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.

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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.