A Short and Brief History of the Women Behind the Jam Band Scene
Women are, and have always been, an indispensable part of the Jam Band scene.
The sun shines bright at Lockn’ Music Festival in Arrington, Virginia when Susan Tedeschi takes the stage. It’s a hot August afternoon, and the crowd that’s been assembling on the grass field for over an hour pushes closer to the front. As the 12-member Tedeschi Trucks Band launches into “I’ve Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” just days after Aretha Franklin’s passing, Tedeschi lets her singing pay tribute to the legendary musician. Her voice roars over the festival grounds, mingling with the audience’s cheers, and when she picks up her guitar minutes later, the clapping only gets louder.
Her and her husband Derek Trucks’s blues, rock, jazz, and gospel project extends far beyond the confines of any genre label—and while they may not have “jam band” listed anywhere on their illustrious bio, Tedeschi has certainly played her way to the forefront of a music scene centered around the improvisational live experience. The powerhouse vocalist and guitarist is one in a long-lasting legacy of women to have shaped the culture founded by the Grateful Dead and carried on by bands like Phish and The String Cheese Incident.
“It’s never been an issue for me to see women who are really killing it on the music scene, especially in the jam scene. We need more women to do it for sure, but there’s an amazing network of women—young, old, Black, white—who are doing phenomenal things,” says Raffaela Kenny-Cincotta, a music writer and Assistant Editor for Relix Magazine. From Mavis Staples to Margo Price, she quickly lists off a dozen names of female singers, guitarists, bassists, drummers, horn instrumentalists—both past and present—that she admires in the jam world.
Some are well-known, such as guitarist Bonnie Raitt, who sat in with the Dead and Jerry Garcia Band in the 1980s. Others are more underground, like Ace of Cups, a 1960s psychedelic rock band who played shows with the Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and Jefferson Airplane, but broke up after five years because, as they told Relix, they couldn’t get any record labels to meet with their all-female group. The trailblazing band finally reunited and released their first studio album this year, which includes contributions from Bob Weir, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Taj Mahal.
Kenny-Cincotta also points out several groups of women who organize and stick up for one another off-stage. After starting an online discussion about the groping that would sometimes happen at shows, Phish fan Ashley Driscoll launched GrooveSafe, an initiative that partners with bands, venues, and promoters to set up a booth educating concert-goers about sexual assault. Volunteer network The Phunky Bitches, which started in 1997, connects female fans with one another and hosts an Anchor Program that distributes tampons, band-aids, hair ties, and other necessities during shows while working to raise involvement for women in the jam band community.
“The great thing about the jam scene is that we’re all open-minded. Everyone is willing to be on the cutting-edge of what is right, whether that be political, whether that be equality in any form,” says Kenny-Cincotta. “The fact is, once we start educating people and we all start elbowing our way to the table, the jam scene will be more diverse. It’s becoming more diverse everyday.”
Earlier this year, music journalist Alison Fensterstock published a feature in NPR highlighting several significant women who worked behind the scenes of the Grateful Dead’s well-oiled machine. Betty Cantor-Jackson is the sound engineer who produced albums and recorded soundboard tapes, affectionately known as Betty Boards, including the iconic 5/8/1977 Cornell show. Melissa Cargill and Rhoney Gissen Stanley helped Owsley Stanley produce copious amounts of LSD and set up and break down the infamous Wall of Sound, the massive P.A. system the Dead used in 1974. Candace Brightman designed the band’s light shows.
But as the revolutionary crew members and Dead historian Dennis McNally told Fensterstock, their roles in the Dead’s history does not mean it was a “bastion for feminist liberation.” In fact, like the experiences of Ace of Cups, they faced different forms of sexism working in a predominantly male environment, but kept pushing through as pioneers of their respective industries.
Today, dozens of female musicians follow in their footsteps. From bassist Karina Rykman to drummer Nikki Glaspie to pianist Holly Bowling and guitarist Raina Mullen—not to mention trumpet player Jennifer Hartswick and trombonist Natalie Cressman—the jam band scene is full of women playing loud and getting crowds on their feet.
“I’ve always just played music and done my thing, mostly amongst men, that’s certainly true, but I haven’t thought twice about being the only girl. And that vibe that I exude has helped, perhaps, and all the dudes I have played music with in my 12 plus years of playing have never made it any sort of a big deal. Which, I guess I should say I’m lucky for?” says Rykman. “But that, again, almost presupposes that all men are awful and couldn’t fathom playing music with a girl – and I think that’s fucked up. Just be yourself, play music (or do whatever it is you do, as a woman, that brings you joy) and find your tribe.”
Echoing the bassist’s thoughts, Aaron Schafer, Melanie Schafer, and James Apple, hosts of the Grateful Dead podcast “No Simple Road,” point out that even though the jam band scene might seem intimidating to outsiders, it’s an extremely welcoming environment that is ready to champion the stories of the women who helped build it. “It’s time to have a different side of the story. It doesn’t need to be contention, as far as like, ‘we need to rise up,” says Melanie. “It’s like a yoga position. You were in bad alignment, now we need to align you this way. That’s it.”
“That’s what the whole thing is about, creating family and community,” adds Aaron. “Those people that are exclusionary or dicks weed themselves out.”
Kenny-Cincotta alludes to festivals like Lilith Fair and Brandi Carlisle’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend that bring women to the forefront, and says she’s excited to see how the scene continues to expand over time, especially with more and more young people being drawn to jam music through social media and a wider medley of genres coming together at festivals.That’s a sentiment that the Schafers, Apple, and Rykman all share as well—and hope it will hopefully get more and more girls feeling inspired to pick up an instrument and get onstage.
“If you have the interest and desire to play, just play and focus on honing your craft, and remember that whatever you bring to the table, musically, is valid,” Rykman says.