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Bluegrass Girl
From Women In Bluegrass, Spring 1997

I spent the summers of my childhood in dusty fields, closely planted with pup-tents and pop-ups and Winnebagos, all ripe for the picking. No freedom can equal the freedom I enjoyed as a ten-year-old girl, wandering from jam session to jam session with my cousin Patty, a Barbie Doll in one grubby hand and a warm can of Pepsi-Cola in the other.

Getting there was half the fun. In the crowded back seat of a 1969 Plymouth Road Runner, with a 16-foot Starcraft pop-up camper trailing behind, my brothers and Pat-Pat and I would argue incessantly and then, when Mom and Dad couldn’t listen to us anymore, Dad would bark, “Knock it off, alla you!”. There’d be silence for a little while, and then we’d start to sing - “Fox on The Run” and “I’ll Fly Away” and “Rocky Top” and “Bringing Mary Home”, the songs we listened to, over and over again, on the hi-fi stereo back home. Our reedy little voices strained to find the notes.

When Patty and I were very young, there weren’t many women in bluegrass, but we idolized the few that we knew. As little girls, we followed them like puppies at every major festival we attended --- as much in awe of their style, whether bumpkin or ballroom, as of their talent. How we coveted their stardom! We adored Cheryl and Sharon White, young and beautiful in patchwork denim skirts, their voices mixing in the purest harmonies we’d ever heard. And we fell in love with cute little Ruthie McClain and her ponytails, singing “Bubble Gum Baby” and slapping the bass with all her might.

But the ultimate goddess of bluegrass was the IInd Generation’s Wendy Thatcher, with her single long dark braid, smoky gravel voice, and those incredible songs, straight from the heart of the woman we wanted, more than anything, to become. “Wendy” became our favorite name, bestowed on Barbies and pets and, somewhere far off in the distant future, our firstborn daughters.

No, we didn’t ignore the boys. Eventually they suffered our attention even more acutely than the women. I idolized Sam Bush, had a crush on Charlie Waller, and wanted to marry Chris Stiefel from Country Store. My mother has a photo of me with Chris that makes me cringe with embarrassment every time I think about it. It’s me sitting on a sofa with him, my cheek on his arm, looking tragic and lovestruck and pitiful. She also has a photo of me as an obnoxious little five-year-old, wrapped around Charlie Waller’s leg like some benign growth.

This was our mythology and these were our deities. Minor deities, perhaps, but we worshipped at the altar with a hot, fervent passion found only in adolescent girls and true believers.

I live in Hawaii now, a place that a lot of people consider paradise. And in many ways, it is. I live five minutes away from the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. The mountains here are incredible, and when I look at them I am comforted to know that they will never be covered in snow. I do not like snow.

But, to my ears, the flat sound of a ukelele is a pale imitation of the round, deeper chords produced by a banjo. My boyfriend is certain that hell spawned the banjo, and he used to run from the room, screaming in mock horror, when I listened to bluegrass in our home. Now I am a closet banjo addict. I get my fix as I drive to work, through the sleepy morning streets of Kailua, over the Pali Highway through the Koolau Mountains, with the windows of my Jeep wide open.

And I’m still a believer.

Note: In the two and a half years since I wrote this article, I broke up with my bluegrass-hating boyfriend and married a man who is learning how to pick the banjo. Yeeeehaaaaa!