It's Festival Time!

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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!!!

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.

Ally

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
Community
Inclusivity
Courage


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.

ally
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.
 
Logo
 

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.

Now, LET'S PICK! 

Stage Fright: It Gets Better (for the most part)

 Ramblings by: Georgia McQueery

Sweaty palms. Dry mouth, tight throat. Damn those shaky hands. Flutter of the heart. Loss of appetite. Nervous twitch. Stuttering. These are not the symptoms of falling in love. No, these are the signs, among others, of stage fright. For someone who grew up in theater, circus camp (yes, I just said that. I’m a juggler, OK!), student government, someone who has made a habit of putting themselves out there and in the spotlight, realizing that I get gripped with stage fright was and still is a surprise to me. I would have thought I could parlay that inner confidence easily into playing an instrument and singing. Whether or not it is just with friends or in a jam setting, or more recently as a performance dealing with these symptoms has been no easy task.

I – well actually it was my best friend, was able to finally recognize that I had stage fright several months ago. We realized that these symptoms came about not because I would be seeing my schoolgirl crush that night. No, it was because I was nervous to play in the jam. Nervous that my voice wouldn't make pitch, nervous I would have to play songs that I didn’t know, mess up the chords. There are so many things that my brain was creating and thus creating more of these unwelcome feelings, perpetuating the whole ball of wax. And what a ball I have become.

I remember when I first started playing bluegrass, just a short four glorious years or so ago. All my natural inclinations to be in the spotlight came into play and I readily pulled at said friend’s shoestrings like a little kid… “when are we going to play out?!? Hmm? Huh?” My inhibitions and fearlessness preceded my humility, but there’s something to say about fearlessness, right? I kept telling myself this. Over time friend's reluctance (let's call it “dose of reality”) quelled my inhibitions into a realistic approach to what I had gotten myself into: becoming an adult beginner musician.

Cue the dramatic piano... du du du duuuuuuu...

The reality soon set it, the girl who had been good at nearly anything and everything as a kid and young adult now had to face the prospect of being a beginner again. I couldn't just simply be a singer and player? I had to practice, put the time in, and reap the benefits however far away they may be. But as you can imagine, the more practice time I put in, the “better” (relatively speaking) I got and it seemed the less the symptoms came out.

Practice for vocals? Step one for me was to get a lesson. Unbeknownst to me those years of karaoke DID NOT serve me well. I had someone assess my range and look for the challenges. I was given a series of vocal warm-ups that I would do occasionally. I could honestly hear and feel the difference in my vocal quality in a relatively short period of time. Along with that came more confidence on my part. I still somehow have been unable to shake that fearless [read: cheeseball class-clown] in me, so I’ve still gotten into trouble here and there.

In regards to vocals, I found that just because you like a song, doesn’t mean that a) it's easy to sing; b) it works with your range; and, c) you should sing it at all. Answering these questions have also given me the ability to sing songs that I know I can sing strongly. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to give up on songs. I’ve got a large sketchbook that I use for my song book. I dictate all the songs I learn in it, write the chords, phrasing, etc. It's like I have my own little language to understand what's going on. Anyway, sometimes I’ll look back into early parts of the book and reminded of a song that I had reluctantly given up on for whatever reason. It's nice to try it again and sometimes I’m happily surprised. Sometimes were not ready for a song. Sometimes, the song comes to us just when we need it to (which could be a whole other blog post).

Other practice techniques I’ve used would be to record myself singing a particular song. Am I singing the melody? Am I sharp or flat in places? It’s a great way to objectively hear yourself and be able to analyze it clearly. Which ultimately will give you more confidence to sing it better next time. Goodness knows in those late-night, bourbon-fueled heated jams anything can sound good to us. It’s at those times we must coil back into humility and remember that there is always work to be done!

Anyway, I digress. 

The short of it all is that the feelings of stage fright do get better, or lessen over time. Maybe not always go away, at least for me, but are not as quite apparent. I guess practice is your friend, that’s the moral of this here story. The more we practice, or shine the light on our inadequacy, the easier it is for us to see areas for growth. If we all walk around like we have nothing to learn, the world would be a dreadfully boring place.  On the flip side, I’ve learned to respect my stage fright. It's feelings like these that remind me that I am vulnerable, I’m human. So many times our ego can take control so much so that when we do have feelings like this, they can be interpreted (by the ego) as a weakness. And I don’t think that’s it. Vulnerability keeps us ready for growth, challenges us and keeps us human, we're not some fancy robot.

Need to find a Bluegrass Festival?

We're lucky to have so many quality festivals here, west of the Mississippi. Here is a compiled list of festivals in nearby states. *Handsome Ladies favorites.

California:

Blythe Bluegrass Festival  
Mid-January
Blythe, California

Brookdale Bluegrass Spring Fling
Mid-March
Pescadero, California

*Parkfield Bluegrass Festival
Early May
Parkfield, CA

Huck Finn Jubilee
Mid-June
Ontario, California

*CBA's Father's Day Bluegrass Festival
Mid-June
Grass Valley, California

Summergrass Bluegrass Music Festival
Mid-August
San Diego, California

Berkeley Old-Time Music Convention
Late Sept
Berkeley, California

*Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival
Early August
Tres Pinos, California

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Music Festival
Early October
San Francisco, CA

Other famous Nationwide festivals:

Telluride Bluegrass
Mid-July
Telluride, CO

MerleFest
Late April
Wilkesboro, North Carolina

Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival
Mid-June
Morgantown, Indiana

 

Oregon:

Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival
Early July
Fossil, Oregon

Northwest String Summit
Mid-July
North Plains, Oregon

Music in the Mountains  
Late September
Prospect, Oregon

High & Dry Bluegrass Festival
Mid-August
Bend, Oregon

Nevada:

Americana Music Festival
July
Virginia City, Nevada

Washington:

WinterGrass Bluegrass Music Festival
Late Feb
Bellevue, Washington

Wenatchee Bluegrass Festival
Mid-June
Cashmere, Washington

Winlock Pickers' Festival
Early July
Winlock, Washington 

Columbia Gorge Bluegrass Festival
Late July
Stevenson, Washington

Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival   
Mid-August
Medical Lake, Washington

Rainier Bluegrass Festival
Late August
Rainier, WA


 

J. Rose and The Product Reviews: Instrument Straps

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of luck when you’re in search of a worthy product. Other times, it takes a ton of trial and error which usually costs us unnecessary time and money. Let’s face it; the market is saturated with after thoughts, leftovers and disposable products that make it hard to sift through the muck and find the quality that we are seeking. Repeat after me: “Don’t settle". After so many bad experiences, it’s easy to surrender your standards and settle for something that is almost what you want. It’s like a romantic comedy. Don’t give up ladies! Your guitar strap is out there somewhere, you just need to find it. The importance of good guitar strap can sometimes be lost in the shuffle. What makes a guitar strap good? When choosing a product, it’s important to prioritize your needs in order of importance. 

Function first.

Does the product do what it is made to do? While this may seem simple, it’s amazing how many products sacrifice function in order to achieve other design goals. 

Design second.

Does the product look good in your world? This is the fun part. Finding a guitar strap that somehow helps you to express yourself as a musician, but also as a woman is incredibly important. We need pattern, texture, and style choices to aid in our ensemble.

Price third. 

Is the price right for you? This is a hard one to keep at the bottom of your list, but in my experience, it is best to find the middle ground when considering dollar signs. Keep in mind that this goes both ways. Of course, we all want a sale price, but at what cost? Be careful not to trade function for a discount. You’re not shopping for a sale, you’re shopping for a specific item. That being said, remember to be a smart consumer. If it happens that you find everything you’ve ever wanted, but the price is way more than you can afford, then there’s only one option: Sleep on it. If you can’t stop thinking about it, then chances are it will be worth every penny.  

HandmadeStraps

Brand / Function / Design / Price

COUCH    
The vinyl that is used on the retro style is too slippery. My guitar was sliding around like a fish out of water. // Creative designs with fun patterns and lots of retro fabric choices (even if they are all too slick to keep your instrument in place) // $34-$54

Handmade Straps        
Total function and seriously comfortable! // Most straps are made to order with options to add a pick pouch. // Lots of different pattern, color and width choices. Also, they’re handmade in Nashville, TN. // $45-$76

COPPERPEACE        
Functional and unique! // The sequined banjo strap is all the rage amongst The Handsome Ladies! // Check it out here // $98 (free shipping)

Bluegrass Instrument Roles

It's a good idea to know your cooking utensils, having the right one for the right job! It's the same in bluegrass. We each have our own instrumental shoes to fill. Here's a quick guide to each instrument's role in bluegrass. Take a look and see what your own strengths and areas of improvement may be. It's also good to see what instruments compliment each other.

The Role of Each Instrument in Bluegrass (borrowed from Jack Tuttle)

Banjo
Known for its machine gun like stream of notes that provides much of the “drive” in bluegrass, especially on fast pieces. 5th string (G) is used as a drone. Lots of chordal arpeggios surround melody notes made up of hammers, slides and pull-offs. Syncopation is very common. Breaks are occasionally played up the neck. Sometimes duplicates the mandolin offbeat by vamping closed chords during backup, but often plays backup in a similar style to lead to impart the drive. Relentlessly puts fills in vocal holes. Earl Scruggs is God. 

Mandolin  
Lots of blues influences in solos. Sometimes leads are played in a closed chordal position. Often repetitive notes are played with movement on the offbeat. Quarter and eighth note triplets are common. Tremolo is common on slow pieces. Mostly chops on the offbeat during backup, with occasional extra upstroke hits just ahead of the offbeat. Occasionally fills in the vocal holes on fast songs, but does it more often on slow songs. Most essential ideas come from Bill Monroe. 

Guitar 
Solos are optional – not regularly done until the 1960’s. Solos are often based less on a melody than the other instruments. Rhythm playing features bass runs and fills, especially G runs at every opportunity. Very dynamic strumming with surprisingly quiet normal strumming but very aggressive swells at the end of lines. Some players use highly syncopated bass runs. Tony Rice is the major influence since the 70’s. 

Fiddle
Solos are a mix of double-stops, slides and fast single noting. Traditionally it follows a melody of a song for the first three lines, yet with lots of blues imparted into it, and then departs from the melody on the last line. It fills actively in the vocal holes at times, and sometimes adds a texture right along with vocals. Frequently though, it is silent during backup, or perhaps vamps percussively on the offbeats. No one fiddler has been able to dominate historically, but Stuart Duncan does now. 

Bass 
Good groove for bluegrass usually involves fairly simple bass lines – root, 5th alternating on downbeats. Bass runs connect one chord to another. In the early days, bassists tried way too hard to walk. Now, walking is left for bouncy numbers with a swing feel, or to change the texture of a song especially during instrumental breaks. Solos are rare but do happen, and usually involve some slapping. There has been some acceptance of electric bass in bluegrass. Rock steady timing is the key for good bass playing. Howard Watts, sometimes known as  “Cedric Rainwater” is considered the first great bluegrass bass player. 

Dobro 
The least common bluegrass instrument. Generally uses lots of slides, hammers-ons and banjo-like rolls. On slow songs it tends to play lots of chordal movements. On fast songs, it tends to play very dynamic, highly punctuated phrases. Fills more actively on slow songs and often vamps on the off-beat or is silent. Josh Graves was the only guy for awhile, but in the 1970’s Jerry Douglas became the man. 

Vocals 
Singing is usually pitched in a high key to create an almost uncomfortable tension. Long held notes are often slid into from below. Most good singers today use lots of quick vocal turns. Vibrato is seldom used. Falsetto is occasionally used. Typically, verses are sung solo and choruses are harmonized with two or three parts. The most common harmony is a tenor part above the melody and a baritone part below. Gospel songs have the most elaborate vocal arrangements -- often 4 parts (an added bass part). 

Tempos for bluegrass range from slow waltzes to very fast 2/4 time. The slowest speed would be quarter note = 85 bpm (beats per minute) and the fastest I’ve ever measured (2/4) would be quarter note = 195 bpm, but this is unusual and extreme.