Whether it is the sounds of old mountain music, or a new fusion that blends banjo with the sounds of different cultures, banjo offers something for everyone.
The first banjo players in the United States were mostly male. But mountain women also learned to play by observing their fathers, grandfathers, brothers and uncles. These pioneers formed a path for today’s amazing female banjo players.
Let’s take a look at some of the popular banjo players you may not have heard of.
1 – Rhiannon Giddens (1977-)
First on our list, we have Rhiannon Giddens, a classically trained soprano who plays violin and banjo using the clawhammer style.
Earlier in her career, Giddens was a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning band Old Carolina Chocolate Drops, who are no longer together.
As she advances in her solo career, Giddens committed to revealing the facts about the history of country music in the United States and the diversity of Appalachia.
In addition to her many awards, she has received the Americana Heritage Award from the Nashville National Museum of African American History.
She has several diverse projects currently in progress, including the music she is writing for Omar, an opera that will premiere in 2022.
2. Abigail Washburn (1977-)
Abigail Washburne based in Nashville is a clawhammer banjo player, singer, and songwriter.
Abigail is married to Bella Flick, the famous 15-time Grammy Award winning banjo player. She has recorded two albums with him, including a self-titled debut that won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Popular Album.
Before a record deal was shown at the Bluegrass conference, Washburn, who speaks Mandarin Chinese, was studying to become a lawyer in China.
Her latest album is a collaboration with her old friend Wu Fei, the talented composer and Guzheng who blends Chinese and Appalachian folk sounds.
Washburn has received recognition for her work with China, and is one of the few foreign artists to currently touring in China.
3 – Alison Brown (1962-)
Grammy Award winner Alison Brown learned to play the banjo at the age of 10. At the age of sixteen, she began touring the country playing festivals, which eventually led to an invitation to play at the Grand Ole Opry.
Brown attended Harvard University and earned an MBA from the University of California. She played in a band while at Harvard University but went on to work for two years with Smith Barney after earning her MBA.
Brown left the business world to pursue a musical career, focusing on fusing banjo with jazz, bluegrass, folk, Celtic and Latin.
Today, Brown is on international tours with Alison Brown Quartet. She is also a composer, record producer, and co-founder of Compass Records.
4 – Willow Osborne (2000-)
21-year-old phenom Willow Osborne started playing the banjo at the age of four and performing professionally at the age of eight.
As a native of Pigeon Forge, of Tennessee, Willow learned to play the banjo with Gary “Biscuit” David, a four-time International Banjo Champion.
She has appeared in many productions in Dollywood and has played in the Bluegrass and Barbeque Festival in the Park several times.
Willow will appear in the inaugural Medora Musical in June 2022. She is currently playing with her friend Jeanna Zenz in the alternative folk duo Always Evergreen.
Willow has an active social media presence on YouTube and Instagram. She appeared in IMAX America’s Musical Journey in 2018.
5. Veronica Loretta “Ronnie” Stoneman (1938-)
Veronica Loretta “Ronnie” Stoneman is the 17th child of country music legend Ernest in “Bob” Stoneman.
Ronnie’s brother, Scott, taught her how to play with Earl Scroggs’ three-finger banjo picking method at a young age.
At five, Rooney began her singing career at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. She and several of her siblings joined the Stoneman Family Band.
Rooney rose to prominence on the banjo and became known as the “First Lady of the Banjo”.
Rooney eventually left the band to join Team Hee Haw. She played Ida Lee, “The Ironing Board Lady” and many other characters in the comedy show.
Rooney still performs at state and county fairs and folk festivals.
6. Mary James (meaning Mary) (1980-)
Mary James plays 11 instruments but is known for her country, her people, and the Banjo Americana.
At the age of four, Mary learned to play the guitar and co-wrote with her mother the song “Mean Mary from Alabama” before she started kindergarten. The title is stuck.
Mary’s family moved a lot, at one time they lived in a tent in northern Minnesota. When she was young, music became Mary’s life.
Mary and her brother Frank found their niche specializing in re-enacting historical and Civil War music. They finally made it to Hollywood, where Marie worked in show business for three years before settling down in Tennessee.
In addition to producing music and travels, Marie is a novelist and YouTube star. She has recorded 16 albums.
7. Kristen Scott Benson (1977-)
As one of the top bluegrass banjo musicians in the country, Kristen Scott Benson is a side musician for the Grammy-nominated band The Grascals.
This band is a two-time winner of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).
Kristen has been named IBMA Banjo Player of the Year five times. She also received the 2018 Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
In addition to her work with The Grascals, Kristen has released three solo albums.
The Grascals have performed for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and have appeared nearly 200 times on The Grand Ole Opry.
Kristen is currently co-writing a book called 25 Great Bluegrass Banjo Solos. For the book, she interviews her favorite banjo players.
8 – Ola Bell Reid (1916-2002)
Appalachian banjo picker, singer, and songwriter, Ola Belle Reed, moved from Lansing, North Carolina, and moved to Maryland during the Great Depression.
Ola learned the clawhammer banjo from her family around the age of five, followed by guitar.
In 1949, Ola formed the New River Boys and Girls team with her brother Alex. She wrote many songs about her Appalachian past and traditional values.
The University of Maryland awarded Ola an honorary Doctor of Arts degree in 1978 for her contributions to the arts.
In 1986, she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Ola performed at the 1972 Smithsonian Folk Festival and recorded 75 songs for the Library of Congress.
9 – Laila Makala (1985-)
Laila Makala is a multilingual musician who plays cello, tenor banjo, and guitar. She sings in Haitian Creole, French and English.
Lila’s Haitian roots greatly influence her music. She was born to Haitian immigrant parents in New York City and later moved to New Orleans.
She is a former cellist at Carolina Chocolate Drops, where she has played with acclaimed banjo players, Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons. She left the band in 2013 for a solo career.
Laila has recorded three albums and is working on a new album.
Her music is an earthy fusion of sounds that evoke images of the Haitian Creole experience and the black United States experience.
10 – Matuki “Toki” and Laurel Slaughter (1919-1999)
Virginia-born Matuki Slaughter was an American claw hammer player who also used pick-and-pick techniques.
Matuki came from a large musical family that made a radio show in the 1940s.
Matuki was a distinguished banjo player in the 1960s at Clawhammer Banjo, Vols. 1-3.
County Records producer Charles Forot traveled to Virginia to find older traditional banjo players, and included Matuki on the album. The record has become beloved by younger banjo players around the world.
Matuki has appeared in many festivals and workshops. Matuki Slaughter and Buck Creek formed buddies. Together they recorded one album, Saro, in 1990.
11. Lily Mae Ledford (1917-1985)
Lily Mae Ledford was born in 1917, and raised in Kentucky. She learned banjo and violin from her relatives and formed a band called Red River Ramblers with two of her siblings.
In the end, Lily May received an invitation to go to Chicago, where she appeared on a barn dance radio show.
Lily Mae majored in playing the clawhammer banjo. She became part of a girl band called Coon Creek Girls.
The Con Creek Girls played Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the King and Queen of England. They separated in the late fifties of the last century.
Lily May began performing back in the 1960s. She received a National Fellowship Award for Recognition of the Heritage of the Arts in 1985 for her techniques in picking banjo.
12- Cynthia May “Amy’s cousin” Carver (1903-1980)
Cynthia May “Cousin Amy” Carver was a Kentucky-born country singer who learned to play the banjo and violin as a child.
Cousin Amy played old mountain music and had her own radio shows in the 1940’s and 1950’s. She was very popular but only recorded 1 and 1 album.
In the 1960s, she rediscovered and recorded an album with The New Lost City Ramblers, which helped her find a new audience.
Cousin Amy was a brilliant performer, and was always out to have a good time on stage.
She also appeared in a couple of Hollywood movies and lived in Los Angeles for many years, raising two adopted children and playing local music clubs.
Summing up our list of the greatest women banjo
As you can see, many amazing female musicians play the banjo.
With its roots in ancient mountain music, banjo music reminds us of the times when life was simpler.
However, today’s musicians are innovating with the banjo and developing their craft.
No matter which style you prefer, playing the old and modern banjo is music that is tantalizing to the ears.
We hope you discover some new songs from these amazing banjo players!