Women and Music


By Laurie Paolicelli

Popular music – rock, folk, R&B, country, you name it – has always been influenced, and dominated at times, by female songwriters, singers and musicians. That’s never been more obvious than it is today: women are at the heart of the contemporary music industry. Think Taylor Swift and Beyonce, if you’re not already thinking about them, which you probably are. Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Lucinda Williams. But there is a vast supporting cast of talented female musicians out there as well, and many of them got their start right around here.

“I think North Carolina is a bridge state,” says Grammy award-winning artist, storyteller, and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens who has already left a powerful mark on Southern culture. She grew up in North Carolina surrounded by bluegrass music, but her musical interests led her to other genres, as well.

Rhiannon Giddens. Photo courtesy of Our State Magazine.

“I feel like what I do as an artist is bridge things. I bridge classical and secular. I bridge black to white. I bridge country to blues. Even though that stuff doesn’t really need bridges, that is something that I do.”

Rebecca Newton has an almost institutional memory of the local music scene. Since 1987, Rebecca has performed as half the (in)famous pure country music duo ‘Pinky Wyoming and Duke LaCrosse’, with Jim Watson, and is founder of “Rebecca & the Hi-Tones,” a North Carolina musical maintstay for over 30 years. Rebecca thinks many North Carolina singer/songwriters consider Carrboro and Chapel Hill ground zero for their careers.

“Historically, Chapel Hill/Carrboro was the beginning for most of us. I was 19 and got my “break” at the Cat’s Cradle on Rosemary Street near Tijuana Fats, spring of 1975, with the Bluegrass Experience. Another local beloved female musician, Taz Halloween, got her start at The Cave and Pyewacket in the 80s. She’s still a legend among musicians in Chapel Hill. So many women got their start, found their community, and had support in Orange County, for so many decades now. The connections and musical events alone set the future for us.”

Since then, female singers from our stomping grounds have won awards and respect worldwide. While space limitations restrict us from an all-inclusive list of of the women from North Carolina who have made an impact on music and the music scene, we’ve included a performance list at the end of this story, and linked to places where you can hear some of these women live.

Tift Merritt.

UNC alum Tift Merritt has released seven studio albums, and been nominated for a Grammy, Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, and Song of the Year. She’s been compared to Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris, but with a North Carolina lilt, and her sound has been described as “sonic short stories and poignant performances” – fitting, since she graduated from UNC with a minor in creative writing.

Libby Rodenbaugh.

With a background in classical violin, Mipso’s Libby Rodenbaugh’s fiddle work has been a huge part in defining what has become the definitive Mipso sound. It’s a beautiful, popular sound, too: Mipso clocks over 200 days of the year on the road.

Emily Frantz of Watchhouse (formerly Mandolin Orange) is an Americana/folk duo based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Emily Frantz (vocals, fiddle) and her husband Andrew Marlin (vocals, mandolin, guitar, banjo) of Mandolin Orange have spent their career as a folk duo and felt it was due time to shed their skin and rename their act. They are now Watchhouse.

UNC alum Laura Ballance is co-founder of Merge Records. In 1989, Ballance, alongside her bandmate Mac McCaughan, founded Merge Records for Superchunk and similar artists. Since then they’ve recorded musical acts from all over the world.

Rachel Kiel.

Growing up in Chapel Hill, Rachel Kiel’s interest in songwriting was sparked by her family’s record collection and her hometown’s interconnected indie rock, jangle pop, and alt-country scenes.

Hillsborough resident, Molly Sarle, is better known as one third of the trio Mountain Man. Her solo work has a kind late-night karaoke vibe.

Over the past decade, Tatiana Hargreaves has been on the forefront of an up-and-coming generation of old time, bluegrass and new acoustic musicians. From placing first at the Clifftop Appalachian Fiddle Contest, to her bluegrass fiddling on Laurie Lewis’ Grammy-nominated album The Hazel And Alice Sessions, Tatiana shows a musical fluency that flows between old time and bluegrass worlds with ease.

Rebecca Newton appreciates Lucinda Williams’ perspective on how many women find music a healing release from anxiety and troublesome times.

Me, Abby Sheriff (my oldest daughter) and my Mom (Jackie Reynolds) on the screen.

“Playing music takes me back to places and times that I remember fondly. And it’s healing in that way. When I’m playing the guitar and belting out a tune, I feel as if I’m expressing my feelings and emotions where sometimes words fall short,” says Newton. “Music can give us strength; music can make us stronger. Women have used music to overcome difficulties in their daily lives for hundreds of years. Women who create and inspire us should be supported in order for us to continue to do so.”

“The healing power of music connects women and creates a collaborative and supportive environment for exploring and processing life experiences,” says Sallie Scharding, singer and songwriter. Currently performing with Beaux Monde.

If you’re in Hillsborough, you can hear many of the female musicians listed here at Yonder Bar in 2023:

Taz Halloween will be singing on Oct 20
The inimitable Katharine Whalen brings her Jazz Squad on Oct 19
Sara LaFone fronts the Orange County Lockdown on Oct 27
Katharine Whalen is back on Nov 16
Michelle Belanger’s Mystery Hillbillies play Nov 25
Crystal Bright will blow your socks off on Nov 30
The Whiskey Honeys are an all-female singer band with 4-5 women up front, including Jane Davis and Becky White. They are performing their annual Xmas show on Dec 15 And Chrystal Dail Leonard’s LIQUID GARCIA brings their Very Merry Jerry Xmas show back on Dec 16
Katharine Whalen’s Jazz Squad returns on Dec 21

Other local venues, include:

Learn More About Local Female Musicians Here

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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