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! 

A Page Turner

Yennie Dee Brecheisen

The first few chapters can make or break most books. If they don’t succeed in peeking your interest, you may never come to find how the story ends. It has been in the works for some time, getting our latest two chapters up in running in Seattle and Nashville. Delicate clippings that were each very carefuslly rooted in their new towns. Our budding organization is building upon a rich history and we want to turn the pages, chapter by chapter, taking all of you with us!

The Handsome Ladies Seattle Chapter

Join in every 3rd Monday at Al's Tavern.

Before I could think about starting a new chapter, I knew I needed to get to know my new community. I wanted to see where this new chapter might fit in. Was the need there? As it turned out, there was a definite need and with the help and support of some of my new picking buddies, we found a local bar that was really enthusiastic about the idea of a monthly ladies jam. Jackpot! We just hosted our second ladies jam last week and like the first, it was a total success.  My immediate concern was attendance, but it was packed.  There have been new faces at every jam and tons of positive feedback.  Thanks for letting us in Seattle!  
— Gina Astesana

The Handsome Ladies Nashville Chapter

Message for details!

I knew I wanted to start up a Nashville Handsome Ladies chapter since the moment I got to town. At the same time, I wanted it to develop organically, and adapt to the local Nashville flavor.  I started frequenting other local jams, like the American Legion jam in East Nashville, Bluegrass shows at the Station Inn, and music camps like Megan Lynch’s Bluegrass Banjo camp, to integrate myself into the community. I wasn’t shy about mentioning the Handsome Ladies but wanted to be respectful too and let the interest develop on its own. In time I had a few new pickin’ girlfriends who were expressing interest in co-hosting Handsome Ladies Jams with me. I reached out to a few local teachers like Megan Lynch, Clelia Stefanini, Eric Frey, Sandy Conaster, and Bethany Olds, who graciously helped spread the word of our first jam, which happened in July to great success. Our next jam is coming up next week, August 29th. I’m thrilled to see such a positive reception from locals here and look forward to seeing our local presence grow.
— Michelle Haft

Not to fear, The Handsome Ladies in the Bay Area is still thriving with a 3rd Monday monthly jam at our favorite local bluegrass haunt, Amnesia, which turned two last May, and a more intimate private jam in Berkeley. 

Packed House Jam in Berkeley

Join in every 2nd Tuesday.


As we spread the mission of The Handsome Ladies with these new chapters, we are humbled by the dedication of everyone to hone their bluegrass skills, thankful for our welcoming communities, and empowered to keep growing to serve all the women pickers out there while participating in the broader bluegrass community as a whole. 

While I’m on the topic of serving the greater bluegrass community, I’d like to take a moment to let you know that both Jessica Furui and I are running for the board of the California Bluegrass Association! While Jessica is a current board member, doing fabulous work, this is my inaugural run and I hope to join the ranks of this long standing organization. I encourage all of our California locals to:

  1.  Consider becoming a CBA member, if you are not already - join here
  2.  Read the candidate statements of those running for the board
  3.  Last but not least, participate by casting your VOTE!

Let's Pick! 

Bluegrass Harmony: The Final Frontier

By Jessica Furui

This past Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival was the first time I successfully sang a decent tenor to anything. And wow! Keith Little was right when he said “it's the most fun you can have with someone with your clothes on.” This past festival was my fifth year and to be quite honest I thought being able to get the tenor would be much easier than it was. But considering it took me a few years to actually sing the right note, sing on pitch, sing songs that were good for me, etc...I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Oh my darling best friend Gina, oh how she kindly tolerated me.

It's the most fun you can have with someone with your clothes on.


I’ve had excellent times singing lead with others singing tenor or baritone parts. When its on, the buzz appears...the vibes between you and them. But that buzz feels totally different when you’re doing the tenor part. Though it’s kind of hard to explain. The incredible thing is that if you get off it for just a split second the buzz goes away but will quickly return when the notes are right once more. It is definitely one of the most incredible feelings I’ve been humble enough to experience in my thirty-some-odd years on this planet. It’s no wonder I see my friends and heroes smiling at each one another as they sing. It's so much fun! And it’s definitely no wonder that people like myself can get goose bumps, chills or even shed a lonesome tear when the harmonies cut like that. 
It’s been a rough road for me though. Being in jams, especially the more intimate ones with close friends. Someone calls a song and the race is on to see who calls the tenor, then perhaps the baritone. The song is sung and I’m there listening with great pleasure, yet there is a deep longing in my heart to be one of those harmony parts. Like when you’re at the school dance and you know you can (kind of) dance but you’re a little shy and goofy, and alas, you’re there at the edge of the room watching everyone else dance, laugh and smile. Ugh. I’m having a good time, really I am. But the longing of being able to sing together like that is deep and wide as the Mississippi herself.
Here I am, five years into the bluegrass life and I’m starting to crack the code of harmony. Everyone I’ve ever asked has basically given me the same answer: listen to the music. And listen I do! But I’m also a visual learner so I felt like I needed some kind of reference and never could find one. The whole “third above,” “fifth below,” or whatever-it-is business never made any sense to me anyway. I realized - finally - that I was trying to find that part too high above the lead. 

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my trials and tribulations it's that if you want to try and sing the tenor part you’ve got to know the lead, by George! Facial expressions are hilariously telling non-verbal communications to you that you are either totally nailing the harmony or completely not-nailing the harmony. Makes me laugh when I think of the times I’ve tried to sing a harmony part and the corner of the other singers mouth crinkles up a little bit, or their eyes wince, or perhaps they’ve even gone so far as to slightly back away from my enthusiastic attempt. On the flip side, as a wobbly lead singer it can be very difficult to stay on the lead or even sing the song if the harmony singer doesn't a) know the words; b) sings a different version; or c) isn't hitting the right harmony note. There are so many things happening! Playing an instrument is one thing. Adding vocals, a whole other thing. Then try to sing with others!! Wow. Try to do all that well and you're onto something.
But, oh, the feeling when you see the singer’s eyes light up. Their smile beams brighter, they slightly lean in closer. That is what its all about, people. That is what we’re talking about! The buzz does its thing and both people seem to float a little above the ground for a moment in time. One of my favorite moments from this past Father’s Day Fest was when dear Gina and I stole away for a few hours to play some songs together. She called I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, a song that I call myself and in the same key. So it came time and I sang with her and I sang the right part. She started smiling so much that she could barely sing the song any more. And if I remember correctly we both started laughing that we had to stop the song. The look on her face was of the surprised proud parent/thank-the-good-lord-this-is-finally-happening look – it was awesome.

Here are a few tips that I've picked up in my quest to find the Final Frontier. Mind you I have not yet conquered, just paid a quick visit. But these are some tidbits I've pick up along the way.

  • Know the song first. If you kind of know the harmony part, it's quite alright for you to go over it a bit with the lead before the song starts. This is somewhat dependent on the situation, of course. But if you don't know the song or the part, it might be best to let someone else do it. 
  • Make eye contact with the lead and follow their phrasing. If they are doing a different version than you're used to perhaps wait to become acquainted with their version before launching into the harmony part.
  •  In jam settings, have people call the harmony parts rather than several people singing together. The folks singing together will have a better chance to hear themselves in order to put their best effort forward. 
  • Take heed to the nonverbal communication going on and listen to yourself. That said don't give up and have fun!

Here’s to more singin’! Thanks for reading. I'll leave you with some of my favorite songs:

Festival Magic

 By J. Rose


It was August 2016. I had recently moved to the Pacific Northwest and was making my way to all of the Bluegrass festivals that I could. Being the new girl in the scene was proving to be harder than I thought.  Back home, in California, I knew everyone or at least knew their faces. Bluegrass festivals were like reunions. Festival friendships would pick right back up where they had left off the year before. I knew who I wanted to pick with and where to find them. I expected that finding my place in this new community would take a while and most days, I was up for the task, but I couldn’t help but feel homesick.   

Like an angel in a Stetson, my best friend had flown in for the weekend and we were on our way to the Mount St. Helens Bluegrass Festival in Toledo, Washington. Two of our favorite California bands were scheduled to perform, so the whole place was peppered with familiar faces. I welcomed the comfort of my long lost community and settled into the sunny weekend at the local fairgrounds. One lovely festival afternoon, I heard that one of my new friends had been looking for me. “Did Jay find you?” someone asked. I had met Jay at our camp the day before.  He had been showing off a picture of his sailboat to my fellow campers and introduced himself.  He was an older fella with white hair and a kind smile. Jay walked with a cane and a limp, and not a single thought about why he should slow down. He and I hit it off immediately. I wondered what his inquiry could have been about.

Later on, that day, as the sun was shining sideways and the pine trees cast their lengthened shadows, I spotted Jay and asked him why he had been looking for me. “Gina!” he exclaimed as he hurried over. “Did you meet the young lady?” “Which young lady?” I asked wondering who he might be referring to. “Anna” he replied without hesitating. “She lives in Seattle and I told her that you guys need to meet.”  During our conversation the day before, Jay had learned that I was new to Seattle and being the thoughtful and smart man that he was, knew that Anna and I needed to meet. “What does she look like,” I asked, not having any idea who he was talking about. He described her hair color, shirt color, and even added that she was wearing cowboy boots and carrying a fiddle. “Hmm,” I said, “I haven’t seen her, but I’ll keep my eye out for her. Jay was not ready to give up. He began leading me through the different camps as he dodged the fallen pine cones and added to the story of how he had met Anna and where he thought she might be. 

After about ten minutes, I started to feel a little bad that poor Jay was walking all over the place for me and assured him that I would keep my eyes out for her. Just then, Jay flagged down a passing golf cart. The driver pulled over with a smile and we all introduced ourselves. Before I knew it, Jay was sitting in the front seat holding his cane in his lap, I was in the back seat and just like that, we were all on the mission together. Jay described Anna’s outfit and hair color to his friend and directed our route, gesturing with the top of his cane. The two of them made small talk as we scooted around the festival. I’m pretty sure we could have walked faster than the cart was moving, but our new friend explained that “he didn’t want no one falling out now.” I laughed out loud, but cut it short when I realized he was serious. Everyone that we passed waved and smiled and for a moment, I felt a little less lost. It was a perfect summer night.

We had made our way to the main stage where the golf cart was no longer permitted. Still feeling the need to let Jay off the hook, I quickly assured him that I would find her, but he wouldn’t have it. I fanatically thanked my new friend for the ride before he drove away into the sunset. Jay and I stood on the outskirts of the lawn and scanned the crowd for Anna. There in a clearing between two tall pine trees, across the crowd, I spotted a young gal with blonde hair and a green shirt standing by herself.  “Is that her Jay!?” I exclaimed squeezing his forearm. He looked in the direction that I was pointing and after a couple of seconds, said: “that’s her alright” and took off.  We both walked up to the cowboy boot wearin’ fiddle player with intention. Anna, a bit surprised by the sudden company, held out her hand and smiled as Jay introduced us.  Before we finished our introductions, Jay had already begun to make his way back through the crowd of people.  Apparently, he knew that was all we needed. I paused and yelled after him, “Thank you, Jay!”

Anna and I found a place to sit in the grass and began to chat while the rest of the crowd watched the band that was on stage. We both shared the short version of our current stories and talked about how we had come to be bluegrassers. Anna had already heard about The Handsome Ladies and I elaborated with excitement. Then, with equal excitement,  she began to explain how she and some other Seattle ladies had decided to start a ladies only jam. The first one had happened just a couple of weeks earlier... and just like that, in the setting sun of a Toledo August night, I had found my new community. 

Music Camps: Pitfalls, Highlights, and Everything in Between

By Michelle Haft

Music camps are by nature a gamble: you have upwards of 10-20 students in a class each at different playing levels, with their own competing musical priorities and all fighting to divert the teacher’s attention to their topics of choice. Unless the teacher brings in a very structured lesson plan— they don’t always do—they are looking to the students to help guide them. It can be a recipe for disaster. But it can also be incredible: when the chemistry in the classroom is great, the teacher is reading the room perfectly, and you can feel yourself and the people around you becoming better players in real-time. Or when you're exhausted from the late-night jamming the night before but at the same time high on adrenaline from the new lick you finally were able to pull off after years of trying. Some of my best periods of growth were immediately following a music camp experience.

One thing that makes camps such a wonderful opportunity is the access to such a wide variety of talented teachers, together in the same place at one moment in time. The purpose of camps is broad exposure—from the many different playing styles of the teachers, to lightly touching on many different topics during class time—that each help you identify where you have room to grow. Once you get home from camp you can dive more deeply into specific topics, ideally in private lessons with a teacher.  But during camp, its all about the high energy, the variety, the packed schedule and lots and lots of playing time. 

Having been to a handful of camps now, I've learned some things about how to come in better-prepared, steer clear of common pitfalls and maximize the experience. I'll give you an example of a less successful camp experience. A few years ago at a small one-day music camp I learned all about a topic I cared little about: nail maintenance. I was in the clawhammer banjo workshop in one of those small, bungalow-style classrooms with low ceilings and a steady hum of fluorescent lighting overhead. About seven or so students gathered around the teacher, a fantastic clawhammer banjo player, listening intently as he introduced the song we would be learning. But when a student raised their hand and asked a question about how to maintain healthy nails for playing, we spiraled into a 20 minute conversation about protein nail polish, nail-cutting, and cuticle health. It wasn’t until about 40 minutes into our 1-hour workshop that we actually started playing the song.

I confess, I was frustrated by the end of the lesson. I felt we had squandered an opportunity to learn something of greater substance from this wonderful player during this limited hour. But after some time I realized I had in fact learned an incredibly valuable lesson— that music camps (and playing in general) takes patience, empathy, and a willingness to speak up when necessary. Ultimately, the vast majority of my music camp experiences have been incredible. Below are a few tips I'd like to share to help any of you that are considering investing in a music camp experience in the near future, in hopes that you'll find the experience as valuable as I have. 

Elevating the class beyond the lowest common denominator

In any music camp classroom, even ones where levels are clearly defined, you’re always going to have a mix of more beginner and more advanced players. There's a natural tendency for the teacher to lower the level of the class to the most beginner person in the room so they don’t feel left behind. This can be frustrating for the more advanced players, but there are healthy ways to elevate the lesson, and the first is to speak up. If the teacher doesn’t know how you’re feeling they won’t be able to react to what you need. But you need to do it respectfully and remember you're one of many—don't interrupt class in the moment or show your frustration—wait till there’s a pause or lull in the lesson and express that you would like to move onto new topic. You can also pull your instructor aside during the next break and privately let him or her know how you feel so they can be more mindful of the larger students' abilities.

At the same time, its important to be patient in those moments and remember that you were once the beginner too. In fact, you may not realize that the majority of others in the room are enjoying lingering on a certain topic, and you are in fact the minority. Tread lightly and respectfully, but express your needs. 

If you happen to be that beginner in the class, try to be respectful of others time and let the lesson flow at its natural speed, even if it feels like you're not picking up on everything. Though you may not leave each lesson with a full understanding of every single concept, you will most certainly come away with at least a few new pearls of wisdom. That’s what matters most. If you learn even one new thing you didn't know already, consider yourself one step closer to bluegrass greatness.

Temper you expectations

Music camps are by nature overwhelming and exhausting. What's more is your brain has a limited capacity for taking in new information. And yet during camp you’re being bombarded with new information for days-on-end. Remember to write things down—make a list of concepts you want to explore further, a list of songs from your jams and classes that will enable you to focus on those concepts, and record as much of the lesson as possible (just make sure to ask your instructor first if it's ok!). You’re much more likely to recall what you learned when you’re ready to practice again if you have an artifact to remind you. It helps to practice in between classes during camp and review what you learned so you can start to build muscle memory for when you come back to it later. 

Lastly, don't expect to come home immediately playing better. You'll need some time for the experience to marinate, to let all the learnings sink in. In fact, I often feel like an even worse player right after camp. But that's a false perception colored by your newly expanded field of bluegrass awareness and the fact that you've just exposed all the opportunities for personal improvement. Seize them! In the next few weeks, and with steady practice, you’ll surely feel the growth—how it's just a little bit easier to pull of that difficult lick, how much faster if was to pick up that new song. 

A bluegrass smörgåsbord

As mentioned, one thing that makes camps such a wonderful opportunity is the access to such a wide variety of talented teachers, together in the same place at the same time. My advice: don't bind yourself to one instructor during camp. Though you might be signed up to a specific group (i.e. intermediate banjo), which usually means a few days with the same teacher, try out the other instructors at every opportunity during electives! You may love one instructor's playing style, but find another's teaching style a much better fit to your style of learning. You'll benefit more from jumping around to different classes when you can, and see which teachers you gel with best. This is also a great way to find new private lesson instructors for once camp is over. 

Sleep is for Sunday

Camp isn’t just about class-time only, it’s also about rubbing elbows with some of the best musicians in the business and meeting like-minded individuals who could be future playing parters. So don’t be shy during camp, get out there and be friendly with your classmates. Take full advantage of the late night jams and playing with your peers in between class time—it's just as important as the structured lessons. It's a chance for you to practice what you learned and build muscle memory for new skills. Just remember, you can catch up on sleep on Sunday night after camp is over.

Getting friendly with your instructor is a different situation, you have to tread lightly and respect their time. Remember, while camp is all fun for you, its still work for them. The best way to get friendly with your instructors is during appropriate down-time: ask questions during breaks, chat with them after class or during elective jams. Be yourself, and be genuine. Don't take it personally if they need to leave to prepare for their next class or steal some precious down time. Also, a great way to show your support and affection is by buying their swag and albums.



To sum it up, there is so much to be gained from music camps if you come into it with the right mindset and tools. Being out of your element and totally immersed in the bluegrass community for days at a time is such a rewarding experience that is so worth the investment. Despite a few camp hiccups along the way, like the time our tent almost blew away during a gnarly storm at Walker Creek Music Camp, I've come to appreciate all things music camps have to offer. I hope each of you takes the plunge and tries a music camp in your playing future. You won't regret it. Happy camping!