Tenders of the Flame: Celebrating Women at the Heart of Bluegrass

This article is contribution from Theresa Seiders in celebration of International Women’s Day on Match 8. It is part of the Monroe Mandolin Camp’s commitment to the preservation and promotion of traditional bluegrass music, through building connection, understanding, and community among players of all ages, skill levels, and backgrounds. For more information about Monroe Mandolin Camp, visit them online. 

You hear them at every festival and jam. The best bluegrass songs are the ones we can all relate to, the ones about anonymous mothers, sweethearts, and ex-sweethearts whose love (or betrayal) drives that high lonesome sound. But too often we miss the connection to the real women whose support and influence have stamped their identity into the roots of Bluegrass and are laying the path for its future.

Women are fundamental to bluegrass, from the mothers nurturing the child prodigies (soaking up YouTube videos to “get that” lick), to the performers stunning audiences with their hard-won virtuosity, to the wives and partners of touring musicians who keep the home fires burning – or manage the band! – during those long promotional trips, to the ladies donating $25 toward a Facebook birthday fundraiser to send more kids to Bluegrass Camp. Women’s involvement in bluegrass transcends age, economics, nationalities, and ethnicities.

Women in all walks of life wear many hats: nurturers, patrons, muses, bus drivers, purchasing managers, time management and logistics technicians, teachers and tenders of the creative flame. But on this special day, we’ll explore and celebrate how integral women are to bluegrass with some stories from across the bluegrass community.

As a part of their commitment to encouraging women in bluegrass, Monroe Mandolin Camp asked several performers, campers and friends to share, in their own words, their experiences and appreciation of the women who have influenced their musical journeys.  

As a bass fiddler and singer, Atlanta Country Music Hall of Famer Frances Mooney has been an integral part of the bluegrass community since the 1970s. She remembers growing up “listening to my Momma play guitar and sing. She and my Daddy, who played dobro, would play bluegrass music all around the Cumming, Georgia area – performing at festivals, neighbors’ homes and schools.” Because of her mom’s example, Frances decided in her teens that she wanted to learn to play and sing, too. She says she worked with a family member to keep her lessons a secret to “surprise my family.”

Nancy Limbaugh, a retired realtor and mandolinist from Washington state, thinks that music skipped a generation in her family, but she is grateful to her grandmothers for encouraging her to pursue music. “Although I only saw each of my grandmothers once or twice while growing up, they always encouraged me musically, hoping someday I would follow in their footsteps.” Nancy began playing piano when her three children were small, and now is proud to have her grandma Madeline’s Honky Tonk piano as a legacy for her daughter.

“My musical journey got a big kick start when my 10-year old daughter (Tonya) asked for a banjo,” she remembers. Tonya played well by ear, but wanting to help nurture her music even more, Nancy signed her up for formal lessons. When Nancy told the teacher that, due to sports and other activities the lessons would be sporadic, he was less than pleased. So Nancy decided to buy a cheap mandolin and take lessons when Tonya couldn’t attend. Eventually, Tonya got busy with other things and dropped out, but Nancy kept going and at age 48, she found she was just beginning her bluegrass journey. Nancy credits those ‘fill-in’ lessons with a strong influence in bluegrass and a “no-fooling-around foundation.” Ultimately, as Nancy recalls, it was “my daughter’s interest in the bluegrass genre that inspired me to follow my own bluegrass roots (from high school in Virginia) and her encouragement for me to follow what I truly love, and what has become my passion ever since.” Fast forward a few years, and Nancy and her husband have a bluegrass band which performs in their home town… and it’s beautiful to come full circle when their daughters come and cheer them on!

As the Executive Director of the Monroe Mandolin Camp, Heidi Herzog is a familiar face in the bluegrass community. Heidi is blessed to have a rich history of musical women in her life who have influenced and inspired her musical pursuits. Heidi traces her musical roots to her great-grandmother Elizabeth who, at age 17, ran away from her comfortable yet conventional home in Hamburg, Germany to become an opera singer in Berlin. Believing that children should travel and experience the world, Elizabeth also passed on her love for music to her the youngest of her nine children, Victoria.

Heidi’s grandmother Victoria was “a singer all her life,” and continued the family tradition by encouraging her daughter, Gabrielle. Gabrielle began playing piano at age 3 and violin at 6, and claimed that her music saved her during the dark days of WWII in England, offering a solace that helped her drown out the war. As a concert pianist, Gabrielle traveled the world, playing for the Queen Mother and other dignitaries. Later when she started a family, Gabrielle continued to learn new instruments as she supported her children in musical groups and orchestras. In the 1970s, and as a testament to continuing this musical lineage, all her children were playing in the Skidmore College Orchestra in Upstate New York. Heidi remembers it as “an amazing experience, to be playing in an orchestra with your entire family playing.”

On the flip side of the musical spectrum, bluegrass music and folk music in the ’70s was a pretty big deal. As with the classical genre, each kid chose an instrument, and Heidi ended up with her first mandolin at age 8. Heidi remembers her parents “(bringing) us to bluegrass festivals where we camped and listened to the up and coming bands of the late 1960s and ’70s.

Heidi was drawn not only to classical violin and traditional bluegrass and mandolin, but to opera, sharing the DNA of her great-grandmother, Elizabeth. Heidi sang in her first opera at age 8 with the Lake George Opera, with her entire family involved one way or the other, and she never looked back. At age 19, Heidi pursued a career in opera, and again sought her mother’s support and influence in getting the voice lessons she needed to prepare for her audition at UCLA and a career in opera. The next 25 years were wrapped up in performing with various opera companies around the US, choral groups, private teaching, and creating Music and Literacy Programs for At-Risk children in the inner city of Compton, CA — paying the gift of music forward to other young women and men.

In addition to her orchestra work, Gabriella taught music education at her local school, incorporating many styles and genres of music for a well-rounded music appreciation for her students. Her commitment to sharing her passion for music also ensured that her children became lifelong musicians and learners, and created a foundation and life-long love and pursuit of their own musical careers. Heidi describes her mom as “tenacious, strong-willed, inquisitive, creative, musical and a powerful woman to be reckoned with.”  For the past 40 years, Heidi has shown she is committed to continuing her mother’s – and fore-mothers – legacy by being an educator, a founder of the Monroe Mandolin Camp, and by supporting and nurturing today’s bluegrass musicians, both female and male, young and old, beginners and advanced players.

The Price Sisters duo Lauren Price (Napier) and her sister, Leanna, have fond memories of growing up surrounded by musical parents and relatives, which has obviously impacted their adult musical career. Lauren fondly remembers visits to “Nana and Pap…Pap loved to play his Jimmie Rodgers, Carter Family, and big band records, and it seemed like Nana always had an old tune or hymn to play for us on her piano.”

Lauren was also heavily influenced by singing harmony with her mom to Leanna and dad’s lead, and credits her mom with using everyday activities as teaching moments. “I can remember how at times whether we were riding in the car or playing together at home,” Lauren says, “mom would sing a note and then ask Leanna and I ‘where is your note?’ – teaching us to distinguish lead from harmony notes. The three of us would sing a chord together for fun, never realizing at the time what mom was actually teaching us.”

Jimmy Joe Holsonback of Alabama credits his mom for his love of music. “She drove 40 miles one way each week for 3 years for guitar lessons for me,” he remembers, “and always encouraged me to practice.”

The encouragement and support women lend to one another – as well as the men in their lives – regardless of the relationship, plays an equal part in advancing today’s bluegrass musicians.

On their first date in the early ’80s, Jeff Evans took a girl he was interested in to see Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan opening for the Drifters in Santa Monica, CA. “On the way home, (Donna and I) talked about the show,” he says. “We talked about Bill Griffin’s mandolin playing. His rhythm playing added a different element to the music that we didn’t hear in California.” Jeff didn’t think much about that conversation until later, when Donna (now his girlfriend), announced that she would be gone for three months on a bicycle tour of Europe in the spring.

“That Christmas,” he continues, “she gave me a mandolin to keep me out of trouble while she was gone. I started taking lessons at a local music store. By the time Donna came back, I was getting gigs with my music teacher.”

John Keith credits his fourth grade teacher, “Miss Hontz,” with putting him on the path to an extensive performing career. Back then, “Miss Hontz” (Susan Henning Smith) would bring a guitar to class and teach songs to her students. A few, including John, asked to learn guitar as well, and she happily obliged. Others quickly drifted away, but John was hooked. “Miss Hontz would very often spend recess time with me in her classroom,” teaching him to play chords and classic rock songs.

Later in his teens, when John discovered bluegrass music, he added banjo and mandolin to his repertoire. In the 1990s, John played mandolin with Melvin Goins, filled in with the Lost and Found after Dempsey Young’s death, was scouted by Dave Evans, Charlie Walker, and James King and ultimately ended his full time music career playing guitar with the Hart Brothers. But he still appreciates the influence and dedication of “Miss Hontz” in his early musical years. “I know now that she had things she either needed to be doing, or just needed a 30-minute break from teaching,” he admits. “But she was selfless with her time and very patient with me… I met so many great people and had experiences many can only dream of. It all comes back to my fourth grade school teacher,” he says, “who showed some interest in a hyper-active nine-year old and invested some of her precious time and talent.”

Like many people, Raynae Redman of Missoula, Montana didn’t have the opportunity of growing up in a musical family, but she was blessed later in life with coming into contact with supportive women who encouraged and nurtured her innate musical spirit. “I was 35 when my musical  journey started,” says Raynae. “Some friends of mine, a husband and wife couple, played. Her name was LaLonnie and every time we’d go visit, they’d get out their mandolin, guitar and bass…as they played for us, it touched my soul. I dreamed of wanting to do it, too but didn’t know how to begin so the dream was there eating away on me, trying to figure it out for about 4 or 5 years.” Eventually, Raynae discovered a violin in a closet that her son had used briefly in school. “My mind just said, ‘Hey, you’ve always wanted to learn to play, why not try to learn fiddle?'”

Raynae searched for a teacher and ran into many roadblocks but finally encountered Sabra. Sabra spent 3 months with Raynae teaching violin and helping her build a foundation of technique and bow hold, but Raynae wanted more. Around that time, she and her husband moved to Missoula, where Raynae took a job in a nursing home where the next link in her musical chain was formed when she came in contact with a group of fiddlers who would come to entertain the residents. One of the men had a college-aged granddaughter, Candace, who was willing to take a couple of students. Raynae pleaded her case and began five months of lessons with Candace, and eventually joined the fiddle group. By now she had “the bug” and wanted to expand her instrument stable. Raynae acquired a $200 Sigma guitar, “cardboard case and all,” and found a woman at the Weiser National Old Time Fiddlers Convention who offered to help her with it. “By the end of the week, I had blood blisters on my fingers but was playing guitar well enough that I could back up the fiddlers at the nursing homes. I’d play fiddle half the hour and guitar the other half.”

It was a woman named Sharon at the following year’s Weiser who invited Raynae to jam at her campsite and introduced her to bluegrass. “I was struck,” remembers Raynae. “It went through my soul from top to bottom and felt like a current. I’ve never looked back. I taught myself all the bluegrass instruments.” It’s obvious from her story that Raynae is blessed with an innate musical talent, but it’s also a powerful testimony to the inspiration and empowerment of the women she met along her journey to give her the tools and encouragement she needed to become the musician she is today.

Female performing musicians and songwriters have a tremendous influence on bluegrass beyond immediate relationships as well. Women writers and singers have had a hand in inspiring today’s pros, as well as guiding the development of the music itself. Frances Mooney’s playing and singing were heavily influenced by the ladies she heard on the radio – Anita Carter, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Tanya Tucker. “The first and most influential woman inspiring and supporting my music will always be my Mother,” says Frances, “then EmmyLou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. These ladies were who I lisented to most when developing my own way and style of singing.”

Nancy Limbaugh and her family “listened to Saturday mornings on the Portland KBOO bluegrass show” after moving to the Pacific Northwest as an adult.

Lauren and Leanna Price grew up on Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and John Denver – not women, of course, but singing and harmonizing with their mom and Nana and making those songs their own. Lauren remembers the family holidays when “we’d gather in the kitchen or on the front porch after supper to sing old country songs.”   In their sets, The Price Sisters include traditional bluegrass music along with ballads and tunes with intimately blended voices, as twin sisters innately do. The musical tradition of bluegrass, old country, and Gospel had a profound effect on Lauren’s growth as a musician.

Perhaps the most important legacy of women’s support and influence on today’s musicians is that it is not static. While these stories and many others reflect what has molded players and singers, there is a common thread of responsibility and desire to pass on what they’ve been given to impact others. 

Frances Mooney finds it rewarding to “help others start up their goal ladder. I feel I’ve influenced others by teaching workshops and giving bass fiddle lessons to several different women wanting to learn to play and sing. I hope to continue to inspire younger to older women who want to follow their dream of becoming an artist, whether it be for fun or to become a professional musician/singer.”

In between traveling, Lauren Price passes on her knowledge and techniques with Monroe–style mandolin through online private instruction and at workshops and music camps.

Nancy Limbaugh states that she “does not take this gift of music lightly,” and feels that she is called to pass on support and encouragement. “I always take the opportunity to help, encourage, and rally behind every woman I meet in my large bluegrass network,” she says. “I take the role of motivator seriously and always have something positive to say to any struggling musician because I have been there myself. This is how I pay it forward as I am rich with inspiration from my foremothers, my children and my musical community.”

Because of her own journey of musical discovery, Raynae Redman is committed to helping others find their own path. Starting with her youngest daughter, Gina, Raynae encouraged her children and their friends to learn and start a band. (Now 40 years old, Gina still plays fiddle and sings harmony in The Skookumchuck Bear Claws with her mom). Raynae then went on to teach over 200 children through private lessons, and estimates she has taught around 2,000 more through her program, Kids in Bluegrass, which she offers at about four festivals per year. She also made sure to start all 14 of her grandchildren with guitar, and some of whom now also play mandolin, banjo, and bass. Rayne explains, “I’ve felt the calling to give back some of the joy that I’ve received from the blessing of this music that I so love.” And she has indeed left a powerful legacy.

And in a slight departure, Jeff Evans has taken Donna’s gift of bluegrass mandolin in another but no less inspiring direction. After a few years with his first mandolin , he was ready to move up and was chasing tone and sound. “I wanted an F-5,” Jeff remembers. “In those days that was a financial problem, but a mandolin kit from Stewart McDonald was not. I could build a mandolin. So I did.” Donna and Jeff eventually married, and Jeff has been “playing and building mandolins ever since.”

The gift of women to bluegrass music and musicians is not a look at history, but a continuum. The mothers, grandmothers, performers, teachers, lovers, and friends of yesterday have passed on their torch to the mothers, grandmothers, performers, teachers, lovers, and friends of today. And those recipients of the gift continue to tend the hearth and guide the next generation, who will take up the flame, brighten and burnish it, and pass it on in their turn – an unbroken circle that encompasses the beating heart of bluegrass.

Frances Mooney offers some last words of wisdom to the women (and men) of today.

“My advice is to never give up. Set your goals high. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to your most influential persons. If you reach your goals, set higher ones. I have been playing and singing for over 50 years and still today, I learn from others. I admire and commend all women in music. Don’t ever stop setting higher goals.”