Thursday, December 8, 2011
The Stairwell Sisters "Get Off Your Money" (2008)
The popular narrative is that women prefer to play old time music over bluegrass because bluegrass is too competitive. Going back to Bill Monroe, where he encouraged his band members to compete against each other, the sense is that bluegrass fosters that hot lick loving male dominated mindset. Old time, in contrast, places an emphasis on cooperative play, where individuals are to subsume themselves to the larger group effort.
I think this overlooks the social context of the music. (Here's where I start speaking in generalities, & certainly I realize that there are exceptions to this.) Old time music tends to have a more progressive group of followers (as counterintuitive as that initially sounds). Think about the historical progression for a moment. The great popularizer of old time was Pete Seeger (& his brother Mike, via the New Lost City Ramblers). It filtered through the counter cultural folk scare, & ultimately became the modern old time scene of today. The lack of commercial viability for the music in the 40s onward virtually guaranteed its status as a countercultural signifier.
Bluegrass, on the other hand, was a minor style within the broader banner of country music. It never (entirely) lost its original fanbase. This base is much more conservative than that of old time. (While eventually there did become a more culturally progressive fanbase for bluegrass, it still is much more traditional, even than mainstream country music.)
All of that brings me to thinking that perhaps it's the cultural context here that is limiting of women in bluegrass as opposed to old time music. Certainly for many many years it was disreputable (at best) to be a musician. Young women were discouraged from those aspirations. The more progressive environment embraced the old time music, & those women's aspirations were not as discouraged.
All that leads me to say that The Stairwell Sisters are an all female old time group from San Francisco. (See what I did there?)
What really sets them apart on this recording is their vocal harmonies. The close harmonies used just aren't that common in old time music, where the vocals tend to be ragged at best. The harmonies are beautiful, & IMHO what makes this collection of fiddle - driven tunes really stand apart from the pack.