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No Glass Ceiling Here: The Rise of Women in Bluegrass

During the decades of the formation and maturation of bluegrass as a distinct musical style, it was almost exclusively a male domain. On stage, on vinyl and in the picking circles at festivals, the hot players and bandleaders were men, with an occasional female vocalist or supporting player representing a rare exception.  

A seismic shift took place in 1987, when Alison Krauss released her first album and toured the summer music festivals. The impact of seeing this 16-year-old National Fiddle Champion (also a supremely talented vocalist) tearing it up as the front person of her own band, resonated powerfully with audiences. After winning many Grammys, playing for multiple presidents and delighting audiences from Portland to Prague, Ms. Krauss remains a dominant figure both in bluegrass and crossover genres.  

Among her memorable performances is the night in 2007 when she invited 10-year-old mandolin prodigy Sierra Hull to join her onstage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Sierra later became the first Presidential Scholar at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and a go-to for countless collaborations with older, established players who appeared to delight in mentoring the demure young woman with the powerhouse chops and angelic voice. She could well be the foremost mandolin picker of her generation, but also in consideration for that title would be Sarah Jarosz, who came to prominence around the same time and is widely known for her work with the band I’m With Her, which also features the fine fiddle player Sarah Watkins. Any accounting of the finest female pickers must include the endlessly creative banjo player Alison Brown and the universally acclaimed and deeply influential guitarist Molly Tuttle.

Every one of these exceptional players can be seen in concert and heard on recordings leading their own ensembles, collaborating with legendary players of multiple generations and genres and mentoring fine young players both female and male. No one involved with bluegrass music can have missed the impact of these women, whose talents have been enthusiastically showcased by a music community who clearly recognized that their time had come. - Claude Brachfeld, Co-Owner Denver Folklore Center