Ma Crow is a small woman with tiny hands and feet and long, thick strands of dark, wavy hair that she wears caught up in a comb on one side of her face. When you look at her sometimes you can see clear to the wise child in her, the way the lift of her hair accents her arched eyebrows, the level look in her gray eyes.
Her voice sparkles. Onstage, she is in total command. She plays a D-28 Martin guitar with a pre-amp, and she plays it as delicately and forcefully as she sings. She is full of native American lore and old sayings.
"People come into your life for a season, a reason or a lifetime," she told me once. "Twenty years ago I had dreams that would come and tell me things that were going to occur. My dreams don't come as much now. I don't know why.
When she's tired of sitting and playing the guitar, she clicks the heels of her "frou-frou" shoes together and almost flies out of the room.
Ma was born in Cincinnati, but her parents had moved here from Norma Mountain, Tenn., after World War II so that her dad could get out of the coalmines and into the carpenters' union. (Listen to "Cryin' Cross Kentucky to Be Leavin' Tennessee," a song Dave Gilligan wrote for her; her life seems to have been spent criss-crossing states and moving back and forth.)
Her father's name was Eugene White, and he was in the Navy during World War II. Before they traveled north, he and her mother had met playing Country music in a band. After they got here, they never played professionally again.
"Sometimes I think I'm living their dream," Ma says. "I used to drive 500 miles to get my Daddy to tune my guitar."
Nowadays musicians have a variety of mechanical devices to do that for us, but I know what she means. It was her way to be close to him.
"My brother, Butch, played in a band up in Michigan on weekends," she says. "When I started playing music, I didn't really have an agenda. It was just something everybody did.
"Mommy and Daddy sang together all the time. Mommy had us singing in church. The preacher's family had a daughter, Lela Byrd, and her brother Leslie could sing. I could hear him sing from where we lived. There was a girl on the bus named Annie who sang all the time, and I had a cousin Gwendolyn whose voice could fill a room, even into her seventies."
Ma says her father tried to teach her to play guitar but that her hands weren't big enough to reach chords.
"I started teaching myself when I was 24," she says. "I got the Mel Bay book to learn the chords, and from there when I moved back to the Ohio Valley (Indiana) there were pickers on both sides of the river and I had a lot of opportunities to get into pickin' circles and play with a lot of good musicians.
"I had met David Gilligan and the boys (from her band, The Flock) in 1987, and I had already been playing with him. I met them in Cincinnati and drove over here to play with them. Yeah, I played with David and the Flock at the Seasongood Pavilion, and my mother was in the audience. She said I should stay and play with the people in Cincinnati. I was also playing with people in Louisville. But she liked the Cincinnati people."
Ma laughs and sighs at the same time. "She'd always say, 'That's not the way that song goes,' Always. Then she'd do it for me. I knew early on to stick to the traditional version. My Dad died young, and by that time she was the best critic I had."
Ma says she's currently playing and recording with friends like Brad Meinerding, Andy King and Trina Emig, and they're "just trying to find our way." She says she has no long-term goals for her music.
"Mainly, I just feel lucky that it's been part of my life," she says. "You know how people choose or how their profession chooses them. I had no expectations at all. What I do is not on a superstar, Nashville level, but I've been there playing alongside those musicians. I've played a lot of music, and I'm thankful for that.
"I used to drive all night with the Flock for no money just to play music and have a big time. But that's not realistic anymore. I've seen women who get lost in lives they never wanted, but I've got that guitar, and that does it for me. It would be nice not to have a day job. But I don't know if I could live that close to the edge anymore."
With any luck, she won't have to. Though she doesn't write a lot of music, Ma Crow makes the songs she sings her own, and she's particularly drawn to interpreting the music of Hazel Dickens.
Sometimes in the evening when we sit together and sing or go down to the riverbank to watch the currents, I see her looking far away, and I wonder how long we can keep her here watching the river roll by.
CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here the first issue of each month.