Pretty "Darn" Good for a Girl

By Richelle Putnam

Years ago, at an IBMA awards ceremony, Murphy Hicks Henry sat in the audience alongside her daughter, Casey, who, like her mother, had chosen to become a bluegrass banjo player. The night would include a salute to young people in bluegrass and five young musicians gathered on stage where they stood, peering out at the audience. But for Murphy, there was problem…a big problem. All the musicians were male. There wasn’t a female in the bunch…none...zilch…zero. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer proclaimed, “the future of bluegrass.”

“I was apoplectic,” said Murphy. “That was 15 or 20 years ago, and they should have known better, because it was a time when people were already aware of inequality.” That moment altered Murphy’s life as a woman of bluegrass and as a woman banjo player. “It was personal to me.”

Murphy contacted the people who put the program, who told her that they had tried to find a young girl to put on stage, but they couldn’t find one, and the one or two they asked, couldn’t do it. But that wasn’t a good enough excuse. “I thought to myself, you didn’t call me, and if you’d had called me I would have called every person I knew in the bluegrass world and we would have found a woman for you. We would have flown her out there on our own nickel.”

Yeah…Murphy Hicks Henry was ticked-off. In fact, she was so ticked-off, she started a database of women in bluegrass and from that, she started the newsletter, “Women in Bluegrass,” which she  published quarterly.

“Somehow, one of the editors at Illinois University Press got one of the newsletters and suggested that I turn the newsletters into a book,” said Murphy.

But Murphy wanted a comprehensive history of women in bluegrass, much like Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass, a History, which incorporated only men. She put 10 years into Pretty Good for a Girl, starting from scratch. “I wasn’t using any of the articles I had already written, except as references.” There was very little information about women in bluegrass and the Internet had not yet evolved into what it is today. “I had to go to the original resources, magazines, albums, CDs, and interview a lot of women,” said Murphy. “It was so important to me to get as much factual information as I could in between those two covers so people would know that bluegrass was not a man’s music, as it has been called so often. There were women there from the beginning,” said Murphy.

Murphy was able to incorporate Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle into the book. “but they were so young and so new on the scene, they didn’t get a large treatment,” said Murphy. “When performers start out young you never know if they’re going to last because it’s just so hard, especially for women.” You run into the married-with-children issue, “which I talked about in the book with Missy Raines, Kristin Scott Benson and Kathy Kallick. A few chose not to have children because they wanted to follow their careers.”

Murphy’s husband, Red, has been greatly supportive Murphy’s career. He read every chapter of Pretty Good for a Woman, and helped in getting permission from photographers for use of the photos. “The greatest gift he gave me was giving me the space the work and he didn’t bug me about it,” said Murphy. He also took care of the business end of their small company—The Murphy Method.

Murphy started her “Method” over 30 years ago and it’s claim to fame is that “my method of music is completely without written music or tablature. It’s all done by ear. I’m not saying it’s the best way to learn how to play other music, like classical or any other kind of music, but bluegrass is improvisational,” and if you don’t start out learning-by-ear, eventually you’ll run into a brick wall because you are tied to music or tablature and can’t improvise and join in a jam.

Since the 1970s when Murphy grew up in bluegrass, she has witnessed women musicians gaining confidence. “When women learned the banjo, men couldn’t say that women couldn’t play the banjo anymore. Then women learned to play the fiddle and got into bluegrass bands and [men] couldn’t say that anymore.” One of the last instruments to be conquered by women on the larger stage was the guitar. Women were not strong enough to play flat-pick guitar. “That was very discouraging for even those of us who were very confident in our other instruments.”

And then came Molly Tuttle, 2017 IBMA Guitarist of the Year.

For the past five years, Murphy has hosted a banjo camp for women only. “I think they feel more comfortable screwing up. They know that everybody there is going to be supportive and that nobody is going to judge them. It’s a safe place for women to stretch their wings a bit.”

The IBMA now uses Pretty Good for a Girl Women in Bluegrass as a resource and reference book.

One of Murphy’s fondest memories is the first time she jammed with an all-female group. “I had never had the chance to play in a group that was all women. It had a completely different feel and was less competitive.”