The bluegrass jam at the Larry’s Coffee headquarters just north of downtown Raleigh last month had all the usual elements: guitars and fiddles, instrument cases stacked in the corners and chairs arranged in a circle.
What was missing from this one, however, were men.
The women-only jam was organized by Raleigh’s new chapter of the Handsome Ladies, a nonprofit organization that supports women bluegrass players by hosting jams, workshops and other events.
The Handsome Ladies started on the West Coast in 2013. Locally, Vickie Posey and her daughter, Lee Pike, started the Raleigh chapter this year. Posey, a recent retiree, was attending more jams and wished she saw more women there.
Raleigh’s Handsome Ladies held their first monthly all-women jam in July, and they’re planning quarterly co-ed jams as well, Pike said. The organization isn’t about keeping anyone out, but rather helping usher people in, she said.
“It’s not to exclude anybody. It’s really so that (women) can build the confidence to participate in the greater bluegrass community,” she said.
That can be challenging in the jam scene, which tends to be very male-dominated and can be a little intimidating for new musicians of any gender to jump into, with its unspoken rules and traditions.
“It’s really intimidating if you’re not familiar, if you weren’t exposed to it, to enter a situation like that,” Pike said. “Plus, I think women in general feel like they have to be good or perfect when they go and do something like that, like it’s a performance all the time.”
Range of experience
At last month’s jam, about a dozen women came in from a steamy early evening, pulled their instruments out of their cases, and chatted a bit before things got started.
Everyone introduced themselves briefly, and then Posey offered a few words of orientation, including how to suggest a song for the group to play (call out the title and what key the song is played in, point out any usual changes) and how to bring a song to an end (the person who kicks off the song will stick out a foot to call for wrapping things up). She also handed out a list of song ideas and pointed out a stack of binders with even more song lyrics and chords.
But no one was stumped for suggestions. One by one, the women offered songs — most of them well known, like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Wayfaring Stranger” — and played them. Some took “breaks” — short instrumental solos — and others declined, preferring to blend their instruments and voices with the group.
A range of skill levels could be found within the circle, from a brand-new banjo player to professional musicians Lynda Dawson and Lorraine Jordan.
Somewhere in the middle was Leslie Dare of Raleigh, who said she has “kind of a typical story of folks who are in bluegrass at middle age.” Dare was active in music as a child, including piano lessons, church choir and high school band. As she moved on to other things as an adult, she missed music. A few years ago, she picked up her dad’s old guitar.
“I didn’t expect that I’d be this active with bluegrass when I started,” she said, “but it’s addicting.”
Now Dare, an IT director at NC State, is a regular at camps and workshops, and says she attends a jam about twice a week, on average. So she has plenty of options for playing with people, but she was eager to add the Handsome Ladies jams to her rotation when she heard about them this summer.
“I’ve rarely felt unwelcome at a jam, being a woman,” she said, “but I certainly feel outnumbered most of the time, and by a pretty large margin.”
She said she loves the “social justice” angle of the Handsome Ladies, but the musical angle of an all-women jam is appealing as well.
“With the vocals, harmony singing is so different with all female voices. That’s a really different experience,” Dare said. “People have different ranges, and when you have all women, you’re able to do things in a different way. Likewise, I really enjoy jamming with mixed groups, because male and female voices blending vocally with harmonies has its own joy to it as well.”
She described the Handsome Ladies jam as one of her favorites in a long time, in large part because of its spirit of inclusion and encouragement.
“That jam did a really good job, I thought, making folks feel safe, and it was OK to mess up, it was expected to mess up,” she said. “I’m sensitive to that. I’m like everybody else. I’m super critical of myself and my playing ability and my singing ability. You don’t have to have a very good voice to sing bluegrass.
“It’s a genre that’s very friendly to those who are new to the instruments or new to the music, and I thought that particular jam really did a good job just making it open for anyone.”
That openness is key, Pike said, to adding more women to the pipeline of bluegrass music, both as hobbyists and fans and, maybe for some, as performers.
“It’s really to develop us as musicians so that we can contribute more to the greater bluegrass community. So we can go out to other jams and participate, so we can start bands of our own. That’s one thing that Handsome Ladies have discovered, is it builds confidence, it’s created new career paths for people, people’s hobbies become something bigger, and that’s I think the most important part.”
▪ The Handsome Ladies will host a jam at the end of the Bluegrass Pride informational brunch from 1-3 p.m. Friday in Room 324 at the Marriott Raleigh City Center. There will also be a late-night co-ed jam at 12:30 a.m. Saturday in the Marriott’s State Ballroom AB.
The national Handsome Ladies organization will have a booth at the World of Bluegrass Expo in the Convention Center Exhibit Hall Wednesday-Thursday (conference attendees only) and Friday-Saturday (open to the public).
▪ The Raleigh chapter of the Handsome Ladies hosts all-women jams the first Tuesday of each month and is planning quarterly co-ed jams. The next jam is Sunday, Oct. 14, 4-6 p.m. at Larry’s Coffee, 1507 Gavin St., Raleigh. It is co-ed. For more information, visit thehandsomeladies.org/raleigh.