Bev Futrell remembers when the Reel World String Band first played in New York. Already noted nationally as a topically inclined ensemble of music-making women from Central Kentucky, the band had Futrell’s then-5-year-old daughter in tow when it arrived at the club it was to play. At the bar, however, was a social worker who didn’t exactly approve of blending parenting with performing.
“The owner talked to us about it, so we, as band, said we just wouldn’t go up for a second set,” Futrell said. “But he finally offered us his office upstairs, so she was able to stay and sleep up there.”
Then the memories poured out.
“We were actually onstage when the owner was talking to us,” banjoist Sue Massek recalled. “We walked off the stage.”
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“We were like feminist lawyers,” fiddler Karen Jones said with a laugh. ‘We were like, ‘This is an affront to working women.”
So how does Futrell’s daughter, now 40, view the experience of being among the many longtime fans of Reel World’s folk, protest and Appalachian-themed music?
“She feels like she has five mothers,” Futrell said. “And that’s just fine with her.”
Bluegrass was pretty much male-oriented back then. We were looking at the music from a new perspective. Our harmonies were really different. Also, for a lot of the bluegrass festivals, we were considered too political.
Bev Futrell, Reel World String Band
While Reel World will turn 40 next year, its members — completed by bassist Sharon Ruble and pianist Elise Melrood — make no secret that the band’s duty as a fully active performance entity is essentially complete. Last spring, it donated a trove of archival material to the University of Kentucky Libraries to put the wraps on its career. Reel World performs a reunion show of sorts this weekend at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, but there will be little pageantry tied to the event. There is no new recording to promote and no real celebration planned for the impending anniversary.
Instead it will offer an opportunity to play music with two long-established friends, the Grammy-winning folk/country/swing duo of Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, and one new acquaintance: Sam Gleaves, 24, a Virginia native now living in Berea who toured overseas this past summer with folk veteran Peggy Seeger. Gleaves cites Reel World as a vital artistic influence. The band views his inclusion in Sunday’s concert as a generational and artistic “passing of the torch.”
“I loved hearing Reel World and Cathy and Marcy together about four or five years ago,” he said. “I loved that combination and wanted to hear it again. I seriously think all the ladies in Reel World have been real inspirations to me. It’s been wonderful to get to know them all as friends.”
The Reel World inspirations being, in effect, bequeathed to Gleaves, were initially realized when the band formed in Lexington in 1977. With local clubs nearing the end of a bluegrass boom that had dominated the region just a few years earlier, Reel World arrived as a string band in terms of instrumentation. Its music, though, largely took its cue from older, pre-bluegrass sounds and mountain harmonies with a pervading sense of social and political consciousness. Bluegrass bands sang of family, faith and lost love. Reel World did, too. But it also addressed, among other subjects, women’s rights, coal workers’ rights and environmental awareness.
“Bluegrass was pretty much male-oriented back then,” Futrell said. “We were looking at the music from a new perspective. Our harmonies were really different. Also, for a lot of the bluegrass festivals, we were considered too political.”
“When you see a banjo, you’re thinking bluegrass and not necessarily folk or old-timey music,” Jones said. “But that’s OK. It’s all culturally based and pretty closely tied with old-time and traditional music. Of course, then we added piano, which took us totally out of bluegrass.”
I seriously think all the ladies in Reel World have been real inspirations to me. It’s been wonderful to get to know them all as friends.
The gradual downshift in Reel World’s visibility in recent years is largely attributable to a focus on other activities. Futrell and Jones perform in TDH4, the newest incarnation of their group Tall, Dark and Handsome. Massek remains an active writer and playwright, Ruble has immersed herself in photography, and Melrood plays with the local jazz trio Paper Moon. Still, what has fortified the Reel World members through the years was a personal and professional bond that will carry over into Sunday’s concert and whatever sporadic performances the band might or might not involve itself with in the future.
“I don’t know if this is unique to other women or not,” Futrell said. “But the only other group I can think of that stuck together so long was (43-year-old vocal group) Sweet Honey in the Rock.”
“For me, it was all about having a purpose for what we did,” Massek said. “But working together has always been such a dear experience for me.
“It wasn’t really ever for the money, either,” Melrood said. “That was a good thing. We were really fortunate that we were able to keep it going without having to depend on it for our livelihood.”
Jones also mentioned financial compensation when recalling the creative drive sparked by the band’s work with the Tennessee-based, grassroots-driven Highlander Research and Education Center early in its career.
“When we came back from Highlander, people who were our mentors said to go back home and find work to do. So we did a once-a-week thing at the Fishnet (the long-defunct downtown music venue and restaurant) where we had a theme each night. It was all social justice stuff, but the Fishnet always let us do whatever we wanted.”
The cover charge for those performances, Jones said, was $2.
“Our price hasn’t really gone up much since then.”