“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” That quote from Greek philosopher Aristotle appropriately applies to the critically-acclaimed all-female bluegrass band, Sister Sadie, the IBMA-nominated Emerging Artist of the Year in 2016. Individually, each lady in the group stands impressively on her own merits.
“The combination brings an extra energy that maybe we don’t bring individually,” explains Beth Lawrence, bass player and one of four vocalists in the group. “Every time you start playing, it’s not like you’re trying to plow through it or force your way through it. It’s effortless in a way, and you’re feeding off one another.”
Joining Lawrence in this multi-talented lineup of musicians is Tina Adair on mandolin, Deanie Richardson on fiddle, banjoist Gena Britt, and Dale Ann Bradley on vocals and guitar. Adair and Bradley lead their own bands. Richardson is an in-demand side player who has performed with Bob Seger, The Chieftains, Vince Gill, and Patty Loveless. Lawrence is a respected freelance player while Britt’s steady right hand lays down the groove currently for Alan Bibey & Grasstowne. Dale and Deanie were members of the all-female band, New Coon Creek Girls, and Gena was a member of Bradley’s band at one point in her career.
“It’s chilling at times,” said Adair. “I get excited thinking about being able to sing with these ladies and the music behind it. Being a part of a band is like being in any other type of relationship, professional or personal. If there’s a chemistry there, you know it, and if there’s not, you know it.”
The chemistry in this group consists, in part, from four extraordinary vocalists sharing the lead. “There’s so much variety,” says Britt. “It’s a good stage show. Everybody brings their own to the stage show.”
“When we sing, I’ll tell you, it would be just like a sibling,” says Bradley of her harmonizing with Adair. “We’re that in sync. On stage, there will be little times that we’ll do the same thing vocally, when she’s in harmony with me and I’m leading, or she’s leading and I’m singing harmony. We’ll do the same vocal turn, and we’ll get so tickled. I enjoy that because she really syncs in on everything.”
“We’re there to play good music, hopefully, and have a good time and share that with the audience,” adds Adair. “Dale Ann and I do most of the talking on stage. I love our banter together. I get my opportunity to pick at her a little bit, and it’s fun. I don’t know that she’s had a whole lot of that in her own band. It’s funny because her band is from eastern Kentucky and I’m from north Alabama. It just makes for a great combination.”
The name of the group is inspired partly by Tony Rice’s song “Little Sadie,” along with the feeling that the band members are close as sisters. The five ladies stepped on stage as a cohesive unit for the first time at The Station Inn in Nashville, Tenn., near Christmas of 2012.
“We were just doing it as a fun one-time thing,” Britt said. “Man, when we hit the first note, we were kind of like, ‘Huh!’ Everybody was looking around at each other like it felt really easy and good.”
“It was pumped! It was a really strong energy. Not anything on my part,” adds the five-time IBMA Female Vocalist Of the Year Dale Ann. “They’d do great without me. They’re just all awesome.”
“I’ll never forget it,” Adair recalls. “It was around four o’clock in the afternoon, and we were going to rehearse a little bit. We were like, ‘Maybe we should pick a little bit before we get up there.’ I remember we did ‘This Heart Of Mine.’ It just felt magical. This just feels right. It’s easy. It’s very comfortable. There’s not any of us in the band trying to outshine the other. It’s truly trying to complement each other. We felt that from the first downbeat.”
“It’s kind of like a drug,” says Richardson. “You’ve got to have it. It feels great, and we all have a ball together.”
“The crowd loved it,” says Britt. “Somebody took some videos and put it on YouTube. I started getting a couple of phone calls, wanting to know if we’d be interested in doing that configuration at a couple of other places. We talked it over and said, ‘Yeah, we could do that once or twice a year.”
However, the demand for the bluegrass ladies continues to grow. In 2016, besides two gigs at The Station Inn in Nashville, the quintet performed at bluegrass festivals in Boston, Mass., Leonardtown, Md., Abingdon, Va., Lanexa, Va., Woodstown, N.J., and Farmers Branch, Tex. The band could easily play more dates, but each of the women has other commitments musically and with family. “It falls into place so easily,” says Lawrence. “We’re thinking maybe we should do more and see where it can go.”
“I don’t see us turning anything down unless we’re previously booked, or we absolutely can’t do it,” says Bradley. “I think we’ll do as much as we can within reason.”
“We don’t want to do too many [shows],” adds Britt. “We don’t want to lose the special spark it has. We don’t want to get bored with it. We want to be excited when we go out and do it.” Part of what makes Sister Sadie click musically on stage is who the women are off stage. “I think it’s the camaraderie, and the friendship that we have,” explains Britt. “It’s just like family,” describes Lawrence. “We laugh, and we tickle each other. We laugh from the beginning of the trip to the end.”
“We’re all a lot alike and yet we’re all very different,” says Adair. “We’re all very strong-willed women, God bless us! At the same time, we’re very cooperative with each other, and we know how to compromise when we need to. You’ve got to have that to make it work.”
Each member brings a special quality that makes the group as a whole function like a well-oiled machine. Richardson describes Beth Lawrence as “quirky and fun, sensitive and sweet and very kind. Gena’s the epitome of a classy good ol’ North Carolina great woman. Dale Ann is so heartfelt and soulful and genuine and real. Then, there’s Tina, who is one of the funniest human beings I have ever been around in my life.”
“Beth is like the momma bear,” says Adair, the youngest member of the group. “She’s very caring and wants to make sure everyone’s okay. Gena is very organized and has got stuff together when we need it. Dale Ann is like our mama. At the end of the day, if we’re having a hard time making certain decisions, we’re like, ‘We have to talk to Dale Ann now.’ Deanie Richardson is a phenomenal performer. To see the charisma she has on stage is awesome.”
“We enjoy each other so much,” Bradley says. “We’re so proud of each other. I think Tina is one of the best singers ever. I’m so proud of Deanie. She’s such a uniquely awesome player. Beth is a darling and a joy to work with. There’s no better right hand than Gena Britt. I love them, and we’ve been best friends for so long.”
“Dale Ann is very, very funny,” Adair says. “She entertains us and, half the time, doesn’t even know she’s doing it. The things she says we just get so tickled about it.”
From a business standpoint, the ladies are equal partners. “Each of us is a fifth,” explains Adair. “Each of us will take ownership of certain things that we need each other to do, but it’s all a group effort in the end. Gena does all our bookings as well. She’s kind of our accountant. I do a lot with social media and website and communication with the record label. Deanie and Beth help a lot with the travel stuff. Each us has our own jobs and responsibilities, but if we need help somewhere down the line, we come together as a group.”
“We don’t do a song unless everybody’s on board with it,” explains Lawrence. “Nobody has a veto necessarily. It’s pretty much everybody votes, and you want everybody’s approval to go forward because you want everybody enjoying the music that you’re playing.”
Those decisions resulted in their self-titled debut, Sister Sadie, that the band dedicated to one of their musical heroes, female bluegrass pioneer, Lynn Morris. Morris and her husband, Marshall Wilborn, wrote the second cut on the CD, “Don’t Tell Me Stories.”
“I’m very pleased and honored to have such a dedication from Sister Sadie!” said Morris. “I’ve admired each band member for a long time, and I’m really enjoying the CD—the songs, overall production. It’s a very fine recording.”
“It doesn’t sound like girls playing,” laughs Britt. “It doesn’t sound sissy. It’s really good music. I’m proud of it.”
Except for a few minor adjustments, the album was cut live in only three days in the studio. “I’m really happy and honored and proud of what we’ve recorded,” says Bradley. “I feel like it’s got emotion all over it. It’s true. It’s genuine. It’s not a bit ‘slicked’ up. What you hear pretty much is the real deal.”
Prior to recording, the girls met for a woodshed weekend at the great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee to practice for the album. “We got a cabin and did more cooking and laughing than anything,” Bradley recalls.
Sister Sadie’s label, Pinecastle Records, gave the group full creative control. Tim Austin produced the CD. “We knew we needed someone on the first go around album to wrangle us five women in,” Adair says, laughing. “He gave us a lot of room to make our own decisions. He was kind of there helping direct, guide, and drive it.”
Dale Ann says the ladies had no problems working together: “Gena said, ‘I want to sing two songs.’ Beth said, ‘I’d like to sing one.’ And Deanie said, ‘I’ve got a fiddle tune.’ It just kind of fell into place. Then, we separated the other songs and tried to make some trio songs out of that. We really didn’t specify anything. It’s that easy with those girls. There’s no problem at all. I want them to shine, and they are just as supportive of me.”
The CD peaked at Number 4 on the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart in July, claimed the number two spot on the AirPlay Direct Bluegrass Album charts in May, and was number three on the AirPlay Direct Top 50 Album charts that same month. The first single, “Unholy Water,” is currently Number 4 on Bluegrass Unlimited’s National Bluegrass Survey, and debuted at Number 11 on the Bluegrass Today chart. Richardson and Bill Tennyson wrote the song. “I had heard all the songs about running moonshine and that whole spiel,” says Richardson. “I wondered, ‘Has anybody ever written a song from the moonshine’s perspective?’ We wrote the song coming from: ‘This is what you do to me, and this is what I’ll do to you.’”
Throughout all the fun and frivolity, Sister Sadie enjoys performing or simply hanging out with each other. Yet, there was one serious moment that shares another final ingredient of the band’s character. “One of the most touching moments in the studio for me personally, and I know the other girls would say the same thing,” recalls Adair. “Dale Ann wasn’t feeling well whenever we were recording. She would be lying on the floor one minute and trying to get fluids to be hydrated and be up to where she could do it. Then, the next minute she was in pain. When we did ‘Look What I’m Trading For A Mansion,’ she literally got up off the floor in the control room and went in the booth to sing it. And it was magic. One take! One and done! She says, ‘Is that okay baby? Is that alright?’ We were like, ‘Don’t touch it; it’s perfect!’ There was no editing on it. That’s how good she is. A lot of times, she doesn’t even know it. She’s very humble. That was just a magical good moment for all of us. All of us other girls were inside the control room when she was recording it. It made tears come for me. You realized who you were in the studio with and how good she truly is.”