Grace Elizabeth Hale

Grace Elizabeth Hale is Commonwealth Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Virginia where she teaches US cultural history. She is the author of Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (Vintage, 1999) and A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (Oxford University Press, 2011), and Cool Town: Athens, Georgia and the Promise of Alternative Culture (forthcoming in 2018). She has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, American Scholar, Journal of American History, Southern Cultures, and Southern Spaces.

"Grace Elizabeth Hale, Playing Like a Girl:  Gender and Amateurism in the Athens, Georgia Music Scene"
 In 1978, when her art school friend Randy Bewley asked Vanessa Briscoe Hay to “audition” for the band that would become Pylon, she told him, “You know I’m not a singer.”  She had played flute in the high school marching band in her tiny hometown, Dacula, Georgia, but she had no experience as a vocalist beyond singing along to the radio. She got the job because Bewley and his art student bandmates Michael Lachowski and Curtis Crow respected her as an artist.

Almost every woman who played in Athens bands in the late 1970s and 1980s has told a version of this story.  Vocalists Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s and Dana Downs of the Tone Tones, guitar player Vanessa Vego of Mystery Date, and bass player Kelly Noonan of Billy James had never performed music publicly before joining bands.  Lynda Stipe and Linda Hopper of Oh OK learned to play and sing, as Stipe put it, “while being in the band.” “We were not musicians,” Claire Horne of the Bar-B-Que Killers, a band that helped pioneer a harder, darker aesthetic locally in the mid-eighties, told me.  Backed by a male rhythm section, singer Laura Carter bared her breasts and screamed her desire for both men and women.  Horne played guitar “that was dark with a snarl to it.” People always told Horne she was “aloof on stage, but it wasn’t intentional.”  “I had a hard time performing,” she insisted. “I had to really concentrate to hit eighty percent of our mark on a given night.”  Across the first decade of the Athens music scene, only Kate Pierson, a vocalist and keyboard player in the B-52’s, who had performed as a folksinger, had previous musical experience.

My paper will draw on my Karl Miller’s brilliant work on amateur music-making and my own forthcoming narrative history of the Athens music scene based on over one hundred and fifty interviews with participants to explore the relationship between amateurism and gender. In the first decade of the scene, local bohemians’ celebration of amateurism gave women license to play.  When bands tried to move beyond the local scene, however, touring and negotiating with labels, the amateurism of women musicians invited sexism.  As Lynda Stipe remembered, soundmen told her to pluck her bass harder, that she “played like a girl.”  More than once, male audience members unplugged her bass during shows.  Ironically, the historical association between women and amateurism worked better for queer, gay, and bisexual men trying to create new ways of being male rockers—Ricky Wilson of the B-52’s, Mark Cline of Love Tractor, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., and Tom Cheek of the Kilkenny Cats, for example—than it did for women.