Bluegrass Pride

By Tonya Newstetter

The rainy days of January have continued into February, and as I look out the window onto the misty hills of Oakland, I am more grateful than ever for the bluegrass community. Here in the Bay Area, our days are filled with news of protests, frustration, and hurt at the recent and ongoing political events. I turn to bluegrass, as many of you do, to remind myself of the love and creativity that is humanity at its best.

Those good feelings were out in full force at The Great 48, a 48-hour jam/concert/workshop that takes place every year at a hotel in Bakersfield. Pickers from all over the state descended on a big, 9-floor Marriott, booking up every room and filling the hotel with bright harmonies, thumping bass, and twangy banjo. Every floor held something slightly different, and jammers of all levels found a home in a hallway, someone's hotel room, a stairwell, or the lobby. I was lucky enough to catch a seat and hear The Hossettes and The Central Valley Boys, who both performed late on a Saturday night in a jam-packed meeting room. Everyone in that hotel had a common goal: pick.all.weekend. After a gloomy January, it felt wonderful to come together with my bluegrass brothers and sisters and rejoice in the art and craft of bluegrass music.

"building a strong bluegrass community takes work"

But bluegrass music isn't just picking and singing. Building a strong bluegrass community takes work, which I witnessed at a very special California Bluegrass Association (CBA) Board of Directors Meeting held that weekend at the hotel. In addition to usual business of amending bylaws and reviewing strategy, the board (which includes our very own, very handsome Jessica Furui) heard a proposal from Bay Area CBA Rep Ted Kuster to organize a CBA float for San Francisco Pride Parade.

In a stand of solidarity with the IBMA's stated value of diversity & inclusiveness, the board voted to approve the proposal, and this June, we will proudly open our bluegrass community to the more than one million attendees at the Pride Parade! If you would like to volunteer your time, or (better yet!) make a donation to the CBA in support of these efforts, please contact Tonya Newstetter -

To me, this was a reminder that engaging deeply with your community can bring surprises and joys that you never expected, and in times of distress, this can make all the difference. 

A New Repertoire

by Jessica Furui

We all have to start somewhere and what to do when we find ourselves in a funk? My solution: new music. It can be difficult to learn new songs, let alone find new songs that you enjoy singing and playing. With this in mind I shall offer you some tips on how to add new songs to your repertoire. Truth be told, my best friend J.Rose was first to forge some of these efficient and effective habits in our new found bluegrass world. I’ve adjusted and added things to work with my own learning style and hope you find it useful.

Keep a song/lyric book.


I used a large format sketchbook and hand-number each page. The first four or five pages are left blank that will become the table of contents showing each song and its page number. When I finish this book, I’ll type up the songs in an Excel sheet and print it out alphabetically for easy reference.  For each song, I find my favorite version(s) on YouTube or in my music collection and dictate the lyrics onto the page. Sure you can look up the lyrics on helpful websites like, but dictation, either typed or written, greatly helps the way your brain remembers the song. If I get totally stumped I’ll look up the words, but this is the last resort!

Don’t forget to make note of the phrasing. It adds a dynamic quality to songs and is essential for the delivery, just take a good hard listen to Carter Stanley or Jimmy Martin. I notate this by underlining the words or parts of words that the singer will hold or phrase differently than the rest of the song. Again, this is done by listening - sometimes starting and stopping the song over and over - to correctly notate the phrasing. 


Next, you must learn the chords. After a few years in bluegrass it becomes easier to identify the chord structure without playing or even knowing the song. I found it good practice at the beginning of my bluegrass life to try and figure out the chord changes with my voice and guitar. Doing this gave me a deeper understanding of the song and its chords. It can be very frustrating to call a song in a jam that no one knows (it can happen!) and you don’t know how to explain the chords. Of course, it’s possible to incorrectly identify the chord(s), so once finished it’s important to play the song or use internet information to confirm, but your ear will be your friend. A quick suggestion, to make best use of time I recommend either learning the words to the song first, then learning the chords or melody on your instrument, or visa versa. If you attempt to learn everything at the same time, it will take longer to make both sound good. 
In my songbook each page for a song will include the following: title, author, the version I like best, the key I have found to be most comfortable and the date the song was entered into the book. I love going back and discovering songs that were a little too big for me at the time or just reminding me of the ones that had been forgotten. After a lifetime of bluegrass, I wonder how many songs I’ll forget!

Bring a small notebook to jams and camps.

You can use it to write down song titles that you heard and want to “steal” from your friend. I always have a section that is riddled with cheeky one-liners and the names of the person who said them. It’s really fun to go back through after the weekend, it’s like a mini scrapbook. I’ll then add the new song titles into my songbook and make time to do the work and learn them. I prefer to use this method rather than “pulling out the phone” all the time to make a note. But to each their own!

Keep rotating your music selection.

First thing’s first….don’t expect to learn a song if you don’t listen to it! Each song has a heart-center that, when not connected to, can make the song lifeless, linear and without soul. Therefore, I highly recommend you make a playlist with all the new songs you are either working on or want to learn. I think a friend said that it takes your mind 21 days after listening to a song to really know it. Now, am I sure this is a proven fact? No, but it sounds good and makes some kind of sense. Phrasing is vital to the delivery of most bluegrass music and the subtleties of your favorite versions can be lost if you don’t really study it by listening. Understanding phrasing will also help you to cultivate your own style of singing.


Someone once said that you shouldn’t play out what you need to practice and you need to practice what you play out. Seems simple enough. It’s really exciting to get new songs and it can be hard to keep your new gems hidden until they are really ready. A vocal mentor once said, “you’ve got to corral that horse before you can ride it,” but patience and practice will allow you to become comfortable with your choice and allow you to execute the delivery.
Bluegrass to me is all about having the most amount of fun possible as much as possible. I’ve found that having a solid repertoire will increase the fun for everyone. My bluegrass resolution for the New Year is to practice more. Like, really practice…not just sing and play guitar on my back porch. I’d also like to go back and learn some more difficult songs that I’ve put on the back burner (hello, Nashville Blues). And maybe, just maybe, I can finally understand singing tenor. Just a few small, attainable goals, no big deal. Right (wink, wink).

Wishing you a Happy New Year to you and yours.

The Bluegrass Holiday Gift Guide

by Michelle Haft

Ahhh, its that time of the year again: chestnuts roasting on an open fire, pumpkin spiced lattes, Lifetime Christmas movies specials, and holiday bluegrass jams! Trust me, nothing breaks up family-gathering awkwardness like a good bluegrass sing-a-long. As a handsome lady and fellow bluegrass lover, I know this is also the best time to stock up on bluegrass gear and accessories you’ve been coveting all year, or show your love to another fellow bluegrasser with the perfect music-related gift. 

There are so many great gift ideas out there—from the beautiful and handmade, to the clever, didn’t-realize-how-much-I-needed-it gift. So how do you pick the right gift that shows off your music savvy without falling into the realm of kitsch and impracticality? We’ve put together a list of Handsome favorites below, with an eye for style, quality, sass, and bluegrass authenticity. Whether you’re needing something to get you stage-ready for a 2017 full of gigs, or just getting your toes wet in the jamming scene, we’ve got ideas for you. Have a look below and hopefully find something you love, and wishing you all the very best of holidays and a happy New Year!

(tip: click the photos for external links!)

The Jam Queen

Copperpeace Leather Instrument Straps - $98

Handmade in Ballard, Seattle by a fellow lady-musician, Copperpeace straps are beautiful, durable and very functional. She makes her straps in a variety of styles, from Herringbone to sequins to handmade lace, and for both guitars and banjo. You can’t go wrong with these straps as a gift for yourself or a friend, and the cherry on top is their signature “Pick Pocket” built into the leather strap. 

Snark Tuner - $30

This is my absolute favorite tuner to use because the interface is so easy to read. While it is on the larger side, it also harder to lose or misplace at jams. It has a nice design, the battery is easy to replace when its running low and its very affordable.


Blue Chip Picks - $35-40

These are hands-down the best picks on the market. They feel great in your hand, silky smooth but still very grippy, have good volume, good control and a smooth tone. They’re quite durable too and stand the test of time. They make both flat picks as well as thumb picks for you banjo players.

Peghead Nation String School Online Subscription - $20/month


What better gift to give a bluegrasser than the gift of learning? Peghead Nation is a wonderful online course that has video lessons for nearly every instrument including guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, dobro, and ukulele. It features many of our favorite Bay Area teachers and HL friends, including Bill Evans, Sharon Gilchrist, Evie Ladin and more. Online subscriptions start at $20/month for one course. 

The Festival Miss

Rock mount Ranch Wear Pearl Snap Shirt - $70–100

Festivals are all about the jamming, but I’ll admit: its fun to look great while doing it. And what better way to do that than a with a pearl-snap or fringed western shirt? Rockmount Ranch Wear is a 3-generation business and purveyor of fine western-wear, all made in the USA. I love this quote coined by founder Jack A. Weil (1901 - 2008) who worked daily until age 107 years old:  ”The West is not a place, it is a state of mind.” I sure hope to be picking until age 107! They have a line of vintage-inspired western shirts which all have a beautiful and classic design and signature pearl-snap buttons. A few of my personal favorites are the "Cannabis Cowgirl,” the “Sugar Skull”, and the “Nashville Rose”.


Bluegrass Koozie - $3

Everyone needs a good koozie to keep their bevvies cold in the afternoon festival sun. Here are a few that feature bluegrass-related artwork, a perfect stocking stuffer.


Handsome Ladies koozie: available for purchase at any HL jam!

Camping Lantern - $30-50

Having good lighting is essential for late-night festival jamming. Camping lanterns are fairly inexpensive and come in so many convenient, collapsable styles that are easy to pack and very lightweight.

The Stage Gal

Music/Instrument Stand - $15-40

I recently purchased an instrument stand myself and wow, I can’t tell you how much its changed my comfort on stage. I play with two banjos so having a double-instrument stand was crucial for me to be able to set one instrument down and have easy-access to the other in between songs. Stands help reduce the amount of on-stage shuffling which helps polish overall performance and keep nerves down. You can also use a music stand on stage where to place lyric sheets and accessories like tuners and picks when you’re not using them. Here is a great guide to finding the right on-stage instrument stand below, a link to the double-stand I bought (guitar stands can be used interchangeable for banjos), and a music stand that collapses into a carrying bag for portability.

Ear Trumpet Labs Microphone - $600

This one is expensive, but if you’re looking to splurge this is SO SO worth it as a band investment. Ear Trumpet Labs makes some of the most gorgeous, hand-made microphones that combine state-of-the-art sound quality with a beautiful, vintage design. Joseph and I recently got one ourselves, and we absolutely LOVE it. It’s great for ensuring a consistent sound quality on stage and has been so handy for recordings around the house or studio to use for band promotion. There mics come in a nice portable metal, padded box with a handle so its easy to carry around to gigs. 

We got the Myrtle, which is best for small acoustic ensembles: 

Lots to Learn

by J. Rose

As musicians, beginners or not, we all know that learning to play an instrument is a labor of love. Not only does it take hours of practice and dedication, but it takes infinitely more hours and dedication than we thought it would. Throughout the years, there have been plenty of discouraging studies to show the drawbacks of being an adult learner, but in more recent years, researchers have uncovered new truths about the adult mind and how it learns new things. It’s not that it’s too late for a person to learn, it’s just that we need to go about it differently than a child would. It’s a bit funny if you think about it. We adults need to relearn how to learn before we learn.


As adults, we are used to applying the same principles to an unknown set of skills that we have used our whole lives. We have developed processes rooted in our life experience. For instance, we have all had to learn the ins and outs of a new job or even find our way around the new interface on our smartphone, but these skills do not fall in the same category as learning a new instrument. As you might remember from high school psychology class, researchers have identified 3 main learning domains:

Cognitive: mental skills (knowledge)

Affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (attitude or self)

Psychomotor: manual or physical skills (skills)

We can thank the Affective domain for the urge to play the instrument and the Cognitive domain for remembering the notes of the chords and where they are located on the fretboard, but it’s the Psychomotor domain that is tasked with learning the most important part of playing an instrument: Technique, precision, and speed. These skills (Psychomotor domain) can only be learned through practice and repetition. This is where the most obvious difference between children and adult learners is exposed. Because children are constantly faced with learning new physical skills that require hand/eye and hand/ear coordination, their Psychomotor domain is more active. As adults, our priorities shift and our lives tend to require more cognitive and affective tasks such as learning facts and figures and understanding our emotions. We spend the majority of our time gaining knowledge and mental skills. The good news? Our brains are like any muscle. The more we exercise the Psychomotor domain, the stronger it gets. In other words, while we can’t rush the process, it will eventually get faster.  

We’ve all heard the expression “ten thousand hours.” Anders Ericsson, a cognitive therapist, coined this term during his research on psychological expertise and human performance. Ericsson defines two prerequisites when developing a skill; ten thousand hours and practice. There are three identified types of practice concerning Psychomotor learning.


Deliberate practice targets a student’s weaknesses. Ericsson credits “deliberate practice” over "number of hours." This entails focusing on a specific tune or lick and slowly working through each hand position or strum until you can play it slowly, but completely. This type of session should be fairly short and with full concentration. If you find that your mind is wandering, then put down the instrument and come back later. A wandering mind will result in mistakes and it’s better to take a break from practicing than to spend time practicing mistakes. “Quality, not quantity” should be your motto for this type of practice.


Random practice is perhaps the most useful when it comes to developing our skills in any field. This is a type of hands-on practice that you experience in an environment where you are forced to make real-time decisions using the tools that you have on hand. Yep, you guessed it. Jamming is the best type of random practice you can get. Playing music with other people forces you out of your comfort zone and gives you the opportunity to apply your knowledge in order to answer any questions that might come up. “What chord is she playing?” “What key is this song in?” “Where can I play the new D-run that I was practicing yesterday?”


Blocked practice defines a type of studying that I refer to as “cramming.” Perhaps you remember studying for an exam using flashcards or simply repeating the information back to yourself over and over again. As we all know, this type of practice is great for short term memorization, but how much of the information on those flashcards do you still remember? This type of practice will not pay off in the long run and should probably be left for your history final.

Expert or not, it always helps to understand what’s going on behind the scenes when we are taking on a new task. Additionally, it’s a good idea to have a plan when efficiency is the goal. Take a minute to decide what things you need to work on in your next practice session. Try to employ Ericsson’s tips for Deliberate practice and then put yourself to the test and see if you can play your new lick or tune during Random practice. If you can’t find the time to make it to the local jam, you might try playing along with an original recording which will force you to play it up to speed as well as learn what areas you might need to work on. Mike Stahlman, a west coast banjo player, music teacher and flight instructor explains how jamming with other people will build your Psychomotor skills faster than anything else, “My observation over the many years of being around bluegrass music is that people who jam get better and people who don’t, don’t.” In other words, let's pick!


“My observation over the many years of being around bluegrass music is that people who jam get better and people who don’t, don’t.” 

Note: For further reading on this subject, check out Gary Marcus’ book, Guitar Zero, The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age.



Finding My Voice Through Bluegrass Singing

By Lucy Ann

For years I was scared to sing out loudly and clearly. And for years I was scared to speak at big parties or important work meetings or to make presentations in front of big audiences.

By working on my bluegrass lead and harmony singing, I’ve strengthened my voice and become a better singer and a better public speaker.

I’ve learned the hard way that fear can silence you. When I let my terror take over, my throat tightens, my jaw freezes, and my breathing gets shallow—all deadly conditions for trying to sing or speak with conviction, confidence, and clarity.

I finally got tired of wanting to share, through my singing or speaking, an important message and being too terrified to do it. I had to get over myself, in a way, and realize that I would not die from being heard and that, in any case, the messages I wanted to share were worth taking that imagined risk.

Bluegrass music is full of important messages and stories so worth the telling. Take the bluegrass classic, “Dream of a Miner’s Child,” for example. The child in that story is pleading with her father to stay home from the mine, to try to save his life from what she dreams will be a mining disaster. Her message is a matter of life and death.

Take “Sweet Sunny South,” or “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” or the numerous other bluegrass songs about home place. They tell of the deep longing and nostalgia for roots, and the sorrowful loss of a place that can never be as it was in memories. Take “Ashes of Love” and the countless other broken-heart tunes that share a theme common to all human experience, the theme of love gone bad or lost. All convey vital human stories.

In my day job, I am the policy director at an innocence project. Our work of freeing innocent people from prison and improving the criminal justice system is also a matter of life and death. This very meaningful work drives me to get over my fears and to speak up about what is wrong and what needs to be fixed to make things right.

Singing bluegrass has helped me speak up more clearly and effectively about these important themes. I was on two live television shows last year, talking about the work I do, and I did just fine. I got the information out there and survived. 

I’m lucky to share a home with a gifted singer who has patiently encouraged me to sing strongly and loudly. I’ve learned that I can shift my attention off the fear and onto the vital message or story I’m trying to convey. I can pay attention to how I’m using my mouth, my sinuses, my vocal chords, my diaphragm and my breath to get the sound out. I picture images in my head that are based on the lyrics I am singing. I focus on feeling what I’m trying to convey rather than on feeling the fear. I aim to hit the high notes straight on without scooping my way up to them. And if I don’t make it right on pitch, I know I won’t die—despite my fears. All these approaches help me tell the story more effectively through song and help me get my message out through public speaking, too.

Thanks to bluegrass, I am out there in the world sharing the stories I love and the messages I care about, with a strong, clear voice I never thought I’d have.

Bluegrass Takes a Village

Squinting out past the bright stage lights across the bar, I see a crowd of familiar faces smiling back at me — friends; fellow musicians; our entire community. It’s August 1st, 2016, and Joseph and I are playing a farewell show at Amnesia, a local San Francisco bar that hosts Bluegrass Mondays. In four days we would be leaving the bay area to move to Nashville.

Redwood Ramblers Farewell Show at Amnesia, SF, August 2016

Redwood Ramblers Farewell Show at Amnesia, SF, August 2016

Joseph, my husband, and I play bluegrass and old-time music together in a duo called the Family Shipp (previously the Redwood Ramblers). Our musical journey began about six years ago when I came home one day to find a banjo in my living room — a birthday gift from Joseph. I still remember the feeling of the smooth lacquered wood in my hands, the strange, hypnotic ring when I strummed the metal strings. I nearly drove Joseph mad practicing each night, but I fell in love with Bluegrass all the same. Shortly after he learned to flat-pick on guitar, then bravely took up the fiddle. I eventually learned to play old-time frailing on the banjo.

What started out as hobby for us blossomed into a lifestyle. We made friends in the music community and started jamming together. We began frequenting the bluegrass festivals and camps — Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, Portland Old-Time Gathering, and Walker Creek Music Camp. I helped found the Handsome Ladies, a non-profit supporting women in bluegrass, with seven gals who I had met through the community. Eventually Joseph and I formed the band and started performing and playing out at local venues in the city and private events.

The monthly   Handsome Ladies   jam at Amnesia, SF

The monthly Handsome Ladies jam at Amnesia, SF

In bluegrass, community is everything. I don’t just mean your fellow players but also friends and family. The former become your peers and mentors, the latter, your early fans and forgiving audiences. These are the people that help sustain your musical growth throughout the ups and downs with their support, friendship, motivation, resource-sharing and camaraderie.

Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, 2015

Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, 2015

Bluegrass music is inherently social, its roots stemming from community dances and social gatherings. Unlike any other genre, most of the fans of this music are equally well-versed in the playing. At Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, the most prominent northern California gathering, festival-goers come to partake in communal late-night jamming as much as they come for the polished stage acts. Camping in the tall pines of Grass Valley, CA, you can hear the fiddles howling and banjos rolling until sunrise.

There’s little fame or fortune to be found in playing bluegrass. Most players are in it for the community and for the love of the music. Amateur musicians (and some professionals) often have days jobs that pay the bills, while the music provides passion and personal fulfillment. Through this devoted network of bluegrass music-lovers, players like Joseph and I are able to learn etiquette, build repertoire and get exposure to new techniques. Musicians you idolize became teachers and inevitably, friends. Friends become bandmates, singing partners and musical collaborators.

People in the scene socialize frequently around the music, providing a wealth of opportunity for practice and bringing more fun into the playing. People teach each other the history behind songs, socialize new artists and highlight older, forgotten artists. These social events became a gauge for your playing progress and give much-needed motivation, especially during plateaus in growth when there’s temptation to give up.

If you were traveling to a new country, you would probably read about the local culture and history, learn some of the language and visit their cafe’s and restaurants to meet locals. Learning bluegrass music is very much the same. If there’s only one piece of advice I could give to anyone who is just breaking into bluegrass it is to find and immerse yourself into the community. Seek out local jams, go to the live bluegrass shows and learn about the festivals and music camps. Introduce your family and friends to the music so they can better understand your enthusiasm and support you down the line.

After nearly seven years in San Francisco and an epic musical journey, it was time for Joseph and I to leave. It wasn’t that we had outgrown the city but rather, the lifestyle we wanted was no longer feasible there. We were ready to settle down, buy a home, make a family and seek a new quality of life. Moving to a new city is hard, but by far the most difficult part of leaving is saying goodbye to the community we had spent years building and nurturing, one we love and cherish like family.

Joseph and Michelle

Joseph and Michelle

But as a testament to the strength of these relationships, we are already being welcomed into the Nashville bluegrass scene through the connections of bay area friends. And even better, these new mutual friendships help us feel even more connected to our old friends.

At our farewell show — the culmination of our time playing in San Francisco — the impact of seeing our entire community standing before us like this, cheering for us on this unexceptional Monday evening, was overwhelming. If it weren’t for this group of wonderful people, we would undoubtedly never have made it this far. And in this new chapter, wherever the music takes us, we will always have them to thank.

Michelle Haft


Coming to Bluegrass

Each of us has a unique story for how we found our way to bluegrass music, the instruments that speak to us, what sub-genres we cling to, and where those paths will continue to take us. Some are in the infancy stages, while others have been around to bear witness to bluegrass history. My path is that of one with fresh green sprouting grass, but growing in knowledge, participation, and enthusiasm. I’d like to invite you to share your “coming to bluegrass” story, in the comments of this blog!

I can trace my first bites of bluegrass back to three particular albums that I was heavily listening to nearly 6 years ago. I sure didn't know what was about to take hold of my life. (Click the album covers for a listen.)

1. The Byrds
Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

2. John Hartford

3. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band
the mountain

These three albums stood out of all the other classic country and American that I was listening to at the time. For those familiar, can you see how those albums might stand out? Whether the album was light or heavy in doses of it, the banjo took hold of me.

When you get a hankerin' for the banjo, you will soon become familiar with one man in particular: Banjo God-to-the-Gods, Earl Scruggs. With such charm, that smile, and a cool reserve picking the hell out of his axe, I was quick to be smitten with him and the five string. I wanted to absorb all that I could regarding the history and the sound, and I knew that I had to learn to play it, too.

Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs

Since my early foray into bluegrass banjo, my tastes have grown but also stayed pretty limited in the grand scope of the bluegrass genre. I’m a traditionalist through and through, preferring Scruggs and Stanley style, paired with the traditional harmonizing style, over just about anything else. I flat out don’t have the time or the taste to venture into melodic style banjo or progressive bluegrass. My main focus is learning what I obsessively listen to.

Today, any one of my heavily rotated playlists almost solely contains: Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers/Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, J.D. Crowe and the Bluegrass Album Band, Bill Monroe, Reno & Smiley, Jimmy Martin, and The Vern Williams Band. I don’t need much more than those handful of names for endless listening. Not to leave out some other noted favorites: Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Red Allen, Roscoe Holcomb, High Country - you get the picture.

The sound that I first was drawn to has developed into the sound that keeps pushing me today. It’s the sound of traditional bluegrass that I am compulsively encompassed with - on the surface only to help me hear what I am driven to learn, but it truly goes deeper than that. I’m grateful to facilitate women playing bluegrass together to further their own journeys, I am grateful for the friends and bonds that I’ve created over this music of the people, and I’m grateful to tap into the knowledgeable wells of my friends with rich histories.

That’s my “Coming to Bluegrass” story. 
What’s yours?

Yennie Dee Brecheisen
(   )=====’==::


Leading Local Ladies

One of the best ways we can grow our amazing community of lady-musicians is to go out and support the women making great music right here in the bay. Here’s a survey of just a few of the amazing musicians who have released albums in the past few months who are keeping the traditional music scene relevant and exciting, and are also butt-kicking ladies. 

The Vivants


Emily Bonn has been around the folk scene in the Bay Area for years, first tearing it down with the Whoreshoes before forming her own band The Vivants. Along with bandmates Jimmy Touzel, Clare Armenate and Kalei Yamanoha they are currently touring in support of their third album “Bluegrass Special” which features traditional covers along with stellar originals.


(photo credit Alan Senauke)

(photo credit Alan Senauke)

The only thing better then ladies shredding it on fiddle and bass, and harmonizing the heck out of original and traditional songs, is when those ladies are mother and daughter. Thomsonia is a family affair with husband-wife duo Eric and Suzy Thompson playing with daughter Allegra.


Evie Ladin Band

Evie Ladin

Evie Ladin’s a banjo player, singer, dancer and squaredance caller living in Oakland, with deep roots in oldtime music and dance. Along with her bandmates Keith Terry and Erik Pearson she recently released “Jump the Fire,” which is a mellow, soulful mix of traditionals and originals.

Front Country

front country

Melody Walker is a powerhouse singer and songwriter, and along with Jacob Groopman, Adam Roszkiewicz, Leif Karlstrom and Jeremy Darrow has just released “Mixtape.” Featuring covers  ranging from women-in-bluegrass pioneers Good Ol’ Persons to indie contemporary tUnE-yArDs.

Front Country

Kathy Kallick Band

Kathy Kallick Band

A bluegrass legend, Kathy Kallick has been playing in bands, including the groundbreaking Good Ol’ Persons, since 1975. She has recently released “Foxhounds” with bandmates Annie Staninec, Cary Black, Greg Booth, and Tom Bekeny.


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.


Blythe Bluegrass Festival  
Blythe, California

Brookdale Bluegrass Spring Fling
Pescadero, California

*Parkfield Bluegrass Festival
Early May
Parkfield, CA

Huck Finn Jubilee
Ontario, California

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

Summergrass Bluegrass Music Festival
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
Telluride, CO

Late April
Wilkesboro, North Carolina

Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival
Morgantown, Indiana



Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival
Early July
Fossil, Oregon

Northwest String Summit
North Plains, Oregon

Music in the Mountains  
Late September
Prospect, Oregon

High & Dry Bluegrass Festival
Bend, Oregon


Americana Music Festival
Virginia City, Nevada


WinterGrass Bluegrass Music Festival
Late Feb
Bellevue, Washington

Wenatchee Bluegrass Festival
Cashmere, Washington

Winlock Pickers' Festival
Early July
Winlock, Washington 

Columbia Gorge Bluegrass Festival
Late July
Stevenson, Washington

Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival   
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.  


Brand / Function / Design / Price

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

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

Bluegrass and Emotions

By Lucy Salcido Carter

One of the reasons I love bluegrass music is because the best bluegrass songs tell real stories and express real emotions. You don’t have to have experienced exactly what the song describes to be able to inhabit the song as the singer and player and to feel the emotions as the listener. You just have to have a way to get into the overall feeling of the song.

Some bluegrass musicians focus primarily on taking instrumental breaks; I focus on vocals, lyric, melody, and rhythm. Bluegrass really requires all of the above, of course. But, although I know that good instrumental breaks can hold intense emotion, for me the emotions sit in the lyrics and vocals.

When I am looking for material to lead in jams, I choose songs that I can relate to emotionally. I choose songs with stories and melodies that conjure feelings I can express when I sing them. 

Hazel Dickens, 1971

Hazel Dickens, 1971

If I’m feeling blue and nostalgic for home, I choose Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home.” If I am feeling like life is hard and full of struggle, I’ll sing “I’m Troubled, I’m Troubled.” If I’m remembering a time when my heart was broken, I’ll pull out Clyde Pitts’ and Billy Deaton’s “Sad Situation,” or if I’m feeling sad, but a little self-righteous, about a love lost, I’ll sing “I’ll Stay Around.” Or if I’m noticing how hard and comprising work life can be for family life, I’ll go for “Dream of a Miner’s Child.” 

Placing my emotions into these songs as I sing and play helps me feel better and helps me sing and play with more depth and conviction. Have you noticed how raw Hazel Dickens sounds when she sings? She isn’t affecting feelings; she’s feeling feelings as she sings. With some bluegrass musicians, male or female, I can’t feel the raw emotions as they sing and play. The bluegrass style is there, but the depth of emotion doesn’t seem to be there. For me, the best singers have raw emotion coming through. 

"I’ve found that bringing out the guitar and starting to sing sad songs can turn an emotionally tense situation into a calm, happy one."

I’ve also found that when I put real feelings into my singing and playing, I give listeners a place to put their feelings too. I bring a really human element to already very downhome music. In fact I’ve found that bringing out the guitar and starting to sing sad songs can turn an emotionally tense situation into a calm, happy one—as if the sad songs absorb the bad feelings in the room and make things right again.

For example, last Thanksgiving my partner and I went to visit my parents. My mother is 77 years old and was responsible for most of a Thanksgiving dinner for 18 people: the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, the twice-baked potatoes, the creamed pearl onions, and the peas. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge by itself, my mother did not grow up celebrating Thanksgiving. She grew up in Mexico and so never learned how to fix Thanksgiving meals. Over the years, she has learned American Thanksgiving traditions and tries very hard, as many immigrant parents do, to give her family and guests a perfect American holiday experience. Needless to say, things are tense in the kitchen every year on Thanksgiving as she works to get it right. Last year, we offered to help prepare the food with her, but our presence in the kitchen only made her more nervous. 

Finally, I suggested to my partner that we get out our guitars, sit in the sunroom off the kitchen (but not in the kitchen!), and sing and play for my mother. Almost immediately my mother’s mood began to change; she became happy hearing the music. She kept saying, “Oh, that’s so sad. Sing another sad one!” My father, who has learned over the years to keep his distance from the kitchen, came closer and hovered by the doorway, listening but not making his presence too obvious. 

We played only sad songs for about an hour and a half. Little by little and song by song, we felt the tension in the house lift. My mother became happy and relaxed and was happy and relaxed for the rest of the day. And her dinner was a resounding success. I can only chalk those results up to the fact that we gave her a place to put those hard, tense feelings she was experiencing. And off they came.

So next time you are at a party or home with family and things don’t feel quite right, pull out your instrument and sing with feeling and conviction those sad and lonesome bluegrass songs, and watch the mood get brighter. You’ll be warming up the room with beautiful bluegrass sounds, and you’ll be creating a place for people to put their feelings and to feel better. 

A Songwriter’s Guide to The Language of Bluegrass

Ralph Stanley, Jim Williams, Art Stamper, and Carter Stanley

Ralph Stanley, Jim Williams, Art Stamper, and Carter Stanley

“White dove will mourn in sorrow The willows will hang their heads  I’ll live my life in sorrow Since mother and daddy are dead”


When I listen to great Bluegrass songs like the Stanley Brothers’, “White Dove,” above, what captures me most is the simplicity of the language. Without flourish or fluff, great Bluegrassers can convey the most powerful, universal emotions and experiences with the most basic turns of phrase and the greatest restraint. It is only in Bluegrass music that you find such a unique blend of great artistry that is equally matched by its accessibility.

As a new bluegrass musician, I often feel the urge to create original songs myself. I’ve tried, and its hard, much harder than you would think. As a 21st century human living in a big city, how can I possibly match the simple and rich history that exists in so many bluegrass staples, honed by years of struggle, heartbreak and rural living? It’s not impossible, but it starts first with a study of the language of bluegrass.

First remember that Bluegrass songs usually tell a story, and great stories have some basic components that make them successful. Here I will cover categories like time, place, character and emotion with a few simple rules and examples within each to help guide new bluegrass songwriters. Let’s begin with time..


When it comes to setting the time or period in history of a song, the best bluegrass songs have a lack of it. The most universal songs could be set anywhere in time, whether the 1960’s or the 1660’s. Like many a train song, murder ballad, chicken song or a gospel tune, your’s should feel just as timeless and relatable to the modern day, even in another 100 years from now.

That said, times of the day are fair game! For example, phrases like “from midnight on” or a reference to the “pale moonlight” help set your story within a particular time of the day. Since the moon will alway rise at dusk and the clock will alway strike midnight, day and in and day out, setting your song in a particular time of the day is totally acceptable in bluegrass and won’t detract from the universal quality of your song.

One last example I’ll point out is the phrase “sweet by and by.” This is a common phrase used in many bluegrass songs which translates to “the future.” Referencing time in broad generalities is also very acceptable in bluegrass. A few other examples: “born in the mountain 50 years ago,” “in the sweet by and by, we shall meet” and “I have seen trouble all my days.”

Let’s move on to a new category: place.


The setting of your story is one of the most important components of a song. Remember that bluegrass songs typically are about the poor and downtrodden so you want to choose your place wisely. While you could set your story in a mansion in Bel Air, or the SOMA district of San Francisco, its best to steer clear of language that places your song in a very specific geographic location that doesn’t match typical Bluegrass subject-matter. It will make your song less accessible and quickly become outdated.

Instead, try placing your song in a more natural setting: on a hill, in a log cabin, down the road, under a tree. A few examples: “Cabin in Caroline,” “Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane,” “Under the Weeping Willow” and “Down The Road.” Referencing larger geographic regions by name, like states, counties or specific natural landmarks, is a common convention in bluegrass and also acceptable: “ Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Kentucky Waltz.” These are the kinds of places you typically see in bluegrass songs, and ones that will remain constant in past, present and future.

Like any good story, you really want to set the scene for yours. To do this, you can reference animals or plants in the environment around your song’s setting: “In The Pines”“Rabbit In A Log” or “Footprints In The Snow”. Bluegrass musician Jessica Applegate has a great blog post all about the use of birds and specifically the whippoorwill in bluegrass music.

With any great story, the more you can put your listener into the scene with natural details, the more successful your song will be. Next, we move onto character.


Whether your song is in first person or third, when it comes to bluegrass you need to make sure you know your characters: are you telling a story of a drunkard or a jealous wife? A hunter or a coal-miner? An angry father or a daughter-in-love

You’ll want to use details that help establish the personality or situation of your character. For example, the drunkard likes to “pass around the bottle” or“eat when i’m hungry, and drink when i’m dry.” The poor boy has “holes in his shoes” or works for “a dollar and a dime a day.” The rounder or criminal “had no money for to go my bail.” The lonely mother has “faded cheeks and hair”and “rocks the cradle and cries.” You can try using color to better visualize your characters: “her lily white hands,” ”sparklin’ blue eyes” or “ruby red lips.”

Bluegrass songs always have very colorful and archetypal characters. Remember to utilize language and descriptions to help bring your song’s characters to life and make them more memorable and relatable.


The final and, I believe, most important category for bluegrass songwriting is emotion. Every bluegrass song must absolutely capture a feeling that is universal to the human experience: heartbreak, loss, longing, guilt, sadness, love, or faith, to name a few. To write a bluegrass song without one of these emotions is simply not bluegrass. Let’s look at a few examples.

Sadness in is often referred to as the “blues” in bluegrass. There are all sorts of blues found throughout the music: “Lonesome Road Blues,” “Coal Miner Blues,” “Worried Man Blues,” or “Bear Creek Blues.”

Heartache is also a common theme in bluegrass songs. Whether you’re singing about the “Ashes of Love” or how “All The Good Times Are Past And Gone,” you’ll want to use simple language to help convey the depths of your sadness. A few examples: “The lonesome sound of a train going by, makes me want to stop and cry,” “there ain’t nobody gonna miss me when I’m gone,” and“I loved you long with a faithful heart, but never any more can I believe you.”

The last example I’ll touch on is faith. Much of the bluegrass tradition is steeped in religion, and many songs touch on faith as a solace to the hardships experienced in everyday life. For example “some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away, to a land on God’s celestial shore” or “may they sleep forevermore, where a white cross stands to mark the soldiers grave”or “oh bear my longing heart to Him who bled and died for me.” No matter what faith you subscribe to or lack thereof, don’t shy away from bringing in elements of religion to capture the faith of bluegrass in your song.

I’ll end with a verse from one of my favorite gospel songs: “Farther Along.” Like many other bluegrass songs, the message is so powerful and universal. It’s songs like these, rich in history and depth yet so very simple, that have made me fall in love with this music. I hope others can appreciate it too, and help carry the tradition onward through their own original songs:

“Farther along we’ll know all about it  Farther along we’ll understand why  Cheer up my brother live in the sunshine We’ll understand it all by and by”

Bill Monroe, The Father of Bluegrass, advertises his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in 1940, Poster by Hatch Show Print

Bill Monroe, The Father of Bluegrass, advertises his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in 1940, Poster by Hatch Show Print

Song References:

“White Dove” by Stanley Brothers
“All Night Long Blues” by Burnett and Rutherford (or “Richmond Blues”)
“I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” by Bill Monroe
“I’ve Endured” by Ola Belle Reed
“The Sweet By-and-By” lyrics by S. Fillmore Bennett and music by Joseph P. Webster
“Man of Constant Sorrow” by Dick Burnett
“Cabin in Caroline” by Flatt and Scruggs
“Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane” by Bill Monroe
“Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow” by The Carter Family
“Down The Road” by Flatt and Scruggs
“Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” by M. Christian
“Banks Of The Ohio” by Bill Monroe
“Kentucky Waltz” by Bill Monroe
“In The Pines” by Hoyt Bryant Jimmie Davis, Clayton McMichel
“Rabbit In A Log” by The Stanley Brothers
“Footprints In The Snow” by Bill Monroe
“Pass Around the Bottle” by The Skillet Lickers
“Rye Whisky” by Tex Ritter
“Mule Skinner Blues” by Jimmie Rodgers and George Vaughan
“Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” by Flatt and Scruggs
“The Wandering Boy” by The Carter Family
“Single Girl” by The Carter Family
“Lonesome Road Blues” by Bill Monroe
“Coal Miner’s Blues” by The Carter Family
“Worried Man Blues” by The Carter Family
“Bear Creek Blues” by The Carter Family
“Ashes of Love” by Johnnie Wright, Jim Anglin and Jack Anglin
“All The Good Times Are Past And Gone” by Bill Monroe
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams
“Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me” by McAuclife and Taylor
“Adieu, False Heart” by Arthur Smith Trio
“I’ll Fly Away” by Albert E Brumley
“A White Cross Marks the Grave” by Don McHan
“Angel Band” by The Stanley Brothers
“Farther Along” by by Rev. W. A. Fletcher


A ground nesting bird that has three sets of double letters in its name? OK, go...

The Whippoorwill. 

It also happens to be one of the most often referenced birds in the world of old-time, bluegrass and early country music. Of course there are lots of “birds,” cuckoo birds, bluebirds, blackbirds, pretty birds, little birds (birdies). But the whippoorwill is specifically mentioned in almost a dozen songs that came up on the ever-so-helpful site, BluegrassLyrics.Com. Another search on Lyrics.Net yielded sixteen pages of songs that mentioned the cherished feathered creature. I was pleased to see some of the songs had been published as recent as 2014, however the majority of them recorded and released before 1970 by known favorites such as Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers, among many others.

As a friend and I made our way through the maze of early evening traffic listening to Hylo Brown and the Timberliners, I heard the whippoorwill mentioned in a song that unfortunately now escapes my memory. But I thought at the time, “geez, the whippoorwill must be some kind of bird to be written about so much.” With the convenience of hand held technology I whipped out my phone and Googled the bird. For reasons I can’t say I assumed this bird would be, in relative terms, elegant, plump and round. Perhaps it was white with yellow feathers. A long beak. And when it spread its broad, graceful wings, you could see the sun shine through them on a warm summer day. Boy, was I wrong.

Short, sturdy legs, slight and compact body with a flattened head allow the whippoorwill to rummage through the forest floor searching for food in the leaf litter. Delights such as, but not limited to spiders, caterpillars and butterflies, have found themselves within the grasp of its short, pointed beak. Its marvelously camouflaged plumage, considering you could see it to begin with, make it easy to mistake it for a bullfrog or toad. Actually, one whippoorwill picture I found online reminded me of a beloved Panther chameleon I once owned named Athena. Mottled dark and light brown feathers with white speckles grant almost unperceivable access to the backwood treasures of the eastern forests of North America.

But it’s not the comely appearance that’s got everyone singing about it, quite the contrary. It seems that the elegance, beauty and grace of the bird are found within its lonesome song. Probably the sweetest fact I learned about the whippoorwill is that its name is actually onomatopoeia of its call. ….Whip…poor…will……. Like learning a new song, I took note of the birds phrasing. Quickly and sharply (well, like a whip, I suppose) the “whip” punches through the early morning light. Equally brisk and tight the “poor” follows with a subtle lower tone. And almost as if to scoop everything up, the “will” concludes its clear and bright call. Whip-poor-will….

Its dreary and lonesome reputation may be due to its nocturnal lifestyle. It sleeps during the day only to wake at dusk to forage for food and go about its life. Given that its winter range is in the southeastern US and Mexico, it makes perfect sense that most of the songs reference the bird at night, when the quiet of rural life was haunted by its elusive and desolate song.

Thinking (maybe feeling?) the deeper emotion in the lyrics of some of these songs I travelled back in time…… Now I was sitting atop the hill over looking the dense valley. The sun was setting. A brief moment of silence and then there it was, the solitary call of the whippoorwill. Ducking below the horizon, my heart sank like the sun, longing again for the love I once knew. It called again. Now I was standing at the station and the chill of the night smacked my cheeks. Would he be on this train? Waiting, longing, for him, the train made its way through town. Dense smoke spilled into the evening sky as I caught a glimpse of the whippoorwill in a thicket by the tracks. Clutching my hat in my hands, its almost as if the whippoorwill could read my desperate heart. Its call predicted a forsaken love affair, as I stood silent and alone in the darkness.

Coming back into the present I pondered on how many people have been touched by the song of the whippoorwill. Those people who may have found solace in their hearts or minds, maybe they were inspired or forged a new path ahead? Then I started to think about our world today. How so much of our time is taken up by doing things. Reading things. Going places. Saying words. Directing others. Taking orders. Controlling uncontrollables. Feeding fears. Loving friends. Risking lives. The list goes on doesn’t it? We can go on all day about what we do, who we do it for, why we do it. We make excuses and reasons to defend and rationalize our doing, saying, taking, feeding.

How often are we listening though? How often do we just stop and unplug from all that stuff and simply listen. Listen for our whippoorwill. Listen for that thing that might just be our next inspiration. That thing that makes all of this more real, tactile and full of depth and humanity. What is your whippoorwill?

A few excerpts of some of my favorite songs referencing the whippoorwill:

“In a quiet country village stood a maple on the hill
Where I sat with my Geneva long ago
As the stars are shining brightly you could hear the whippoorwill
As we sat beneath the maple on the hill”
– Maple on the Hill, Carter Family version

“The wind through the night is blowing so lonesome
Singing to me a song
The whippoorwill call is just a reminder
Pretty girls have hearts made of stone”
– Cora is Gone, Flatt & Scruggs version

“Our love was planted little darling
Just like the farmer plants his grain
But there will never be a harvest
On the hills the whippoorwills now sing”
– The First Whippoorwill, Bill Monroe version

“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whinin’ low
I’m so lonesome, I could cry”
– I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry, Hank Williams


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)

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

The Handsome Ladies : Your Future 501(c)(3)


Summertime is passed and gone… truth, but also a wonderful song. (I personally love the Red Allen and Frank Wakefield version the best.) It’s been such a great year of festivals, camping and of course lots of bluegrass! One of the most rewarding aspects of playing music is the continued growth. At some point, that G-run will happen, that note will get hit and that break will work out. And then you just have to play the song a million more times! Work with The Handsome Ladies is equally rewarding. The other Charter Members and I were just talking the other day about how wonderful it is to watch each other’s personal growth and that of other Ladies. It goes to show that if you put time and effort into any project, you will see the results.

We’ve been putting a lot of time and effort into The Handsome Ladies this year. You may not be aware, but we are in the final stages of becoming a real-deal non-profit organization! Our goal: to promote women in bluegrass! With such an incredible reception in our first couple of years as a private FaceBook group and now a public page as well, we have received so much positive feedback about what we're doing. Naturally, we felt that “this could actually be ‘something.’” I cant be sure when we decided to pursue the non-profit status, but its been an interesting road so far.

Once we submitted the name with the State, we had to wait to get approval for our name, just in case someone or other group was using it. Luckily, we were able to secure the name The Handsome Ladies. Next, we had to formally apply for non-profit status. The next step now is to identify our Board of Directors and submit bylaws. At our most recent Charter Meeting (yes, we have these meetings monthly!), we decided on our Board and defined roles! It was so exciting for all of us to brainstorm together on our goals, future projects and strong suits. What makes it even more fantastic is that each one of the Charter Members (there are seven of us) has a unique and important skill-set that we’re able to offer to the group.

The future is looking quite bright for The Handsome Ladies! We’ve got some fun projects ahead of us that will help to spread the gospel of bluegrass! Be sure to stay tuned to updates here on the website! And as always, if you are interested in joining the group, let us know! Looking forward to seeing you or meeting you soon.