While working as an editor at Acoustic Guitar magazine in the mid-2010s, I noticed what seemed to be an uptick in the number of all-women and women-fronted bluegrass bands. A lot of music journalists, mostly male, were writing about these acts as if they were novelties. (Look — girls play bluegrass!) In the music-journalism world, that sort of thing happens like clockwork. But this time, it sent my head spinning back to the mid-’70s, when I was introduced to a local bluegrass band in my hometown composed of five teenage girls, one of whom I took such a liking to that we went out on a few dates. Not only did I learn from her that girls could kick guys’ asses on guitar, banjo, mandolin, and upright bass, but this particular member of the band also introduced me to an album that would become a lifelong favorite: Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’s Grievous Angel. It was what my late father liked to call a “significant emotional event”: Voila! I’ve been lied to. Boys actually don’t know more than girls! Anyway, to balance out some of the reporting on that “new trend” of the mid-2010s, I wrote the following column for the magazine’s February 2015 issue. (That byline was my married name at the time.)

How five teenage girls from North Carolina helped blaze trails for women in bluegrass

By Mark Segal Kemp, Acoustic Guitar, February 2015

In 1975, my friend Buck Parker introduced me to the Auman sisters — two teenage bluegrass musicians who could play rings around most of the guys in our neck of North Carolina. Gwen and Robin, who played mandolin and upright bass, respectively, were members of the all-girl Happy Hollow String Band. The only other all-girl band I knew of in the mid-’70s was The Runaways. I was 15. I didn’t know much back then.

Today, the emergence of groups such as Della Mae has created a resurgence of chatter about all-female string bands. As if this were something new. The truth is, before Della Mae, there was Uncle Earl, and before Uncle Earl, there was that little trio called the Dixie Chicks. And women have played prominent roles in numerous mixed-gender contemporary and old-time folk and string bands, from Rhonda Vincent, who started out in the 1960s as part of her family band, The Sally Mountain Show, to later players, like Alison Krauss of Union Station, Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Though it’s not talked about nearly enough, women have been more prominent in folk, country, bluegrass, and old-time music than they ever were in rock ‘n’ roll.

The whole concept of a lead guitarist was invented by a woman, Mother Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, who has inspired generations of acoustic guitar players, male and female. Sally Ann Forester became a Bluegrass “Boy” in 1943, when Bill Monroe hired her to put a little accordion into the Appalachian music genre that he created. Hazel Dickens was a powerful voice for mountain women and coal miners when she picked up a guitar and began singing bluegrass and folk protest songs in the mid-’60s. And Cynthia May Carver, better known as Cousin Emmy, wrote one of the most enduring banjo-based string-band tunes, “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” And yet, in the 21st century, some people still express surprise when women strap on guitars and banjos and form bands. As if it’s a novelty.

The Happy Hollow String Band in the mid-’70s: Karen Joyner (from left), Sonia Hughes, Gwen Auman, Sandy Crisco, and Robin Auman. Photo at top: In 1976, the band played at a Democratic Party rally on the back of a flatbed truck parked at Blue Mist Bar-B-Que in Asheboro, NC.

For Gwen Auman, that’s exactly how the Happy Hollow String Band was treated initially: as a novelty. According to Gwen, the five teens were acutely aware, early on, that they were making a feminist statement. “We realized we were different, but we wanted to be accepted as musicians and not just labeled as a girl band,” she says. “I remember that was really important to us — you know, ‘Yeah, we’re girls, but can you accept us as musicians?’”

When they came together in the early ‘70s, the band — which, in addition to Gwen and Robin Auman (now Penninger), also included guitarist Sonia Hughes (now Michael), banjo player Sandy Crisco (now Hatley), and fiddler Karen Joyner (now Pendley) — had few local peers to turn to for support. “We started out on the fiddler’s convention circuit and there were no women hardly at all,” says Gwen, who still performs in bands around my hometown of Asheboro, just east of Wilkesboro, where MerleFest is held each year. “There might have been somebody’s wife singing in a band, or maybe they’d let a woman play bass, but it was very obvious to us that this was a male-dominated thing.”

The Auman sisters were lucky to have a supportive big brother, who had already navigated the bluegrass world. “My older brother, Michael, who was a member of a local bluegrass band, the Bluegrass Gentlemen, not only taught me to play,” Gwen remembers, “but he also let me play his heavenly 1969 Martin D-18.” By 1974 and 1975, the Happy Hollow String Band had become more accepted at events like the prestigious Fiddler’s Grove convention in Union Grove, North Carolina, winning multiple awards, including a First Place prize to fiddler Joyner.

Gwen soon purchased a German-made Hohner mandolin and then a local luthier’s copy of a Gibson A model. “Many bluegrass players pick F-model Gibsons, but I preferred the look and sound of the A,” she says. “Still do.” The Aumans’ cousin Sonia played an F-series Yamaha, and banjo picker Sandy played a ‘70s-era Gibson RB-250. These days, Sandy says, “I pick a 1960s Baldwin C model that I bought during college. My middle daughter, Kellie, now picks my Gibson.”

One can only hope that Kellie Hatley will join together with the growing number of women in other bands — from those still unknown to members of well-known acts such as Della Mae and the Carolina Chocolate Drops — in continuing to diversify traditional string-band music. Just as Hatley’s mom and the other teenage girls of Happy Hollow so boldly did in a small Carolina town in the bell-bottom ‘70s.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you, Mark! I can’t tell you how much your words mean to me, especially at this point in my timeline. Let the musical journey continue!

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