With 21 original songs, songwriter Donna Hughes’s second album, Same Old Me, introduced her as a prolific force within the genre. With each listening, I am struck by the intimate way this recording captures a feminine voice leading a hard-driving configuration in the studio featuring Adam Steffey, Scott Vestal, Clay Jones, Greg Luck, Ashby Frank, Zak McLamb, Alan Perdue, Joey Cox, and Gina Britt-Tew. Donna juxtaposes B-chord, jam-style bluegrass with introspection centering around the oft-displaced female voice — something few albums have accomplished since. — Jordan Laney
Earlier this year, NPR Music published a behemoth piece — “Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women” — saying, “This list … is an intervention, a remedy, a correction of the historical record and hopefully the start of a new conversation … It rethinks popular music to put women at the center.”
Viewing this sort of conversation through a bluegrass lens, staging our own intervention, remedy, and correction is critical. It’s true that we’ve reached several historic landmarks in recent years — Molly Tuttle was just named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year, the first woman to win the honor, and last year women won in the Fiddle Player of the Year and Mandolin Player of the Year categories for the first time, as well. Still, women are routinely marginalized by/within bluegrass. There are many bands that will not hire side-women pickers — the cliché “pretty good for a girl” is all-too common, even while it’s re-appropriated by women themselves. Also, there remains this overarching narrative that women are a recent, post-Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard addition to this genre. While often well-intentioned and placing well-deserved credit upon the influence of Hazel & Alice, this idea is false. Women have always been an integral part of bluegrass and the folk and roots music traditions that gave rise to it.
This list does not attempt to be exhaustive, complete, or comprehensive. We dare not be so bold as to claim that every important bluegrass album created by women is included. We are simply striving to illustrate the far-reaching, undeniable influence that these incredible artists have had on the music, as a whole. Each contributor, many of them groundbreaking, trail-blazing artists themselves, has chosen albums that are personally impactful. Glaring omissions and oversights are almost guaranteed, but therein lies the beauty of this conversation: This collection is merely a starting point, a springboard for a greater dialogue about the place of female creators, artists, musicians, and professionals in the telling of the history — herstory — of bluegrass.
At this present point on the bluegrass music timeline, diversity, inclusion, and openness are hot-button topics and they would not have been given even an inch of a foothold in our genre if it hadn’t been for the strength, determination, heart, and amazing music of the women below. — Justin Hiltner