'We wanted to be recognized for our music': New exhibit highlights women in old-time music
When musician Amythyst Kiah gets asked how she came to learn bluegrass music, she isn't offended by the possible assumption that women of color don't play the banjo. Instead, she uses the question as an opportunity.
"I don't think you need to have a birthright to enjoy the music, but it was still helpful to know that my existence in this realm is rooted in cultural history," Kiah said. "Whenever I am quizzed or tested, I meet them with the truth. West African and Scotch-Irish influences came together and made country music as we know it."
Kiah, a Grammy-nominated artist, along with several other women musicians, spoke at the debut of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia's newest exhibit: "I've Endured: Women in Old-Time Music," which opened to the public on March 23 and will run through Dec. 31.
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Joining Kiah at the exhibit's opening were Sharon Ruble, Bev Futrell, Sue Massek and Karen Jones from the Reel World String Band, which formed in 1977.
These musicians are living examples of the hardships women in music have endured throughout history – and often still are.
"It means everything to be recognized like this because it wasn't easy when we started out to get recognized," Futrell said. "We had an agent who wanted to bill us as the 'All-Girl Reel World String Band,' and we were like, 'No, we picked our name so you wouldn't know what gender we were.' We wanted to be recognized for our music, not just because there's some women out there playing old-time music."
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Both Kiah and the Reel World String Band members have sections of the exhibit dedicated to their contributions to and continuations of the evolution of women in old-time music.
Old-time music is the predecessor to bluegrass and is the earliest example of traditional North American music, second to Native American music. Fiddle is more prevalent in old-time, with the banjo playing a similar melody to the fiddle. Bluegrass centers more around vocals, hard-driving rhythm and banjo, but old-time did evolve to include vocals. Both old-time and bluegrass laid the foundation for "hillbilly" or country music.
It's a style of music that has been handed down through generations and is mainly recognized by male voices and players. The stage wasn't considered an "appropriate place" for a woman in the mid-1900s.
Although many talented women were playing this music, some voices often weren't heard. Many of their stories were often overshadowed by their male peers within the genre.
Museum Head Curator, Dr. René Rodgers said it was important in assembling this exhibit over the last two years to include the women, music and stories from the past, but also voices from the present who can speak to how that history shaped them.
"To see the past, present and future all coming together with the interviews that we were doing with the women and having that contemporary voice and not just talking about the past and the history really is what's going to make this exhibit have real impact," Rodgers said.
In the mid-1900s, according to the exhibit, a typical Appalachian woman was busy cleaning, spinning and weaving wool, producing soap, preparing and cooking food, caring for farm animals, repairing, cleaning, sewing, bringing in wood and water and gardening.
Women were also challenged because telling stories through songwriting at that time came from the man's point of view. Many women were discouraged from learning instruments. But none of that stopped this indelible force in old-time music and the influence of these women is felt strongly in many genres of music today.
"Blanche Coldiron never was able to really go out and do the kind of music she wanted," Massek said. "Her parents hid a recording contract offer from Nashville from her. We had another friend who said 'that banjo of mine was in the closet the entire time that we were married because my husband didn't want me to play. But he's dead now.'"
Even Dolly Parton chimed in on this exhibit, saying that these women helped plant musical seeds for everyone who came after them.
"My momma could have been in that exhibit, since she taught us kids old ballads and immigrant songs, gave us a love for music, and access to banjos, fiddles, and a wash-tub bass," Parton said in a statement. "It’s great to see the seeds growing, from Mother Maybelle Carter all the way to my fellow-Tennessean Amythyst Kiah."
"I've Endured" Women in Old-Time Music" will run at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum through Dec. 31, 2023. After that, it will be the museum's first exhibit that will travel to other locations.
And for Kiah, this message of the past speaks volumes to future generations.
"You can do what you want to do. It doesn't have to be confined by race or gender. I think continuing to carry that spirit, regardless of where I am, I think is important."
Melonee Hurt covers growth and development at The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network — Tennessee. Reach Melonee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Birthplace of Country Music debuts new exhibit highlighting women