20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers

The First Ladies of Bluegrass Special Edition | Bass

Published March 5, 2021

In part 24 of our series,

Missy Raines —Grammy nominee and award-winning bassist of the First Ladies of Bluegrass—

is our guest for a truly exceptional Q&A.

Timely and perfect to herald Women’s History Month, Missy has an empowering, recurring message to and for women: Women can do whatever they want to do.

Missy has moved us deeply and inspired us with her words. She shares about writing for therapy, playing with the legendary Mac Wiseman, personal loss, the story and inspiration for her Royal Traveller, 2020 Grammy Nominee for Best Bluegrass Album, and much more.

Join us in spending this quality time with Missy through her lovely and engaging writing. We think you will enjoy every moment of it as we have.

~ NoteWorthy Music

Missy Raines | Photo by Natia Cinco

Photo by Natia Cinco | All photos courtesy of Missy Raines

20:20 with Missy Raines

NWM 1): Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Missy: I am from the Allegheny highlands and a little spot called Short Gap, West Virginia. It sits about six miles (depending which route you take) across the Potomac river from Cumberland, Maryland, where I was born, went to church, and shopped. The C&O canal runs through there and it’s also not far from the headwaters of the Potomac. The ‘Gap’ for which my home town is named, is an actual gap in the Alleghenies that travellers used to navigate the mountains from the Shenandoah Valley to points west. Despite the fact that Short Gap is virtually a crossroads with a volunteer fire department, George Washington spent the night there. A very little known fact.

My parents were going to see live music (early country and then bluegrass) long before I was born, but they didn’t actually play themselves. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know what bluegrass was. Our house always had music on the stereo, or the sounds of friends and neighbors playing in our living room.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know what bluegrass was.

As the youngest of four kids, I was the only one who ended up picking up an instrument and sticking with it. Once my parents realized what music meant to me, they spent all their time and money making it possible, so I could be around as many musicians and as many opportunities as possible.

I married my best friend and soulmate, Ben Surratt, 33 years ago in December—we’ve been together for 37 years. He’s a recording engineer by trade, a natural musician, a fixer of all things, and one of the best humans I know.

NWM 2): By unanimous vote of NoteWorthy Music staff members who were present, the First Ladies of Bluegrass—the all-female bluegrass supergroup, which includes all the first women to win in their respective categories at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards: Alison Brown (banjo, 1991); You (bass, 1998); Becky Buller (fiddle, 2016); Sierra Hull (mandolin, 2016); Molly Tuttle (guitar, 2017)—was our favorite set at the 2018 RockyGrass.

The First Ladies were also part of a historic all-female Saturday-night headline set at the 2019 Newport Folk Festival, which included Dolly Parton and was curated and hosted by Brandi Carlile. Tell us something about that July night in Rhode Island.
Missy: What I most remember about that night was the feeling of camaraderie with all of the women on stage, and there were many who I didn’t know personally, but I felt we might have all been thinking the same thing.

It was high time that a woman (Brandi Carlile) curated the Saturday evening show at such a prestigious event as the Newport Folk Festival …

I think every single woman on stage that night might have been thinking that it was high time that a woman (Brandi Carlile) curated the Saturday evening show at such a prestigious event as the Newport Folk Festival, it was historic, and it was time.

And I think everyone was thinking that Dolly is a goddess. In every possible way. Because she is.

First Ladies of Bluegrass

First Ladies of Bluegrass performing at the Country Music Hall of Fame Theater, December 2019 | L-R Becky Buller, Molly Tuttle, Missy Raines, Sierra Hull, and Alison Brown

NWM 3): Name three things that make you smile.
Missy: A happy animal, a happy child, and the ocean

NWM 4): Apart from live music, what are you most looking forward to when things return to ‘normal?’
Missy: Being with my friends at a restaurant.

NWM 5): What song/album could you play on repeat?
Missy: Tony Rice’s Manzanita album. Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

NWM 6): You and Alison Brown engineered the First Ladies train out of the station by bringing the supergroup together to record the Laurie Lewis composition, ‘Swept Away,’ for your Grammy nominated album, Royal Traveller, which Brown produced.
The collaborative single was named the IBMA 2018 Recorded Event of the year.

While the lot of you have noteworthy careers apart from the First Ladies, did you have any idea at the time that the combo would become a band of note beyond that initial recording? And what has the fact it did meant to you?
Missy: I can’t say that I had any idea that us playing together would create such a stir, and I never imagined that one thing would lead to another and turn into actual live performances and a ‘sometimes’ band. Alison gets the credit for the idea in the first place—she had the vision.

[Alison Brown] and I remember a time when neither of us even knew four other women who were doing exactly what we were trying to do.

Playing with the First Ladies has given me a chance to bond with these women in a unique way. The five of us share the honor of being ‘the first to win …’, but in many ways we have had individual paths getting here. We’re different ages, and/or come from different geographic backgrounds and to some degree, our influences were vastly different.

Despite that, we have all struggled with similar obstacles and are all facing the same challenges as band leaders, as women, and as independent artists in today’s world. Alison and I, being the same age, have talked many times about how utterly amazing it is to have four other women in the room at the same time who you can relate to on that level. The whole concept of that is a precious gift to the two of us. The idea of having a support team that consists of people who look like you is way more commonplace now, but she and I remember a time when neither of us even knew four other women who were doing exactly what we were trying to do.

The First Ladies of Bluegrass experience has thrown a spotlight on how far we’ve come, but also where we need to go yet.

Missy Raines | Photo by Natia Cinco

Photo by Natia Cinco

NWM 7): If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Missy: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival. Aretha Franklin anywhere.

NWM 8): What are your special interests beyond music?
Missy: I love animals. I love cats and dogs. I have four cats. I would have dogs, too, but my touring lifestyle (’til this year) would make it hard to keep a dog.

I love to garden. I like planning flower beds and planting flower beds and veggies and herbs too. I like feeding birds, all kinds of boring things like that. I like to cook, and I like to make soup or pot roast or any kind of one-pot dish, especially on a cold day. I like to swim. I love mysteries. I love hiking especially in the winter. I love walking in the woods in the snow, or even better, while it’s snowing.

I particularly like the northern Atlantic with it’s briny smells and blue-grey color. Caribbean waters are too perfect for me.

I also love just looking at the ocean. I like looking at it, swimming in it, walking beside it, and smelling it. Oh, and listening to it. I particularly like the northern Atlantic with it’s briny smells and blue-grey color. Caribbean waters are too perfect for me.

NWM 9): What is something that has surprised you in your life or career? Tell us a bit about it.
Missy: I think I am most surprised in life by how hard it has been to make a living playing music. I wouldn’t have chosen any other life, but I think when I was very young and thinking about a future in music, I always thought it would get easier. Of course, it has in many ways, but not as much as I imagined it would. I think it’s a symptom of the value society places on the arts (or lack of).

NWM 10): Not only were you the first woman to win the IBMA Bass Player of the Year Award, you went on to win the award for the 8th time in 2019, more than any other bass player in the history of the organization.

That kind of history solidifies you as an iconic bluegrass instrumentalist. As such, you no doubt have played on scores of outstanding projects. Please share a couple of stories from exceptional appearances, recordings, and bills you have played.
Missy: Well, it’s actually nine times now—I also won in 2020. 🙂

Well, there’s no doubt that the performances with the First Ladies are a part of that. Playing at Newport Folk Festival with Yola, the First Ladies, and Bonnie Paine was amazing. Being on stage singing with Dolly, oh yea!

But I also got to play with some of bluegrass’ legends like Mac Wiseman, Josh Graves and Kenny Baker, Jesse McReynolds and Eddie Adcock. Peter Rowan and Laurie Lewis. And of course I toured for years with the great Claire Lynch.

When I first started to play guitar at the age of 8, I wanted to be Mac Wiseman.

A lot of people played with Mac through the years because he never really carried a band. He would just ‘pick up’ musicians on the spot and trusted they would know his songs and went on stage and sang. No one ever noticed if the bass player went to the wrong chord because Mac held their attention right at center stage, and that’s a performer right there! But I actually did a lot of shows with him officially (and got paid) because I was working for Eddie Adcock at the time and he and Eddie went way back.

I played the WWVA [ the first radio station in West Virginia] Jamboree in Wheeling once with Mac, and that was pretty special because of the history of the radio show and it being in my home state. I had heard about the Wheeling Jamboree my whole life, it was like the mid-Atlantic’s Grand Ole Opry, and this was a lot of my childhood wonderment coming to life. Also, when I first started to play guitar at the age of 8, I wanted to be Mac Wiseman.

I also got to play Austin City Limits (ACL) in the 90s with The Masters—the name Jesse, Josh, Kenny, and Eddie took on when they toured as a group. We played a lot of big stages and they wore tuxedos, it was all a great experience. We were all acoustic, but sometimes we added a drummer as we did for the Austin show.

The folks at ACL treated us great, but a funny story with that appearance was as we were setting up for soundcheck one of the stage hands yelled, ‘Ok, we got the instruments, now we’re ready for the bass and drums.’ At that time (early 90s?) I had very little experience dealing with any stage setup as big as that one was. I remember thinking it was funny, but also not that funny. 🙂 Now, I think it was hilarious.

Missy Raines | Photo by Natia Cinco

Photo by Natia Cinco

NWM 11): What is a favorite of your songs? Please share a little about it.
Missy: Well, most of my songs are pretty personal and usually inspired by someone or some event, so they all mean different things to me. Probably the song that I can relate to a lot is one I co-wrote with Ed Snodderly. ‘Royal Traveller’ which also happens to be the title of my last CD. It is my story, at least, up to this point.

It was inspired by a piece of vintage luggage I found at a thrift store, carried around on the road, but never really noticed what ‘brand’ it was. During some back-to-back blizzards in 2015, I was traveling solo between gigs, and also taking care of some family obligations and doing a lot of hard driving in the snow. I was tired and stressed and trying to figure out what I wanted to say with my next album, all the while trying to keep it together with the projects I had going at the time.

I thought, oh hell yea, I am a royal traveller, and I have a story to tell.

One morning during this time, before heading back out on the road, I picked up that little suitcase, which also smelled just like the powder my mom used to wear inside, and, for the first time, the words on the handle suddenly popped out to me. It read, ‘Royal Traveller’ and I thought, oh hell yea, I am a royal traveller, and I have a story to tell.

I started writing it that day while driving in the snow, but didn’t finish it ’til I enlisted the help of one of my favorite writers and humans, Ed Snodderly. He is a mentor and a poet.

NWM 12): Who might we be surprised to find on your playlist?
Missy: Vampire Weekend, Joe Jackson, Prince, Mahalia Jackson, Sade, Radiohead.

Missy Raines Quartet | Photo by Mark Shore

Missy Raines Quartet performing at International Bluegrass Music Association 2019 | L-R Ben Garnett, Missy Raines, Tristan Scroggins, and Avery Merritt | Photo by Mark Shore

NWM 13): Royal Traveller features previous and current members of your top-shelf band and appearances by such greats as Stuart Duncan and Tim O’Brien. It also was a big step forward for you into the songwriting spotlight.

Tell us about the sources and inspirations behind this album and how you and Brown saw your vision through to the superb, award-winning record it is.
Missy: I’ve already touched on the story about ‘Royal Traveller,’ (the song) that is to me the keystone of the album. I started writing that song in 2015, but didn’t finish it ’til just before we went into the studio to record it in 2018. A lot of the writing I did for this album was really just therapy to deal with all the personal loss I’ve experienced through my life.

Three of those losses occurred in one year, 2015. Interestingly, they occurred after I started writing ‘Royal Traveller.’ The thread that runs through this project is one of endurance and tenacity, loving and losing. Songs like ‘Allegheny Town,’ ‘So Good,’ and ‘Royal Traveller’ all are inspired by not just where I come from, but who I come from.

A lot of the writing I did for this album was really just therapy to deal with all the personal loss I’ve experienced through my life.

Ola Belle Reed’s ‘I’ve Endured’ had to be part of this project because it resonated completely with how I feel at this point in my life and my career. Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Fearless Love’ also speaks to the fearlessness that one has to find to stay in the game. As I’ve said, I’ve experienced some loss which started when I was 20 with the sudden death of my dad. And now, all three of my siblings, both parents, and several of my husband’s family with whom I am very close, are all gone too. It’s been difficult to not drown in grief. Writing helps me process things.

My last sibling, my sister just passed away in March of 2019, which still feels very recent. I was close to all of my family, but she and I had a special bond. She was twelve years older, and there was definitely a maternal thing happening there. She did get to hear the song, ‘Allegheny Town,’ which was in part about her and how different our life choices had been and how they affected our lives. She didn’t get to know that the album was nominated for a Grammy. I like to think she would be proud.

I can’t honestly say I had a vision going into this project of what the theme would be, it was more that I chose songs that resonated with me at the time and wrote songs that were in my heart. Alison is such a great producer and has the ability to look way down the road, to see the big picture. She really helped me to narrow the choices down to the right mix of songs.

Missy Raines | Photo by Natia Cinco

Photo by Natia Cinco

NWM 14): What are your before-you-go-on-stage rituals?
Missy: Honestly, a lot of time when I’m on the road I’m running late with things like travel, soundcheck, or setting up the CD table, or just getting dressed, so I’m usually just grateful to be able to walk out on stage at the right time! But I do have this funny ‘must-do.’ I cannot go out without brushing my teeth, and it has to be within 30 minutes of showtime. I once was still brushing my teeth as we were being announced, and I refused to ‘rush’ it. I completely finished brushing my teeth and then walked out long after my band had gone out.

The other much more personal ritual I have is to hope that I can reach the people we are playing to, and to allow the best of what is me to translate to them.

The other much more personal ritual I have is to hope that I can reach the people we are playing to, and to allow the best of what is me to translate to them. I say it outloud, but softly so that only I can hear—It’s not a prayer, but a thought put into the world.

NWM 15): What message, if any, is integral to your work?
Missy: I’ve never tried to craft a specific message I don’t think, but I guess when you put yourself out there you are essentially broadcasting a message. So I do try to be sure that I am always presenting my true self. I have to get behind every word I sing and I have to believe in the music that goes with the lyric. That doesn’t mean you can’t just sing the blues, even if you ain’t got ’em at the moment. But it does mean you have to get the blues at some level, cause, I mean, everyone does, right?

Seriously, there’s the unspoken message that women can do whatever they want to do. And I try to make sure the words I use help to propel that ideal in the hearts and minds of those that come after me.

Seriously, there’s the unspoken message that women can do whatever they want to do.

NWM 16): Folk Radio, UK, says that on Royal Traveller you ‘reach beyond [your] bluegrass roots, to touch upon indie folk, jam grass and jazz-inspired material.’

For a story in High Notes Magazine—a primary line of NoteWorthy Music’s ancestry—titled ‘Bluegrass Revolution: The Mythology of Truegrass’—research for which revealed hate mail to progressive jam grass players for not ‘playing it right’—we asked bluegrass veterans like yourself: ‘Where is the line—or is there a line—between paying homage to the early greats and embracing the evolutionary alchemy of styles and genres?’ Thoughts?
Missy: Because I started playing so young, my most formative years of music were the 70s. I was a little too young for free love and all that 🙂 but the ‘freedom’ concept was not lost on me, and during that time I was regularly seeing artists perform like Bill Monroe, The Osborne Brothers, Ralph Stanley, as well as more progressive bands of the era like The New Deal String Band, Boone Creek, Bottle Hill, Bluegrass Alliance, J. D. Crowe, and everything in between.

What I came away with from that experience was that bluegrass is fluid, it’s meant to be always growing. And that growth poses no threat to the tradition. If you listen to early Bill Monroe in the late 1930s and then to Monroe in the 60s and 70s, his sound had changed and evolved because that’s what happens when you’re an artist and you explore and take risks and create.

Bluegrass is fluid, it’s meant to be always growing. And that growth poses no threat to the tradition.

Being there in person to see the 2nd (or 3rd?) generations make their own musical way, oftentimes on the same bill, the same festival, as the very influencers they learned from taught me that this was the way. This was a natural part of the process. We weren’t meant to copy, but to be influenced, to create, and then influence others—continuing the cycle.

Of course, that’s all still happening—generations later, young artists continue to change it up all the while paying homage to their heroes. I do believe that the most successful among them are the ones who do in fact truly learn and study from the origins of the music and the original players the best they can. Not to repeat what the first generation has already done, but to allow what they did to inform them and then find their own voice.

Missy Raines | Photo by Natia Cinco

Photo by Natia Cinco

NWM 17): What is the best piece of advice you have ever received that you actually follow?
Missy: I love this question! Probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever received that I have (at times) successfully followed was this: ‘Don’t divert the river.’ Given to me by my friend and former manager, Kelly Kessler, who helped me launch my first band as a solo artist, The New Hip.

Don’t divert the river of your creative energy for anything that isn’t worth it.

NWM 18): What is a favorite concert or show you have attended?
Missy: Any time I saw the Seldom Scene with the original lineup, John Duffey, John Starling, Ben Eldridge, Tom Gray, and Mike Auldridge.

NWM 19): What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
Missy: I’m a Trekkie.

Don’t divert the river of your creative energy for anything that isn’t worth it.

NWM 20): What’s next for Missy Raines?
Missy: I’m currently working on the next album. It will be the most bluegrass album I’ve done to date (as a solo artist). I’ve been spending most of the pandemic writing, and so I hope to have several originals on the CD, but I’m also finding some great tunes I want to cover as well. My band today consists of Tristan Scroggins on mandolin, Ben Garnett on guitar, and Avery Merritt on fiddle, and it’s possibly the most bluegrass-centric ensemble I’ve had yet.

This down-time has also allowed me a chance to look even a little bit further down the road as well, so I’m already thinking about what’s next after this album, but can’t talk about that yet. Haha. But it feels good to be growing.

I’m still writing as therapy, and my next album will reflect that as well. But every day we leave a different mark than the day before. And every day the pain subsides a little and the memories sharpen.

Missy Raines “Allegheny Town” from Royal Traveller. The video features footage from Missy’s youth, family, and home.

Missy Raines

Missy Raines

Grammy nominated Missy Raines was named International Bluegrass Music Association Bass Player of the Year for the 9th time in 2020, more than any other bass player in the history of the organization. Missy Raines has proven herself without doubt as an iconic bluegrass instrumentalist. But with her newest release, Royal Traveller, Raines has stepped into the spotlight as a songwriter for the first time. The album digs deep into Raines’ family life and her upbringing in West Virginia. Featuring previous and current members of her live band, as well as cameos from other bluegrass greats such as Stuart Duncan and Tim O’Brien, the album is a gorgeous look into the perspective, history, and musical influences of one of Nashville’s most beloved musicians, Missy Raines.

Royal Traveller was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Bluegrass Album” and is Raines’ third album for Compass Records. It’s the first produced by Compass’ owner and founder, and renowned banjo player Alison Brown. “I went into this project with Alison with the mindset that I wanted to stretch myself and see what I could do. I think we achieved what I was looking for, which is something further reaching and bigger than what I would have accomplished on my own,” says Raines.

With her new album, Raines tells her story with a vulnerability and bold honesty that rings clear, spoken through beautiful arrangements and well chosen musical collaborations. With nods to many of the varied and challenging chapters of her life, the songs speak volumes of Raines tenacity and musicianship, and her ability to rise to bluegrass fame despite the various confinements of the times. The listener is presented with a striking window into the up and down ride of a very royal traveller, the one and only Missy Raines.

To learn more and buy stuff visit https://www.missyraines.com/home

Be sure to read our 20:20 with Becky Buller

Check out our previous 20:20 with Susan Anders

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