Friday, June 26, 2009

the bluegrass gender gap

After my first experience at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, there about a thousand angles I could ramble at length about. And I certainly can't help advertising as a sidenote that if you ever have a chance to go, do. It was astonishingly great.

But for now my brain is stuck on the gender gap in Bluegrass music. Gender gaps always intrigue me, partly because they're genuinely interesting from a purely scientific evolutionary/sociological standpoint, partly because they're taboo to mention or even study, and partly because I seem to frequently find myself in extreme cases of them.

Most of these situations I chalk up to different ways of thinking about and approaching the world. Women have more social intelligence. Men have more analytical intelligence. Women are better with words, landmark based directions, and colors. Men are better with numbers, map/cardinal direction based directions, and spatial reasoning/memory. The explanation for most of these things are obvious evolutionary responses to their respective specialized roles (raising young, hunting).

This bluegrass thing is something else though. Rather than a difference in mental processes, this is a difference in behavior. Of course I'm intellectually aware of the testosterone driven arbitrarily competitive and/or violent tendencies of the male of the species, but as a female who is most definitely not in that category, I'm still shocked to find myself in a situation where that is the norm. It's very different to acknowledge it from the outside and to be expected to join. But if there is any genre of music that has that aura, it's bluegrass.

The most obvious place to see it is at a jam. The way it works is everyone plays a simple chord progression with a well-known melody, and then they go around the circle and every person takes a turn soloing on that melody. It's pretty cool to watch, enjoyable to listen to, and very fun to play in the background with, but is fundamentally based on a "look what I can do, no look what I can do, no look what I can do" dynamic. I for one am completely at odds with this spotlight grabbing and striving for the most virtuoistic display of technical instrumental skill, even if it's a subtle background attitude and everyone is also extremely friendly, respectful, and encouraging.

It seems to me only natural that if this is the setting in which bluegrass musicians are born, of course a gender gap will emerge. Very few amazing female bluegrass stars exist, and when they do they are often primarily singers, adding a beautiful layer independent from the instrumental fray. I don't have statistics to prove it but it sure seems like the same extreme gender gap does not hold in folk, country, classical, indie, or any other genre I'm familiar with. Maybe rock electric guitar. I'm not sure.

Anyway. This sure doesnt impinge on the enjoyability of bluegrass, nor is it even a critique of the attitude. It's just surprising to me and so I thought noteworthy. And as a side note, the fiddlist for Crooked Still, Sarah Jarosz on mandolin and claw-hammer banjo, and the Lovell sisters, are wonderful exceptions that you should listen to.