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.