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Bluegrass Band Sister Sadie Embodies Tradition, But Bends It Too

Dale Ann Bradley (left), Tina Adair, Gena Britt Tew and Deanie Richardson (center) of the bluegrass band Sister Sadie do their impression of the rock band Queen.
Dale Ann Bradley (left), Tina Adair, Gena Britt Tew and Deanie Richardson (center) of the bluegrass band Sister Sadie do their impression of the rock band Queen.

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."

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.

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."

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