As the first book devoted entirely to women in bluegrass, Pretty Good for a Girl might seem like an off-putting title at first. But the compilation of untold and unsung stories of females in this genre touches on a much deeper historical and informational level. And it shows that this phrase women have endured throughout the history of music—“you’re pretty good for a girl”—hasn’t applied for a long, long time.
First off, the book is an impassioned history of bluegrass from a female’s perspective. Author and well-known banjoist Murphy Hicks Henry uses a format of part reference, part impassioned argument and part entertaining narratives (drawing from extensive interviews) to give a voice to more than 70 female performers and innovators that were a huge part of bluegrass’s history.
The book is organized chronologically and by decade with six sections (and 44 chapters). The beginning starts with Sally Ann Forrester, who played accordion and sang with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys from 1943 to 1946, and then tracks all the way to the present day with such artists as Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent and the Dixie Chicks. Other pioneers cataloged include Wilma Lee Cooper, Bessie Lee Mauldin, and the Lewises, Whites, and McLains; along with later pathbreaking performers such as the Buffalo Gals and Laurie Lewis, Lynn Morris and Missy Raines. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also three sections of black-and-white photos, many of which have never been seen before.
The humor and passion within Pretty Good for a Girl is evident. Which makes sense, considering Henry is not only a pro banjo player, teacher and writer, but also because of how the book idea came about to begin with. In 1993, Henry was with her teenage daughter who played banjo and bass at the IBMA Awards show. A group of young boys playing on the stage, the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars, were introduced as “the future of bluegrass music.” Henry found it incredibly short-sighted that not one woman had been noted in this way, so she started a database of a women who played in the genre. This lead to a quarterly newsletter called Women in Bluegrass, and then to Pretty Good For A Girl, published through University of Illinois Press.
Pretty Good For a Girl’s purpose is not only to show historical documentation of how bluegrass is not, in fact, a man’s music; it’s also to give young and current female musicians the determination and stories of women who have all bucked cultural resistance to follow their passions.