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Q&A with Sister Sadie

The award-winning group Sister Sadie is made up of world-renowned musicians and singers: Gena Britt on banjo, Deanie Richardson on fiddle, Hasee Ciaccio on acoustic bass, Jaelee Roberts on guitar and Mary Meyer on mandolin. They were kind enough to sit down with us and talk about their music, touring, songwriting and more. 

Who are your musical influences and what music do you enjoy listening to?

Jaelee: I listen to everything. I could shuffle my playlist and you’d hear George Jones to Bill Monroe to classical music to Tupac. But I really love listening to old country music. I love Lee Ann Womack, Merle Haggard, George Jones, everybody. And all bluegrass.

Mary: Anything from Bob Wills, Roy Rogers, Sons of the Pioneers, western swing stuff. I grew up on classical music. I listen to bluegrass most when I’m playing it. I have more fun playing it more than just listening to it for fun.

Deanie: I don’t listen to a lot of bluegrass. I tend to just get pumped up and want to play when I listen to it. I have a five-year-old granddaughter and I listen to whatever she’s listening to. I love old school country, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill. Maybe a little Whitney Houston every now and then. Jaelee and I rock out. When we’re going down the road, we got it all going on. We have a disco in the car.

Gena: I listen to a lot of bluegrass. If I’m in the car traveling, I listen to a lot of singer-songwriters. I like listening to sad music, the sadder the better. I love James Taylor and John Mayer, pretty much everything but rap.

Hasee: I listen to some bluegrass, but I listen to a lot of old-time classic country. But I also love the Grateful Dead and some funk music, Lizzo and anything fun. Probably too much Grateful Dead. 

The Denver Folklore Center is a big promoter of music teachers, especially since Swallow Hill was born out of the store. Did you take music lessons or are you self-taught?

Gena: I started playing when I was eight years old. I’d go over to a guy’s house and take lessons. I didn’t learn by note or tab, he would just play for me and I’d watch and … I’m dating myself right now … he’d record it on a cassette tape every week. We would use that same cassette tape and record over it. I’d take it home and practice with it. I did that for about a year. Then I researched older music and listened to Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs and the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse. And during that time Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver was the hugest influence on me. I would listen to records and try and play a little bit. But kids these days have so many resources. YouTube is full of things I wish I would have had when I was learning.

Jaelee: I started taking fiddle lessons when I was four. I took them for a while and then I took them from Deanie when I was fifteen or sixteen. When I was eight or nine, I wanted to learn guitar, so I took lessons. Then I started listening to albums and played along. I’d try to learn rhythm patterns from people on YouTube.

Hasee: I started taking piano lessons when I was maybe seven. I started playing violin in sixth grade in the school orchestra. Around that time, I kind of taught myself guitar and mandolin. Mandolin kind of translates from the fiddle. I didn’t start playing bass until I was eighteen, but I’d been around traditional music and grew up singing with my mom in church. And when I was in college, I’d play music with other people in the evenings. That’s where I fell in love with it. I learned the most playing with other people that were better than me that were kind enough to let me hang out. I went on tour when I was eighteen and learned on the road. Nothing will grow you up quicker or teach you more about an instrument than getting in a van with a band and being forced to figure it out. 

As far as songwriting, do you have a particular process?

Deanie: I’m not someone who makes a 10AM appointment and “let’s get together and start writing”. I like to have a melody or a line or something that we’re starting with. And it’s usually something I’ve gone through recently. I’m like Gena – I like the sad stuff – so a good heartbreak and I’m going to write about it. I’ve got a couple of go-to writing partners. They’ll either call me and say they have an idea or I’ll call them and we’ll get together and write. We’re working on a new project, so we’re all in the writing mode right now. For me Nashville has turned into the “it’s 10 o’clock so let’s write whether we have something or not” and it pretty much sounds like that on the radio to me.

And working with Patty Loveless for twenty years, she had this philosophy that she didn’t sing a song unless she lived it, therefore when she sang it she was singing part of her life. And you can feel it when she sings it, you can feel whatever the message is in that song. I love that about her and I like to listen to artists who move me because they believe what they’re singing or they’ve lived what they’ve written.

Jaelee: My process is random. I can be driving down the road and I’ll randomly get a melody or a line in my head. I’ll pull over and I’ll think about it and write a verse and a chorus. I didn’t start cowriting until recently, but I love it because you can share experiences from both sides and come together. I think that’s really cool.

Me and my friend talked last night that we’re going to write every Friday. I have a jar that has every letter in the alphabet in it. I’ll pull out a letter and look around the room and find something that matches the letter. Say I pull out the “A”, I’ll look around the room and there’s an apple, so I’ll write a song about an apple. It’s a good exercise.

Hasee: It’s always kind of different for me. Sometimes a melody will come first and that will spark a thought. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Sometimes I’m thinking about a particular situation that will evoke a feeling that then transfers to a melody. I like Jaelee’s idea about the jar though. On my phone I have thousands of embarrassing voice memos singing to myself.

Gena: It’s usually from life experiences. I find when I lay down at night, that’s when things will hit me. I keep a notepad by my bed, so if something hits me I write it down so I won’t forget it.

Jaelee: For me, songwriting is a way to cope with some things. Things that I’ve gone through … if something is bad, like a relationship, I’ll go home and I’ll cry and I’ll be like “I’m going to write about this.” And sometimes it will end up mad or it will end up a happy song – very rarely. Most times it’s a sad song. But for me it’s a coping mechanism or a way to let out my feelings without punching something or someone.

Mary: I don’t schedule it. It either comes or it doesn’t. Cowriting is interesting, because if I come with an idea and I want help writing it, I also want the say on whether I like that person’s idea or not. So, finding people who will put up with my ideas is kind of difficult, because if they like it and they’re writing it too, they might want it to go their way. I write with my brother and boyfriend quite a bit, but I’m just pretty private with my ideas. I’m more likely to show someone a finished song than I am to bring them an idea and welcome their input. I need to get better at that – it’s my challenge. 

What’s it like to be in an all-female group in the music industry?

Deanie: This is interesting because you’ve got all age ranges here. Gena and I being in the fifty-year range and then Hasee, Mary and Jaelee much younger. For the fifty-something ladies, I’ve never felt like I didn’t get a gig or I wasn’t able to do something because I was a woman in this music genre. And I’m a gay woman, but it’s never been an issue for me either way. I know there are some people that have had issues, but it’s never been a thing for me. I just play and I’ve never had a problem finding or keeping a gig. I’ve played with women and men. I feel if you’re good enough you’re going to get the gigs.

Gena: I would piggyback off that and say the same thing. I’ve always wanted to be as good as I could possibly be. I’ve always tried to play with people who are better than I am, male or female. My dad always said if you play with people who are better than you, you’re going to get better. As far as being in an all-woman band, this particular band, we didn’t plan on this, we kind of just got together as friends and as something fun, but when we did it clicked, and we thought “this is pretty cool”. The band has evolved from that. I want us all to be respected for our musicality, musicianship and vocals, regardless of whether we’re male or female.

Hasee: I feel like in the last ten or twelve years of my life touring, I’ve experienced more inclusivity, but mainly from sound people. The bands I’ve been in that have men and women … I noticed the sound people normally try and talk to the men. Say the banjo player is a man, they’ll ask him what the female guitar player needs, when they should just ask her what she needs. I feel like that has gotten better. But overall, I just want to get out there and play and not assume to begin with that people are going to treat me differently. I think having that mindset, outlook and confidence will make people respect you. 

Mary: I don’t think people have given me a hard time at all for being a girl. If anything, they are more excited to have me along. I think I’ve gotten gigs over guys that were just as qualified because I’m a girl. It’s a hard line. If you’re pretty, if you’re fun to have around and if you’re good at your job, people are going to want to hire you. Don’t abuse that and do the best that you can. I don’t think I’ve gotten handouts, but I have gotten things that a guy could have done just as well, but maybe they didn’t have the stage presence I do or whatever. I don’t feel anybody’s treated me better or worse because I’m a woman. There have been crappy people, or good people having a crappy day, that I’ve been treated badly by. Sometimes I think, dang I’m the only girl here, it would be nice to have another girl around. And then being in an all-girl band, I’m like, that’s a lot of estrogen. But either way, I appreciate both for what we are. I think it’s a lot of fun.

Jaelee: I feel like in this day and age, if you’re a girl and you’re doing this it should be equal. If you’re in a huge group of guys and you step up and you’re playing, they’ll be like “Oh, yeah!” I’ve had guys tell me “You’re playing like a girl” and I say, “Good, thank you for telling me that” because playing like a girl is a huge compliment. I love being in an all-girl group.

Hasee: Many women have paved the way for us to be experiencing this inclusivity now, because I know it wasn’t always like this. I play with Laurie Lewis, who’s in her seventies and she talks about touring in the 1980s and how different it was then and how we’ve gotten to where we are. People like Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard playing bluegrass in bars when it was completely male dominated.

What’s coming up for Sister Sadie?
Deanie: We're doing an episode of the upcoming PBS series “Ear to the Common Ground”. It’s a great concept. It’s where fans of Sister Sadie get together and talk about rural urban divide, people from both sides, it’s a potluck, everybody brings a dish. It’s about how with all of our differences, the one thing we have in common is music. At the end we (the band) walk in with a banana pudding or whatever and we’ll play a few songs. (The series will air in the fall on PBS.)

Learn more about these amazing musicians, including how you can see them live on their website.