IBMA Foundation announces Gloria Belle Memorial Scholarship

The IBMA Foundation, the philanthropic and educational side of the International Bluegrass Music Association, has announced a new scholarship for college students, named in honor of one of the first female artists to work as a sideman in bluegrass music before eventually running her own group.

The Gloria Belle Memorial Scholarship is now in the fundraising mode, launched with roughly $5,000 in initial donations, with addition contributions being sought now. Once the fund reaches $20,000, annual awards of $1,000 per year will be distributed to a student enrolled in a college, tech, or trade school who is actively involved in bluegrass music. This could be as a performer, songwriter, DJ, event producer, graphic artist, photographer, videographer, or in most any other capacity.

The Foundation is even giving away a special T-shirt emblazoned with the logo for the scholarship to everyone who donates $100 or more.

Gloria Belle was prominent in bluegrass as a member of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys from 1968 to 1975. Born Gloria Bernadette Flickinger, she played guitar, piano, drums, mandolin, and banjo, and took her first professional job with Cas Walker’s Farm And Home radio show in Knoxville, TN in 1960. In fact it was Walker who gave her the name Gloria Belle, reportedly because he had difficulty pronouncing “Flickinger.”

Murphy Henry, author of Pretty Good For A Girl: Women In Bluegrass, said of Gloria…

“To listen to Gloria Belle tell her life story was inspiring. She appeared regularly on the Cas Walker Show, performed with Betty Amos and her All-Girl Band, led the group Gloria Belle and the (all male) Green Mountain Travelers, recorded a solo album in 1967 (the first to feature a woman playing a lead instrument!), and finally formed her own band, Gloria Belle and Tennessee Sunshine, in 1990. In chronicling her life in my book, I realized that Gloria Belle was literally going where no other woman in bluegrass had gone before: she was carving a completely new path. Other women would follow, but she was the first.”

That sentiment was echoed by Nancy Cardwell, herself a bluegrass performer and the Executive Director of the IBMA Foundation.

“I always treated Gloria Belle like bluegrass royalty . . . because she was. That ‘She Persisted’ t-shirt that was popular a few years ago could have been inspired by Gloria Belle. She was one of the first women in bluegrass to tour, perform, and record nationally and internationally in well-known groups as a side musician, who was not a part of a family band or married to someone in the band. She played as well as she sang, pulled her weight in bands, and was a role model and inspiration for all the great female instrumentalists, singers, and band leaders who have come along in bluegrass music in later years. She will not be forgotten. I’m very pleased that my friend, Gloria Belle, will be remembered with an IBMA Foundation college scholarship.”

Though Gloria Belle died last year, her impact and influence on female grassers continues to be strong. So says popular singer, songwriter, and bandleader Becky Buller, who spearheaded the creation of the new scholarship, and is actively promoting new donations to see it fully funded.

“Although we were both part of the Daughters Of Bluegrass projects, I never got to know Gloria Belle personally, which I now deeply regret.

As things were opening back up after the pandemic, everyone was reassessing their lives and work. I found myself in need of a few new band members and a booking agent. I was so discouraged. While crying on an industry friend’s shoulder, I mentioned that maybe God was telling me it was time to do something else, to which she said, ‘Or maybe He’s seeing how badly you want to do this?’

That brought out the fighter in me. It was during this time that Gloria Belle came back on my radar. I read her story in Murphy Henry’s book; I watched Murphy’s 2006 interview of Gloria Belle; I listened to Gloria’s music and watched videos of her with the Jimmy Martin show. Her talent, love of the music, sweet spirit, gumption, and tenacity inspired me.

In late 2021, I started looking for her because I wanted to hear her stories firsthand. A year later, I found out she and her husband, guitar luthier Mike Long, were in an assisted living in Franklin, TN. One night on my way home from the studio, I stopped in to visit with Mike and play him a few fiddle tunes. I didn’t get to see Gloria that day, who was already struggling with a very advanced stage of dementia. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see her before her passing in May of 2023.

For my last two birthdays, I’ve hosted fundraisers on Facebook toward a new mystery scholarship through the IBMA Foundation. Thanks so much for everyone out there who trusted me and gave toward this new initiative to the tune of approximately $5,000!

My daughter Romy and I have also come up with another fun opportunity for folks to get involved in making the Gloria Belle scholarship happen. We’ll be announcing that very soon, so stay tuned!”

Make your $100 donation to the Gloria Belle Memorial Scholarship online, and get your scholarship T-ship, destined to be a collector’s item.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.