hen local Bluegrass legend Ma Crow considers the question of what makes her latest group, the all-female Lady Slippers, so unique among all of the amazing outfits on her storied résumé, she doesn’t hesitate in delivering her answer.
“They’re ladies!” Ma exclaims at the Northside Tavern, responding figuratively and literally at the same time. “They’re down to earth, genuine. They’re here for the music and I’m very inspired when I play with them. There’s no melodrama. Not only are they good musicians, they’re very good people. I think it’s more important that you’re playing with good human beings.”
The Lady Slippers have only been operating in this configuration — Ma on guitar/vocals, multi-instrumentalist Trina Emig, upright bassist Vicki Abbott, fiddler/harmony vocalist Margie Drees — for the past six months, but the foursome has already experienced a good deal of drama. Five years ago, Ma’s previous all-female aggregation, the Mother Pluckers, began working on what would eventually become the just-released Smoky Junction album. The dissolution of the Mother Pluckers and Emig’s three-year health hiatus slowed things down considerably.
“They think I have rheumatoid arthritis,” says Emig, who has played with Ma for the past dozen years. “We were having a great time playing, right in the middle of recording the CD, and I couldn’t do it. It was too painful. But it’s in remission, so I’m glad to be playing every minute I can, while I still can. This was like a miracle.”
With Emig’s dim health prospects, Ma made the difficult decision to abandon the recording of Smoky Junction altogether and, coupled with the demise of the Mother Pluckers, nearly turned her back on music entirely.
“I had given up on ever recording it again, ever having a band to play with,” Ma says. “I had just let it go. I thought that life is loss and it must be meant for me to do something different. Then Trina got better last year and the universe opened up. We have a CD, wonderful women to play with and things seem to be coming together. I couldn’t do it without (Emig). This girl can do anything. She’s got that cowgirl spirit. Get ’er done.”
With Emig able to resume playing — she also produced, co-mixed and mastered the album and designed the band’s website — Ma and her rotating cast of musical friends finished Smoky Junction, which is credited solely to Ma Crow due to the album’s shifting personnel. The solo billing is also the result of the personal nature of the album, a collection of covers and traditional old time songs.
“It’s a tribute to my home,” says Ma, who was born in Cincinnati to parents who had migrated north from Tennessee. “Every song is dedicated to somebody I care about, and there are special things to people I grew up listening to. It’s a dedication to my home, my friends and my family.”
The formation of the Lady Slippers, which Ma christened in honor of the wild orchid, occurred after a series of happy coincidences. The band possesses a wealth of talent — Ma’s history is well documented (playing with Katie Laur, The Flock, the Medicine Show, and the Mother Pluckers, as well as endless sessions and side gigs), while Emig has played with Appalachian Grass, Kentucky 31, Laur’s All-Girl Bluegrass Band among others. Abbott is a DJ at WorldwideBluegrass.com and has played bass for various bands since picking up the instrument three years ago. Drees, a CCM grad, has played with the Jenni Lyn Band, Crossroads and Bittersweet, among others. Their first experience playing together as a group was clear proof of their undeniable chemistry.
“Trina and Ma needed a bass player in January for a benefit,” Abbott says. “Then we played the Appalachian Culture Festival at Union Terminal. The four of us had never played together until we went to a birthday pickin’ party in May.”
“(Ma and I) did get together for a couple of jam sessions but it didn’t really click,” Drees says. “We didn’t really try to sing a lot together, but when we did this last time, it really seemed to come together.”
Certainly one of the best outcomes from the formation of the Lady Slippers is the quartet’s unexpected Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEAs) nomination in the Bluegrass category. Ma is no stranger to the awards process; she won a 1999 Cammy Award with The Flock, and she’s been nominated several times for CEAs (with Katie Laur’s All-Girl Bluegrass Band and the Mother Pluckers). Given their short history, the Lady Slippers’ nomination is particularly sweet.
With a full slate of dates coming up, the Lady Slippers look to be perpetually busy well into the new year. And with Smoky Junction finally finished, Ma and her new bandmates are planning to hit the studio again this winter to write and record a proper Lady Slippers album.
“We’ve talked about it,” Drees says about creating original material. “We don’t have anything yet, but that’s one of our goals.”
“I’ve never written anything that I thought anyone would want to listen to,” Ma says. “When I was in the Flock, Dave Gilligan wrote a lot of songs, and they were either about lost girlfriends or political statements. I don’t want to do either. I just want to sing about foggy mountain tops.” ©
For music, show dates and more info onMA CROW AND THE LADY SLIPPERS , visit macrowmusic.com.