By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Rory Block remembers when playing blues was con sidered a man's game.
"I went to Australia and people were actually angered by the way I played guitar," recalls the Queen City Blues Fest headliner, performing Friday at the Arches Acoustic Stage.
"That was probably 15 years ago. I was touring with John Hammond and we have a similar, percussive, aggressive guitar style. I'll never forget it, they would actually say, 'Why are you doing that?' I would say 'John is doing something similar.' And they would say, 'Yeah, but he's a man.' "
Even today, the blues world tends to be macho in attitude, and female musicians and bandleaders still have a rough time. Despite the obstacles, the ranks of blueswomen are growing.
Female guitarists, pianists, harmonica and horn players are taking more prominent roles in the blues, in the Tristate and nationally. This summer's festival, Friday and Saturday at Sawyer Point, will offer fans a good look at some of today's top blueswomen.
A master of acoustic blues guitar, Block, 53, has been performing since she was 14, growing up in the fertile folk music scene around New York's Greenwich Village.
At 16, under the name Sunshine Kate, she was good enough to be featured on Stefan Grossman's groundbreaking How to Play Blues Guitar instruction LP.
Today, she is one of the finest acoustic players anywhere, performing with unequalled passion and technique that stays true to the music's roots while showcasing a distinctly contemporary attitude.
The last decade, especially, has seen female blues artists expanding their roles.
Multiplatinum singer/guitarist Bonnie Raitt has led the way, inspiring many younger women to strap on a Strat.
"Bonnie Raitt has been an influence on me from the first time I picked up the guitar," says local guitar slinger Kelly Richey, who will be teaching blues history this fall as part of Cincinnati Arts Council's Artists on Tour program.
The younger generation of national and international blues artists boasts growing numbers of bandleading women, notably guitarists Susan Tedeschi, Deborah Coleman and Ana Popovic (known as the "Slavic Bonnie Raitt").
Bar owners often think they can take advantage of female bandleaders, says local blues singer Sweet Alice Hoskins. "They try to soften you up, where they wouldn't give a man such a hassle about what they're going to pay you," says Hoskins, who has led her own group since 1983 and performs on Saturday's Queen City Fest main stage.
Liz Pennock agrees. The Marietta-born, Florida-based blues singer/pianist and her husband, known as Dr. Blues, have been performing for more than 20 years. Saturday, they return for their annual festival appearance at the Arches Piano Stage. "Sometimes the business people think they can take more advantage, like you're gonna be nicer and they can treat you worse. So you have to be pretty tough to deal with it."
Young, gifted and blue
As the youngest woman fronting a blues band in the Tristate, Natalie Wells, 20, is learning those lessons. But her age invites even more condescension, she says.
"I was playing at a jam and I was tuning my guitar, and this guy's like, 'Oh, honey, it doesn't matter if it's in tune.' It used to bug me, but then you just don't pay attention to it after a while. Most people have been pretty cool about it. They think it's neat (that I'm a young woman), and then when they hear me play, they're really nice to me."
Height has been an obstacle for singer/harmonica player Annie Raines (whose duo with singer/guitarist Paul Rishell is on Friday's acoustic stage) and Shorty Starr, drummer with Dick & the Roadmasters, the winning band in this year's Blues Society Blues Challenge. Both are less than 5 feet tall.
"You tend to be taken for granted when you're small," says Raines. "But at the same time it can be your way of standing out. People have expressed a lot of shock that I can get as much sound as I do, being so small."
Next blue wave
That element of surprise has worked in Starr's favor as well. A drummer for 32 of her 46 years, she wins the respect of fans and fellow musicians one gig at a time.
"The guys, you know, they look at me and they say, 'Hey man, she can't play, she can't do nothin'.' And then I get up there and they're like, 'Wow, she can really do it.' You know, dynamite comes in small packages."
But if today's blueswomen still have to prove themselves, most just shrug it off as just another way of paying dues to play the blues.
And it's gotten much easier, says Block. After 40 years and 20 albums (her newest, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, is due out in September on Cleveland's Telarc label), she's been noticing a major attitude shift toward female blues musicians.
"I do feel things have balanced out," she says. "People understand that whether you're male or female, black or white, old or young, that if you love it and you perform it and play it well, with feeling and with passion, then it's legitimate."
And, she adds, the next wave of blueswomen is already on the way.
"More and more young women are coming up to me at festivals and shows, saying, 'This is what we want to do,' and even saying, 'We want to do what you do.' Just wait, give them a few more years and there'll be a lot of really good women players out there."
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