PRETTY GOOD for a Girl
Women in Bluegrass
By MURPHY HICKS HENRY
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
IN THE BEGINNING: The 1940s
Bluegrass music has many "starting" dates, depending on whom you talk to. However, a significant number of historians cite 1945 as the year it all began, because that was the year Earl Scruggs and his fancy five-string banjo joined the Blue Grass Boys, bringing him together with Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt, the classic "big three" of bluegrass. What most people don't realize or find significant is that this first pairing of Lester, Bill, and Earl included a woman, Sally Ann Forrester, on accordion.
Bluegrass music also has myriad definitions, and heated, all-night discussions can be launched with the simple question, "What is bluegrass?" For the sake of simplicity and to provide this book with some much-needed boundaries, I have defined a bluegrass band as one that features the five-string banjo played in the three-finger Scruggs style. I readily admit this is an extremely limiting definition, which is perhaps why I chose it.
Because this book uses 1945 as a starting point and Scruggs-style banjo as a defining element, the many women who played in string bands or hillbilly bands are not included. Some of the best known of these include Sara and Maybelle Carter, Molly O'Day, Lulu Belle Wiseman, Lily May Ledford and the Coon Creek Girls, Cousin Emmy, Samantha Bumgarner, Moonshine Kate, and a host of others. Many of these women are included in Bufwack and Oermann's Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music.
In addition, my self-chosen and admittedly narrow definition of bluegrass prevents the inclusion of those wonderful modern-day groups that don't feature Scruggs-style banjo but are in other ways closely related to bluegrass, such as Robin and Linda Williams and the now-defunct Nickel Creek. These groups often appear at bluegrass venues and are written about in the bluegrass press, but from my vantage point they fit more comfortably into the overarching genre of music now known as Americana. Nor will you find new old-time groups such as the Be Good Tanyas, Uncle Earl, Misty River, or primarily old-time artists such as Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer.
And one further note on terminology: In the interest of avoiding the tedious repetition of the phrase "bluegrass music," I use the word "bluegrass" to mean "bluegrass music." And when I say "banjo," I mean five-string banjo played in the three-finger Scruggs style.
With these defining elements in place, we can now turn our attention to the women we are aware of who were playing bluegrass during its first half decade. Because it was such a new kind of music at the time, we do not find many women playing bluegrass professionally in the 1940s. Bands were still in the process of transitioning from early country music to bluegrass by adding a banjo, and most female musicians were still playing in these early hillbilly bands. Sally Ann Forrester, Wilma Lee Cooper, Rose Maddox, and Ola Belle Campbell Reed all started out in hillbilly music.
Born in the 1920s or earlier and coming from various parts of the country, these four women were surprisingly well educated. All made it through several years of high school, and Wilma Lee earned a one-year-college business diploma. And with the exception of Rose Maddox, whose family worked as sharecroppers, these women were raised in families of schoolteachers, store owners, barbers, and coal miners. These parents found a place for a piano or an organ in their homes and made sure that their daughters took lessons. Playing music was an integral part of family life and the girls were always included. In addition to playing guitar, each woman played at least one other instrument. Rose Maddox played bass, Ola Belle and Wilma Lee played old-time banjo, and Sally Ann played accordion and fiddle. All left behind numerous recordings, beginning with the eight numbers Sally Ann cut with Bill Monroe in 1945 and continuing all the way through Rose Maddox's final Grammy-nominated bluegrass CD, $35 and a Dream (Arhoolie), in 1994.
Not surprisingly, all four women married, and three were in longtime, seemingly compatible relationships. Rose, on the other hand, seemed to be unlucky in love and divorced twice. All had children, but just barely. Sally Ann, Wilma Lee, and Rose had only one child, while Ola Belle had two. Did they purposely limit their families? We don't know. But larger families and numerous pregnancies would certainly have made a musical career more difficult.
In addition to these professional players, this decade also found other younger women taking an interest in this new, bluegrass music. In addition to thirteen-year-old Betty Amos, from Virginia, who began learning banjo from her brother Ed in 1947, over in North Carolina eight-year-old Betty Harper (b. 1930) was learning guitar from her brother Bud so that she could play and sing in their family band. Eventually, though, there were "too many guitars, so I just sang." She began "going out" with the band when she was around fourteen, and by 1947 she was fronting her own band, Betty Harper and the Black Mountain Boys, which included two of her brothers and a cousin. The group released two titles (78s) for Blue Ridge Records in 1952, "I'm Lonely Tonight" and "Don't That Moon Look Lonesome," on which Betty sang but did not play an instrument. In 2010, at age eighty, Betty was still musically active with the group Farmington Bluegrass.
Then there are the virtually unknown women like Ginny Payne Glaze (1909–1978), of Virginia, who, according to her daughter, "learned to play the banjo three-finger style from Myrtie Payne (possibly a relative) when she was very young [and] always played and sang old-time hillbilly music." Although her earliest banjo playing predates Scruggs-style bluegrass, Ginny performed at clubs in the Washington, D.C., area, with a guitar player until the late 1950s and, on at least one occasion, sat in with the Stoneman Family and Jimmy Dean's Wildcats. Was she bluegrass? Without recordings it's hard to say, but photos of her five-string banjo show some well-worn grooves in the fingerboard.
With these three musicians as examples, imagine the numbers of other young women all across the country who were playing bluegrass but never had the opportunity to record. Or who were learning to play bluegrass, or even heading in the direction of playing bluegrass, but who got derailed by marriage, family, children, and a culture that did not encourage women to follow their own muses or dance to a different drummer. The fact that Sally Ann, Wilma Lee, Rose, and Ola Belle did so is a testament not only to their love for the music and their own inner drive to play but also to that sometimes seemingly capricious force we often term fate.
Come prepared to stay. Bring fiddle.
—Telegram from Howdy Forrester to Sally Ann Forrester, 1940
SALLY ANN FORRESTER
Sally Ann Forrester (b. 1922) occupies a special place in the annals of bluegrass history. Because she played with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys from 1943 to 1946, she is, by definition, the first woman in bluegrass, the original bluegrass girl. She and her accordion were in the band where bluegrass originated before the term "bluegrass" had even been coined. She played—and sang—on Monroe's 1945 Columbia recordings, which included "Footprints in the Snow," "Kentucky Waltz," "True Life Blues," and "Rocky Road Blues," bluegrass standards all.
Sally Ann was part of Monroe's band when he was still experimenting with his music, trying to find a combination that would be commercially successful while satisfying his own not-quite-formulated musical vision. But the fact that she played the accordion, a nonstandard bluegrass instrument, coupled with the fact that she was a woman, has made it hard for the bluegrass music community—pundits, historians, and fans—to accept Sally Ann as a "real" musician.
Complicating matters further is the presence of her husband, Howdy, whose two stints on fiddle with the Blue Grass Boys were separated by his service in World War II. For years Sally Ann was known merely as Howdy's wife, a woman who was "holding Howdy's place" in the band until he got out of the navy, a woman who was hired as a "favor" to Howdy while he was overseas. Some people undoubtedly assumed (wrongly) that she was Monroe's girlfriend. For all these reasons her tenure with Monroe has been ignored, blown off, or smirked about. But Sally Ann had her own rich musical life long before she met Howdy Forrester or Bill Monroe.
Born Wilene Russell in Raton, New Mexico, Sally Ann was raised by her maternal grandparents, George and Sudie Robbins, in Avant, Oklahoma. George, owner of a pool hall and barber shop, was a fiddler who played locally for dances. By the sixth grade Sally Ann was playing piano, violin, and her favorite, the guitar. She adored Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and loved going with her grandfather to their dances at Cain's Academy in nearby Tulsa.
In 1937 Sudie sent her granddaughter to the high school academy at Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar, Missouri, where Sally Ann helped pay her way by working in the kitchen. Here her friends began calling her "Bill" or "Billie." In addition to regular high school courses, she took glee club, orchestra, piano, and voice. In her autograph book the phrase "I like to hear you sing" appears so often that it sounds like a broken record. Her piano playing was pronounced "marvelous." One friend wrote, "I'll always remember you as the Hillbilly singer of Southwest." Sally Ann and a female friend are pictured with their guitars in the 1939 yearbook. She also played in a violin quartet that toured the surrounding area.
There are indications that Sally Ann may have been performing on radio before she entered Southwest Baptist, and she almost surely did so in the summer of 1938. An intriguing autograph from April 1938 reads, "Please don't forget to let me know when you go back on radio." Two other friends say they hope to hear her on the radio "this summer." In May 1939, after Sally Ann's second year at the academy, she returned to Oklahoma with every intention of coming back in the fall to complete her high school education. But fate had other plans.
By June 1939 Sally Ann had landed a spot playing guitar and singing on the newly formed barn dance program the Saddle Mountain Roundup on KVOO in Tulsa. Billed as the Little Orphan Girl, she was dressed, somewhat ironically, in a cowgirl outfit. Herald Goodman, who had recently relocated to Tulsa from Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, was the driving force behind the Roundup, which featured his group, the Tennessee Valley Boys. The band included seventeen-year-old Howdy Forrester on fiddle and his brother Joe, twenty, on bass along with Arthur Smith and Robert "Georgia Slim" Rutland on fiddles. As historian Charles Wolfe points out in his book The Devil's Box, these were "three of the most famous fiddlers in southeastern music. What this band must have sounded like, God only knows."
Howdy and Joe had been raised on the sounds of old-time fiddling in Hickman County, Tennessee, where their father, grandfather, and uncle all played. The brothers had both dropped out of high school to join Herald Goodman and the Tennessee Valley Boys in 1938 and had gone west with the band.
The Saddle Mountain Roundup began on April 1, 1939, and ran for eleven weeks in the Tulsa Convention Hall, playing to thousands, before taking to the road. The musicians couldn't travel far, though, because they had to be back for their early morning appearances on KVOO. The Little Orphan Girl had her own spot as a featured artist, backed by the Tennessee Valley Boys. When Arthur Smith left the group, the Little Orphan Girl was also featured as one of the Three Fiddlers, with Howdy and Slim. Soon she and Howdy were dating on the sly.
The Saddle Mountain Roundup lasted one short year. By March 1940 Goodman had let the Tennessee Valley Boys go. Howdy and Joe and two other musicians headed to Wichita Falls, Texas, to try to find work. Sally Ann stayed behind with the understanding that Howdy would send for her when they landed a job. He hated to leave her. In a letter he said, "Boy, that ride from Oklahoma City down here was the lonesomiest [sic] thing I ever did in my life ... I would rather be in Tulsa right now than any other place I know of and would I like to see you—but don't tell anyone I'm homesick." Sally Ann apparently still had work at the radio station. In another letter Howdy says, "You're in 'seventh heaven' up at that radio station and don't deny it. It gets in your blood, don't it?"
The Tennessee Valley Boys finally found steady work at KWFT in Wichita Falls. In May Howdy sent a telegram to Sally Ann saying, "Come prepared to stay. Bring fiddle. Howard Forrester KWFT." "And she did," said their son, Bob, "for forty-seven years." On June 29, 1940, Sally Ann and Howdy were married.
Sally Ann then joined the Tennessee Valley Boys at KWFT, performing again as the Little Orphan Girl. She, Howdy, and Joe often sang trios, with Sally Ann taking the lead and the brothers harmonizing beneath her. The Forresters worked together at several different radio stations in Texas and Illinois until Joe received his draft notice in May 1941. Sally Ann and Howdy continued to play in Texas, but when Pearl Harbor was bombed they headed back to Nashville, where Howdy signed up with the navy. It would be over a year, however, before he was called into service.
In Nashville, Sally Ann and Howdy hooked up with Grand Old Opry stars and blackface comedians Jamup and Honey. Honey Wilds had taken out the first major Grand Ole Opry tent show in the spring of 1941, using Roy Acuff as headliner. In spite of the naysayers the venture proved lucrative, and when Roy Acuff started his own tent show the next year, Honey hired Bill Monroe as his star.
A Grand Old Opry tent show was a traveling assemblage of country music acts that toured from early spring until late fall. David Wilds, son of Honey, says, "My dad just crossed a carnival with the Grand Ole Opry and hit the road." Like a circus, it was totally self-contained with tent crew, cooking facilities, its own generator, and a tent that could seat two thousand or more people.
In the spring of 1942, when Sally Ann and Howdy were traveling with Jamup and Honey, the group heard Dixie Belle and Goober Buchanan singing on the car radio. Sally Ann began harmonizing with Dixie Belle and said, "We could make a good duet." Honey, who was looking for a female act for that year's tent show, stopped by the radio station and hired the husband-and-wife duo on the spot. The two women joined forces as the Kentucky Sweethearts with Sally Ann on guitar and Dixie Belle on bass. They were backed by the Blue Grass Boys with Art Wooten on fiddle. Howdy served as fiddler for singer Tommy Thompson, and Goober did a comedy act. However, when Art Wooten was called into service that summer, Howdy stepped into his shoes as the fiddler for the Blue Grass Boys. Goober had also been tapped by Uncle Sam, and he and Dixie left in early June. Sally Ann and Howdy remained with the tent show until the end of the season, and Howdy stayed with Monroe until he went into the navy in the spring of 1943. It is unclear whether Sally Ann played with the group over the winter. She is not included in the band's publicity photo.
The outrageous financial success of Honey Wilds inspired Bill Monroe to take out his own tent show in the spring of 1943. Although Howdy was now in the navy, Sally Ann was still in Nashville, living with Howdy's mother, Emmie. Monroe knew that Sally Ann was a seasoned performer who could pull her own weight with the show. And having a woman on the show was considered an asset. Roy Acuff went out of his way to find a woman, banjoist Rachel Veach, to play in his band. He believed that "men in the audience like to see a girl on stage." Paradoxically, he also said, "Don't ever headline a show with a woman ... people just don't go for women." In addition to performing, Sally Ann also took up the tickets and looked after the often considerable sums of money.
Since there is no indication that Sally Ann was playing accordion at this time, it is most likely that she continued to play guitar and sing as she had done in the past. In her earliest publicity picture with the band, she does not have an instrument but is positioned in front of the microphone as if she were a featured singer. Only in a later band photo do we see her with the accordion.
Excerpted from PRETTY GOOD for a Girl by MURPHY HICKS HENRY. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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