by Vickie Posey
In the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the heroine says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Her point is that her love, Romeo, is still the same person despite the fact that his last name is Montague, the family with whom Juliet’s family has had a long-standing feud. She is trying to convince herself that a name doesn’t matter. But we all know it does.
In 2018, my daughter Lee Pike, and I started the Raleigh chapter of “The Handsome Ladies,” an organization supporting women in bluegrass. From the beginning, I wondered about the name, how it came about, but didn’t ask. From the beginning, Lee and I both liked the name but didn’t know exactly why. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of the usually male adjective “handsome” alongside the usually feminine noun “ladies.” We’ve gotten lots of questions about the name, Handsome Ladies. My own mother loved the idea of a women’s bluegrass group but questioned the name. “I’ve always used the word “handsome” with men,” she told me. Exactly, I thought. The name makes you think. At our first all-inclusive jam, one of our older male friends searched for the right term and then said, “It’s ‘The Pretty Women, right?” Nope.
Finally, in the fall, during IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) week in Raleigh, Lee and I were able to get some insight into the name when Gina (one of the co-founders), and Jill (a board member) came to town. Lee and I had both talked, skyped, and communicated with Gina a number of times, but had never met her. We had seen Jill’s picture and read about her from the Handsome Ladies website. But, this year for the first time, as part of their plan for diversity, IBMA sponsored Handsome Ladies along with Bluegrass Pride, and Gina and Jill came to Raleigh. So, Lee and I finally met these two incredible women, and one of our first questions was about the name, “Handsome Ladies.”
Like lots of good names, this one came up and just seemed right. Gina told us that after a group of women had a jam, they felt so good about playing together that they wanted to form a group and had to come up with a name. When someone mentioned “Handsome Ladies,” they decided to go with it. Lee and I talked with Gina and Jill about the idea of “handsome” meaning more than just appearance. The first definition listed in most dictionaries does relate to appearance: “having an attractive, well-proportioned, and imposing appearance, suggestive of health and strength; good-looking: a handsome boy; a handsome couple.” But there are other aspects of the definition: “ample, gracious, generous, graceful.” The Oxford dictionary defines handsome as “striking, imposing” and mentions “dignity” as one aspect of the word. As Lee and I talked with Gina and Jill, we agreed that the name had something to do with behaving in a “handsome” manner. “What would a handsome lady” do in this situation?
The name, “Handsome Ladies” also has an air of nostalgia, something that fits right in with the bluegrass world that values tradition. In a time even more nostalgic, Jane Austen used the term “handsome” frequently. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy refers to Elizabeth Bennett as “handsome,” and Austen uses the term to describe both male and female characters, as well as houses and rooms. During Jane Austen’s time, and until the twentieth century, the word “handsome” was commonly used to describe women as well as men.
Lee and I embraced the name, “Handsome Ladies,” and came to understand it much more during IBMA in Raleigh. First of all, we met Gina and Jill, two very “handsome” ladies who represent the organization but also the philosophy behind the name. Later that night, we had a magical experience when the final act of the night came onstage. It was certainly the highlight for us. The group was composed of women who were the first to win “best of” bluegrass awards for their instruments: Becky Buller, fiddle; Molly Tuttle, guitar; Missy Raines, bass; Sierra Hull, mandolin; and Alison Brown, banjo. One thing that struck me was that these awards were so long in coming, several in the last few years. I did a little research and learned that the first woman to ever win one of these bluegrass awards was Louise Scruggs, wife of Earl, who won for managing, not for playing or singing. While she certainly deserved the award, I thought it ironic that the first IBMA award for a woman was one for supporting a man in pursuing his art.
The group onstage that night was called, “First Ladies of Bluegrass.” Another group of “ladies,” I thought. After a long day, Lee and I sat in the Red Hat amphitheater under a clear black sky filled with stars and were thrilled to witness the enormous talent of these women. But there was more. One of our favorite singers, Gillian Welch, came out toward the end, one of two special guest stars. She joked with the band and the audience that she’d never played so fast. Finally, Rhiannon Giddens, the second special guest, came on stage and said that she’d had a vision about singing with these women, doing a sort of chant or round from one of her songs, “At the Purchaser’s Option.” Lee and I were familiar with the song, one from her “Freedom Highway” CD. Its title comes from an ad, reproduced as part of the CD cover, and is from the time of slavery. It advertises a 22-year-old woman who is for sale. Then it says, “She has a child about 9 months old, which will be at the purchaser’s option.”
As the night at Red Hat cooled, Lee and I wrapped up, waited for the final songs, and thought about the week of IBMA. We also thought about issues in our nation that week which included hearings about sexual abuse. It had been an exhilarating week but also a challenging one. Then Rhiannon Giddens began to sing with the other women. Over and over, the voices said, “You can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul.” Lee and I looked at each other, knowing that we were witnessing something extraordinary. What a blessing, I thought, to be there at that moment, sitting beside my daughter. And we knew that those women onstage were “handsome ladies” indeed.