Bluegrass Band Sister Sadie Embodies Tradition, But Bends It Too

Jan 1, 2021
Originally published on January 3, 2021 2:49 pm

To be a respected citizen of the bluegrass world, no matter how far newgrass, jamgrass, folk-rock, pop, indie and classical offshoots push its boundaries, requires being able to play in a traditional style with real command and grit. The band Sister Sadie has certainly lived up to that musical ideal over the past eight years through various festival and club dates and two album releases.

Founding singer-guitarist Dale Ann Bradley describes, with conviction and an evocative gardening tool metaphor, how her band mates attack their instruments:

"Deanie [Richardson] plays with as much fire and passion as anybody who's ever picked up a fiddle. Tina [Adair]'s got the killer rhythmic chop and perfect leads and fills that fit the song. And Gena [Britt] is a rototiller on the banjo. You know, it's just something that they're not inhibited."

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Neither is Bradley. That applies to the group's singing too. She, Adair and Britt found a three-part vocal blend that has suppleness and earthy warmth.

Even though the East and West coasts of the U.S. are dotted with thriving bluegrass scenes and a growing number of young virtuosos are products of conservatory training, the perception of bluegrass as downhome music persists. Richardson, Britt, Adair and Bradley have the kind of backgrounds, in tiny towns and rural hollers of North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, that reflect traditional images of where bluegrass comes from. Aspects of Bradley's upbringing, like the fact that she didn't have running water until her final year of high school, seem to hearken back to an earlier time.

"Things hadn't changed much up in that holler or this part of the country," she says. "There might have been a few more cars, maybe."

By the early 1990s, the four musicians were getting out of their home towns and riding around on the regional bluegrass circuit, where they began to occasionally cross paths. "I remember seeing Deanie. I was just a little girl and Deanie was a teenager and just wearing it out and winning competitions and stuff like that," Adair says.

Adair got her start the same way so many other young bluegrass pickers had, traveling with her family band. A teenaged Richardson briefly joined the New Coon Creek Girls alongside Bradley, who was just beginning to gain notice as a singer. Britt parlayed her childhood performing experience into a touring gig the moment she graduated high school.

By the time they and their original bassist Beth Lawrence got together in 2012 for a casual, one-off gig (i.e. an excuse to jam) at Nashville's storied bluegrass dive the Station Inn, they'd built up long resumes as front women and side people (in Richardson's case, even for country and rock headliners ranging from Patty Loveless to Bob Seger) and a vast, shared repertoire of songs. "We were trying to add it up — Lord, there was over 100 years of playing experience between all of us, I think," Adair says.

The fact that they were immediately offered more shows convinced them that they ought to officially give it a go as a new band made up of seasoned pickers. To this day the group still books its own shows and handles its own business dealings without the assistance of an agent or manager.

Richardson and Bradley weren't the only members who'd been in other all-women lineups, but over the decades, they'd all logged more time in co-ed situations and played many a festival with severely limited slots for bands led by women. So they were well aware that especially in more traditional bluegrass circles, Sister Sadie was a departure from the gendered norm.

"There were females back in the in the beginning, of course, but it's been mainly a male-dominated genre and business," Richardson says. "I think Laurie Lewis and Alison Krauss and Dale Ann Bradley and numerous women have just made it impossible to overlook the talent. How much they move people with their music, it's just hard to overlook that as the years go by."

Britt believes that she and her band mates have forged a robust connection with their audience by being who they are, and being comfortable with that, on stage and off.

"We're just real," she says. "We're 40-something-year-old women that are out here. I'm a mom of two teenage daughters. We also have full time jobs. I actually work at a bank. I work at a farm credit as a loan assistant. So I think a lot of people connect with us."

Humor is also a big part of their appeal. There's a long history of old-time, bluegrass and country performers developing comedy routines around costumed rube characters, but Sister Sadie's de facto comedienne Adair cracks crowds up by riffing on the band's relational dynamics and road escapades, spinning mundane details into yarns and one-liners.

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Richardson, who can often be seen doubled over and breathless with laughter, her fiddle and bow tucked beneath her arm, is the most susceptible to Adair's wit.

"She's not afraid to say anything. And, you know, the part of the bluegrass world that we play in is pretty conservative, and Tina can push some boundaries there. So I never know what she's going say and I love it," Richardson says.

There are some subtle surprises in Sister Sadie's catalog too. The band is full of songwriters and arrangers, so they have a wealth of originals to choose from — bluesy, hard-driving numbers, country waltzes, Irish reels and melodically varied, contemporary bluegrass compositions alike — and they've also worked up a few classic rock tunes.

"I like for it to be shown that, hey, we can play anything too. Melody and lyric is melody and lyric," Bradley says.

The way they deliver those melodies and lyrics won them the Vocal Group of the Year award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2019, which was a first for an all-woman lineup, and notable in a genre that idealizes virile high-and-lonesome singing (Bradley's accumulated a number of trophies in the gender-specific Female Vocalist of the Year category). Sister Sadie followed up with the ultimate win, Entertainer of the Year, at the live streamed 2020 edition of the IBMA awards this past October.

That too was a milestone, even if it got a bit buried beneath the headlines and crises of 2020: the first time that a band entirely made up of women was recognized as the best and most fully rounded performers in their field.

For musicians like those in Sister Sadie, who are well into their lives and careers and deeply revere the lineages they're part of, that kind of institutional recognition carries a lot of meaning.

Richardson, who also became the IBMA's first female Fiddle Player of the Year in 2020, puts it this way: "In bluegrass music, there's not the big light show and the jumping from ropes and swinging around. We're singing about, you know, lying and cheating and murder and love and babies. So I feel like the Entertainer Award is about how you, as a band, are reaching out to that audience. And for us, we're five women up there who work hard and who live the songs we sing and play from the depths of our guts. And I think that comes across."

That momentum is carrying the band into a new phase, with Bradley shifting her focus back to solo work and a new bassist on board, Hasee Ciaccio, who, Richardson emphasizes, is Sister Sadie's bridge to a new generation of women.

"She's in her late 20s," says Richardson. "Here's this young, amazing bass player that's just stepped right into this thing and it's just been the most perfect fit. It pumps me up. It gets me fired up to just do more."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The band Sister Sadie made history in 2020. They became the first group made up entirely of women musicians to win the bluegrass industry's top award. Jewly Hight of member station WNXP retraces their long journey to recognition.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: If there's one thing that counts in the bluegrass world, no matter how adventurous you get musically, it's the ability to play in a traditional style with real command and gusto.

(SOUNDBITE OF SISTER SADIE SONG, "SINCE I LAID MY BURDEN DOWN")

DALE ANN BRADLEY: Deanie plays with as much fire and passion as anybody who'd ever picked up a fiddle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SISTER SADIE SONG, "SINCE I LAID MY BURDEN DOWN")

ANN: Tina's got the killer rhythmic chop and perfect leads and fills that fit the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SISTER SADIE SONG, "SINCE I LAID MY BURDEN DOWN")

ANN: And Gena is a rototiller on the banjo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SISTER SADIE SONG, "SINCE I LAID MY BURDEN DOWN")

HIGHT: That was guitarist Dale Ann Bradley praising her fellow founding members of Sister Sadie - fiddler Deanie Richardson, mandolinist Tina Adair and banjo player Gena Britt. Britt, Bradley and Adair are no slouches in the singing department, either.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "900 MILES ")

SISTER SADIE: (Singing) Will I pawn you my watch, pawn you my chain, pawn you my gold and diamond ring? If this train run me right, I'll be home by tomorrow night 'cause I'm 900 miles from my home.

HIGHT: Even the band members' backgrounds reflect traditional notions of where bluegrass comes from. Bradley, Britt, Richardson and Adair grew up learning the music from their elders in the tiny towns and rural hollers of North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Bradley, the one who hails from the Bluegrass State, had the most rustic upbringing of all - no running water until her senior year of high school.

ANN: Things hadn't changed up in that holler or this part of the country. Might be a few more cars, maybe.

HIGHT: They were each getting out of town plenty by the mid-1990s when they began to occasionally cross paths on the regional bluegrass circuit. Adair traveled with her family's band as a kid.

TINA ADAIR: I remember seeing Deanie. I was just a little girl, and Deanie was a teenager and just wearing it out and winning competitions and stuff like that.

HIGHT: They were all pretty young when they started performing, which is common in bluegrass. But they'd built up long resumes and a vast shared repertoire of songs by the time they and original bassist Beth Lawrence got together for a casual, one-off gig at Nashville's Station Inn in 2012.

ADAIR: We were trying to add it up. Lord, there was over a hundred years of playing experience between all of us, I think, you know (laughter)?

HIGHT: When Adair and the others were immediately asked to play more shows, they decided to pool all of that experience for real and start making albums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNHOLY WATER")

SISTER SADIE: (Singing) Unholy water from that well up on the hill, dripping from the copper still, the devil's own daughter quenchin' the thirst of the damned, I am unholy water.

HIGHT: Some of them had been in all-female bluegrass lineups before, but they'd all logged more time in coed situations. And they were well aware that, especially in traditional circles, the supergroup they'd formed under the name Sister Sadie was a departure from the gendered norm.

DEANIE RICHARDSON: This is definitely a male-dominated genre business.

HIGHT: Deanie Richardson.

RICHARDSON: There were females back in the beginning, of course. But it's been mainly male-dominated.

HIGHT: But Gena Britt says that she and her bandmates have forged a robust connection with their audiences by being who they are.

GENA BRITT: We're just real. We're 40-something-year-old women. I'm a mom of two teenage daughters. We also have full-time jobs. I actually work at a bank. I work at a farm credit as a loan assistant. So I think a lot of people connect with us, and they see that we're real. And I just think that's a big part of it.

HIGHT: Humor is a big part of their onstage dynamic. Adair has cracked up many a crowd, spinning mundane details into downhome yarns and one-liners.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAIR: We're working on a sponsorship with the pens (ph) just so y'all know, if anybody cared.

RICHARDSON: She's not afraid to say anything.

HIGHT: That's Richardson again.

RICHARDSON: You know, most people for the most part of the world that we play in is pretty conservative. And Tina can push some boundaries there. So I never know what she's going to say. And I love it.

HIGHT: So does everyone who comes to see them at the shows they book themselves without an agent or a manager.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA'S ROOM")

SISTER SADIE: (Singing) In my mama's house, in my mama's room, we would dream about all the things I'd do.

HIGHT: In 2019, their three-part harmonies won them the vocal group of the year award from the International Bluegrass Music Association. That was a first for an all-woman lineup and a big deal in a genre that idealizes virile high-and-lonesome singing. In 2020, Sister Sadie followed up with the ultimate win, entertainer of the year, becoming the first band entirely made up of women to be recognized as the most fully rounded performers in their field. Richardson, who also became the IBMA's first female fiddle player of the year, explains the meaning of the big trophy.

RICHARDSON: You know, in bluegrass music, there's not the big light show and the big jumping from ropes and swinging around. We're singing about lying and cheating and murder and love and babies. And, you know, we're singing about our lives. And I feel like the Entertainer Award is about, you know, how you as a band are reaching to that audience. And for us, it's just - you know, we're five women up there who work hard and who live the songs we sing, you know, and play from the depths of our guts. And I think that comes across.

HIGHT: That momentum is carrying the band into a new phase, with Bradley shifting her focus back to solo work and a new bass player on board, Hasee Ciaccio, who Deanie Richardson emphasizes is Sister Sadie's bridge to a new year and a new generation of women.

RICHARDSON: She's young. She's in her late 20s. And here she is with these late 40s, 50-year-old women out there. For her to be here, a part of this thing now is just - oh, it pumps me up. It gets me fired up to just do more.

HIGHT: For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.