Reel World String Band
Since 1977, five women of the Bluegrass have been making contemporary American folk music as the Reel World String Band. From their self-titled debut in 1979 through Long Way to Harlan (1982), In Good Time (1984), Appalachian Wind (1989), whatnots (1996), and The Coast Is Clear (2001), Reel World has unfolded its interpretation of traditional acoustic music with lyrics reflecting contemporary concerns.
The band is Sue Massek on banjo, Bev Futrell on guitar, Karen Jones on fiddle, Elise Melrood on piano, and Sharon Ruble on bass. Together, they take listeners on a journey through Southern culture, from its fiddling roots to its political activism. Their original songs express environmental concerns (“Last Chance Lullaby”) and celebrate new roles for women (“Little Omie Done Got Wise,” “James Alley Blues”).
Reel World has provided songs for the soundtracks of various independent films (The Southern Sex, You Got To Move, From Calumet to Kalamazoo), and many others have been published in Sing Out!, Southern Exposure, and Speaking for Ourselves. In 1984, an effort to document coal mining songs culminated in a compilation Rounder record, They’ll Never Keep Us Down: Women’s Coal Mining Songs, on which Reel World collaborated with Hazel Dickens and Florence Reece (writer of “Which Side Are You On?”) to produce an insightful look at the problems and issues of the Appalachian coalfields.
The band is also featured in Kentucky Women: Two Centuries of Indomitable Spirit and Vision (1997), edited by Eugenia K. Potter along with musicians Loretta Lynn and Helen Humes, a tribute both to its longevity and to its contribution to the rich musical heritage of Kentucky.
In 1978, the Reel World String Band was booked at Englishtown Music Hall in New Jersey and written up in The New York Times, whose reviewer was fascinated by the novelty of this all-female group from Kentucky. By 1980, the women were back in the NYC area, this time playing at Lincoln Center. They returned in 1985 to share the stage with David Bromberg after both had appeared at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. A 1981 tour with the Osborne Brothers led the Los Angeles Times to compare Reel World to the Go-Gos as one of the few bands made up of all women—still rare then. But as time went on, the band became less of a novelty act and more a mainstay of American folk music, appearing at almost every big folk festival in the United States and Canada. In 1991, the band went international with a tour of Italy that also featured Lionel Hampton.
The individual members of Reel World are as diverse as the musical styles they encompass. Sue learned banjo from old-timers in West Virginia and Kentucky after hitchhiking from the Flint Hills of her native Kansas. Her song “Sally’s Song” describes the stories she heard firsthand from Kentucky women in Clay County, and she has adopted the playing style of Blanche Coldiron, a banjo player living in Crittenden who is a contemporary of Lily May Ledford of the original Coon Creek Girls.
A Sears guitar hung on Bev’s wall for a time after her graduation from a Houston high school. But she took it down and tuned it up in 1977, while raising a family, and has been writing and singing her songs ever since. “Mama Used To Dance” is a song for all deferred dreams, while “The Taking” demands justice for homeowners facing environmental destruction by coal companies. She also loves to sing Texas-style swing, as evidenced by “Silver Dew on the Bluegrass.”
Karen, a Midwest Norwegian, adopted her Southern home while attending Berea College. A country dancer, she started her own troupe in Covington while studying fiddle with Guy Blakeman (of WLW and WLS fame).
Sharon, a college buddy of Karen’s, studied clarinet as a youngster growing up in Henry County, then picked up the bass after displaying her virtuosity on the washtub during the first year of the Reel World.
Elise, the latest member of the Reel World, mixes her Jewish roots with honky-tonk blues piano. She met the other members of the band during a tour in Virginia and now plays full-time with them. The instrumental “Velvet Stomp” is her first composition for Reel World.