suite

Beck Buller Band in the CBA Suite

Earl's Nephew, JT Scruggs

Earl's Nephew, JT Scruggs

The CBA, the CBA’s Kids on Bluegrass, and California pickers in general, all have a great reputation at IBMA. The CBA Suite showcases at least a half dozen artists in an intimate setting, night after night. There is usually a line down the hallway as the room fills to capacity. The suite stays open for jamming until 3AM, or later, and it’s all run on well-coordinated volunteer power. If you are interested in this volunteer opportunity next year, please reach out and I can help get you in contact with the right person.

Behind the Curtain

by Michelle Haft

When I was a kid my mom once offered my sisters and I a gift—one VHS tape each of any movie we wanted. I chose The Wizard of Oz. There was a scene in it I'll never forget, in the end when Dorothy and her friends visit the Emerald City and Toto pulls back the green curtain revealing the "Wizard" as a normal middle-aged man, frantically pulling on levers to project a mystical, fiery image of himself. It taught me an important lesson about appearances—that things are often much more hectic and less glamorous on the inside as they may seem on the outside. Working for a non-profit, I find this lesson to be even more poignant than ever. 

When we first started The Handsome Ladies five years ago, it was a humble operation. We were seven founding members who met at Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, mostly all beginner players, sharing the responsibility of hosting monthly jams in our private homes. We had a small community of enthusiastic gals who wanted to participate. Our only dream then was to continue jamming amongst this small group of awesome ladies, so that we could one day become strong players like the bluegrassers we admired on stage.

Before we knew it our community of Handsome Ladies grew to hundreds of followers, so we added more frequent monthly jams including a regular spot at Amnesia, and an East Bay jam. The organization was taking on a life of its own and we decided it was time to become an official 501(c)(3) non-profit. We defined a clear mission:

Through opportunity and resources, we support and encourage women bluegrassers of all levels, promoting the advancement of the individual musician within an inspired and connected community.

And then the momentum grew.

We began hosting workshops at venues like the Freight & Salvage and guided jams at local camps like Walker Creek, Wintergrass and Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival. This year we hosted our 4th annual Sadie Hawkins picking campout in Sonoma County. Requests came in for performances at local events and on the radio so we formed a pick-up band program call The Picks, where women from our community could hone their skills at a live performance. We were invited to have a booth at Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, where we held a vintage clothing and swag sale to raise money, hosted a late-night musical showcase and had numerous jam mixers. We’re now getting into our third-annual booth at the festival next year. 

All this to say, behind the curtain of success, The Handsome Ladies is still run by a very small group of regular gals, balancing the responsibility of running a non-profit with the demands of everyday life. At the start we were each spending maybe five hours a month on operations, now it’s more like five hours a week and even more during big event weeks like Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival. None of us are getting paid a dime for this, we do it because we love it and see the positive impact of our efforts on so many women in bluegrass. It’s been incredibly rewarding for each of us to be a part of this, and we’re proud to say that 100% of the donations we receive go directly into funding org activities.

In the last six months, we’ve also had three of our original seven founding members leave the board. I want to take a moment to express some gratitude to Lucy Salcido Carter, Niki Savage, and Tonya Newstetter, who helped make The Handsome Ladies what it is today. We were sad to see them leave but understood where they were coming from. Life got busier for all of us, a few of us had weddings and got promotions in our regular jobs that required a more demanding workload. It was a big ask for any of us to keep working for free as the time-commitment to the organization increased and with it, the pressure of everyday life.

But nonetheless, our four remaining board members have risen to the challenge and have managed to keep The Handsome Ladies moving along smoothly. Sometimes we feel like the Wizard of Oz, frantically pulling on levers to keep this thing afloat, but mostly we’ve learned to work efficiently and divide and conquer the needs of our operations. As the saying goes, nothing worth doing is easy, but we also need help and we’re not afraid to admit it. 

We need to bring on another board member here at The Handsome Ladies. Interested? We’d love to hear from you! For more info about the requirements of this position, click here.

This is a call-to-action to our community:


Fast-forward to today, we recently started local Handsome Ladies chapters in two new cities, Seattle and Nashville, and are working on a pilot program for other cities who are interested in starting their own local Handsome Ladies chapters. We’ve been getting amazing press, and some of our most admired female bluegrassers actively support us. Two of our board members have also recently joined the board of the California Bluegrass Association, further solidifying our relationship to other leading bluegrass organizations. We are so humbled and ecstatic at the reaction we’ve received from the entire bluegrass community and feel a tremendous amount of gratitude to everyone that has helped us along the way. So for anyone out there who wants to be a part of this amazing organization, work alongside four hardworking, badass Handsome Ladies, and directly contribute to the success of our mission to support and encourage women bluegrassers of all levels within an inspired and connected community, the board wants to hear from you!