For most of its history bluegrass has been a closed-door boys club with a book of rules as rigid as a new guitar string. Purists still prefer a drummer-less combo comprised of banjo, fiddle, bass and guitar. And female pickers are still few and far between. A few women like Hazel Dickens managed to break through the ranks in the 1960s, but only in the last 20 years or so have the likes of Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss granted women anything like an equal voice. Given that history, it’s a wonder Roxie Watson exists at all—but then they aren’t exactly a bluegrass group.
A five-piece all-female string band from Atlanta, Roxie Watson will play their first show in Chattanooga on Saturday, March 10, at Barking Legs on Dodds Avenue. Although band members—Linda Bolley, Beth Wheeler, Lenny Lassiter, Sonia Tetlow, and Becky Shaw—have just released the group’s second CD, I suspect that this show may be the first time local folks will get a chance to see them.
Their music is tough to peg. It has elements of bluegrass—but without the fiddle. And although their three- and four-part harmonies wouldn’t be out of place in a country church, their lyrics are mostly too earthy for gospel. Then there’s Bolley’s Scotty Moore-style guitar. The result: what they call “alternagrass.”
Their sound also defies easy comparisons. The song “Five Easy Words” on their new CD, for example, is like listening to The Band with four-part female harmony. Oh, and those harmonies! Eddie Owen, owner of Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta, where Roxie Watson recently played a couple of sold-out shows, said that they “play and sing like wily, crafty veterans and harmonize like the angels”—albeit earthy angels with their feet on the ground.
Hazel Dickens is a model for them. Like Dickens, they write about life from the perspective of a working woman. Lasater’s “Blue Creek Number Three,” is a good example. Lasater was one of a small group of women hired to work in a coal mine just outside Birmingham in the late ’70s after the federal government forced the mine to hire women and minorities. The miners weren’t happy. Lasater was drawn to the job because the pay was three times minimum wage, but the work, made worse by unbridled sexual harassment, was grim.
She was just 19 when she started. As she sings in “Blue Creek,” “I went down in that hole a child / I came back up a woman.” Her breezy delivery belies the harrowing lyric describing the eight-hour days she spent a quarter mile below the surface shoveling coal cut loose by a machine called a perpetual miner.
On the CD, that gritty insight into poor women’s lot in life then and now is typically (for the band) followed by Lasater’s wry lament about Georgia’s blue laws, “Sunday Beer.” It’s a breezy tale taken airborne by Bolley’s lightly skipping Scotty Moore licks on her dad’s 1964 Gibson.
Roxie Watson is five women with few illusions, but that doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten how to have a good time. A Huffington Post reviewer, commenting on their good-natured rapport with each other and with their audience, wrote that, “The stage morphs into a back porch, with the audience becoming honored guests in an intimate setting that is a heck of a lot of fun.”
It was listening to Dolly Parton’s bluegrass albums “The Grass is Blue” and “Little Sparrow” that inspired Lasater, who plays bass, and Wheeler (known as Bee Wee) who plays mandolin, to start Roxie Watson in 2007. They’d been friends since grade school, but they hadn’t paid much attention to bluegrass or country music until they were adults. They called themselves Roxie Watson after Lasater’s maternal grandmother, Roxie Johnson, and Wheeler’s paternal grandmother, Mary Watson. The music is a tribute to their rural Georgia roots. From the minute Lasater and Wheeler started playing together in small clubs in Atlanta and Birmingham, they began drawing musicians who shared their vision.
Bolley was the first. She and Wheeler were old friends. They had played together previously in a group called The Faux Go’s, a Go-Go’s tribute band. Soon after Linda joined, Tetlow, formerly the bass player with the New Orleans’ based-band Cowboy Mouth, switched to banjo and added her distinctive voice to the group. “Sonya plays atypical banjo,” said Lasater. Tetlow, a long time rocker, is more Lowell George than Earl Scruggs. Her playing is propulsively rhythmic. She plays the banjo like a bass, picking deep, throaty single notes often in tandem with Lasater’s prodding bass lines. The last person to join the group was Shaw, who plays lap steel, button accordion, harmonica and guitar.
Roxie Watson always includes one of Dolly Parton’s songs in their sets, but they took more than a song from the woman who once described herself as a “backwoods Barbie.” Like Dolly they know how to tell a compelling story with just a few lines; but they also have her pop sensibility. Their songs have strong melodies and buoyant harmonies that leaven even their darkest songs.Their music isn’t lightweight, but it is joyously lighthearted.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.