This fall, the bluegrass supergroup Sister Sadie became the first all-female band ever to win the top prize at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards.



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.


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


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


ANN: And Gena is a rototiller on the banjo.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.