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Daughters of Bluegrass

Pickin' Like a Girl – 2013 (Blue Circle)

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske

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It seems silly that more than 60 years after Lester, Bill, and Earl (and Chubby and Howard) first laid out the sounds that came to be known as bluegrass, women still face an uphill climb within the bluegrass fold. "Pickin' Like a Girl," along with its kinder cousin, "Pretty Good for a Girl," are two of the less vehement expressions heard in the outer circle almost wherever jamming occurs. While Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent were close to the biggest draws the festival and soft-seat circuit had for several years, more often than not (and admittedly generalizing here), women remain second-tier and worse, not only in respect, but in drawing, booking, and chart power.

"Bluegrass Today's" most recent monthly chart features only 15 percent female or female-fronted acts, although That Janie Baker and a Modern Day Bonnie & Clyde make appearances. The current "Billboard" Bluegrass chart is topped by Edie Brickell (& Steve Martin), but she is the only female apparent; almost as surprising is that there are actually three or four bluegrass albums on that chart! The International Bluegrass Music Association's Entertainer of the Year has gone to female-fronted acts only 4 times in 23, and let's not even discuss their Hall of Fame.

"The Daughters of American Bluegrass" (produced by Lorraine Jordan) appeared in 2004 on CMH Records. Since then, Blue Circle Records, and primarily Miss Dixie Hall, have been striving toward raising the profile of females within the commercial bluegrass world; their first Daughters of Bluegrass album, "Back to the Well," appeared a year later and was followed by the equally impressive "Bluegrass Bouquet."

For the latest installment, Miss Dixie and her gang of gals have outdone themselves: 52-songs, 3 discs assembled into a box set along with a bonus of "Bluegrass Bouquet" with the entire collection written or co-written by Dixie Hall. A few artists from that original set, including Dale Ann Bradley, Lorraine Jordan, Missy Raines, Gena Britt and Kristin Scott-Benson, pop up here and there on "Pickin' Like A Girl."

Excepting the aforementioned Vincent and Krauss, a sizeable population of 'name' female bluegrassers have appeared throughout the series. By the producers' count, 134 ladies participate in the most recent; chances are, if you can think of her, she's here: alphabetically from Tina Adair to Jenny Williams, geographically from northern Alberta's Sally Jones and Chetwynd, B.C.'s Robin Roller Thixton to Minnesota's Becky Schlegel and northeast Georgia's Laura Ray, and the west coast's Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick, to Janet McGarry of Prince Edward Island, the length and breadth of the continent's female contingent of bluegrass pickers and singers is well represented.

Within two discs of secular material and one of bluegrass gospel, it would be high impossible for each track to exceed the one before it. While Miss Dixie certainly found something to cherish within every single performance, the set was batting closer to .600, still a mighty impressive figure.

There are a few familiar songs within the three discs of "Pickin' Like A Girl." Clinch Mountain Mystery (Larry Stephenson), Empty Old Mailbox (Don Rigsby) and The Grave Robber (Junior Sisk) are but three of the songs given new performances here. Featuring lead vocals from the likes of Crystal Richardson and Ashlee Blankenship (CCM), Tina Rigsby (Don's spouse and harmony singer on the original EOM) and Donna Ulisse (GR), these already tried and true songs are reinterpreted and reinvented from a female 'teller' perspective.

Dale Ann Bradley takes The Meanest Lady Cop for a spin, and you can put her up against just about anyone as a guitar picker. The quintet of Brooke Aldridge, Rachel Johnson Boyd, Rebecca Frazier, Tina Adair and Missy Raines - a cross-generational outfit - hit all the right notes on Local Flowers. Mindy Rakestraw, a star of "Bluegrass Bouquet" returns with Independent Rose, about a lady who gets it done on her own, and Fayssoux Starling McLean - who records too infrequently - offers a change of pace on You're Good To Go.

The latest edition of The New Coon Creek Girls, featuring Vicki Simmons, Pam Perry Combs, Pam Gadd and Wanda Barnett, keep the tradition moving forward on Hazel Creek: love that old time sound. Schlegel's Mama Remember is devastating; honesty softened by gentle humor.

The west coast represents on Hound Dog Blues; Lewis and Kallick haven't lost a step when it comes to a singing a swinging kiss-off number. On the gospel side, there are a couple too many - mid- to no- tempo proclamations of faith. Elsewhere, Jeanette Williams sings it as she means it on Get In The Boat while Heather Berry-Mabe testifies that Buildings Ain't Churches. Adair stops the show with Welcoming Tomb, with no small assist from Megan Lynch Chowning on fiddle.

This is a stellar set of bluegrass, one where gender matters even though we all know it shouldn't. One wishes he could pick (and sing) like these girls.