- Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass by Murphy Hicks Henry
Serious scholarship in bluegrass, as in popular music generally, does not have a long history; with a few exceptions, most of the major studies have been published since the 1980s. Two foundational histories still essential to contemporary bluegrass researchers are Robert Cantwell’s 1984 Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound and Neil V. Rosenberg’s 1985 Bluegrass: A History (revised edition 2005), respectively the twenty-third and twenty-fourth publications in the indispensable series Music in American Life, issued by the University of Illinois Press. As a pair, these studies provided, and continue to provide, bluegrass scholars and fans with a comprehensive scholarly history of that American-made—but now globally significant—genre, from its roots through the 1970s and early 1980s. Because Cantwell and Rosenberg take such different approaches—the former is a critical, intellectual history of bluegrass while the latter is a straightforward chronological narrative—the two books complement each other and have been most profitably read together. Ending with the long 1970s, a fifteen-year period which saw the greatest diffusion and popular acceptance of bluegrass throughout the United States and the world, these two monographs provided readers with a systematic account of the genre’s roots and early history, providing a sound platform for further scholarship.
Just under thirty years later, and with 150 intervening volumes in the Music in American Life series (a dozen of them about bluegrass), the University of Illinois Press has published Murphy Hicks Henry’s Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass, a study that seeks to act as a significant corrective to what its author sees as the widespread view that bluegrass is a genre dominated by men: “Pretty Good for a Girl sets out [End Page 95] to add some balance to the bluegrass texts by presenting the histories of musical women” (p. 6). Henry, a well-known professional banjo player, bluegrass performer, critic, and pedagogue, is certainly qualified to offer such a corrective. Often, books such as these are born in outrage. According to Henry “… this book might not have sprouted wings at all if I hadn’t been at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards (IBMA) show in September 1993. My banjo-picking daughter, Casey, fifteen, and I sat in the audience and watched as a band of young male musicians, the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars, was referred to by one of the hosts as the ‘future of bluegrass music.’ I was livid” (p. 1). Challenging this attitude led Henry to create a database on the subject, edit a quarterly newsletter (Women in Bluegrass, 1994–2003), complete an M.A. degree in interdisciplinary women’s studies (George Mason University, 1999), and eventually, to publish the work at hand.
As a book, Pretty Good for a Girl has more in common with Rosenberg than Cantwell; that is to say, it is not a theoretical/critical approach to the subject, but a chronological history, consisting of forty-four short biographies, arranged by decade, and tied together by introductory sections for each time period. Readable, clear, and entertaining, most of the biographies average six-and-a-half pages, while nine of them average twelve-and-a-half pages. Not surprisingly these tend to be famous acts such as the Stonemans, Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, and the Dixie Chicks. The major exception is the dual biography of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard at twenty-two pages, seemingly, the heart of the work. Although well-researched, it is not what I would call academic, even though the author has such credentials. Based largely on secondary sources—magazine and journal articles from the popular press, published biographies and histories, and liner notes from recordings and DVDs—the added value here is the information gleaned from the large number of interviews and author-instigated e-mail correspondence that attempts to fill in the gaps. Ultimately...