Sally Ann Forrester, Bluegrass Accordionist

As a follow-up to my previous post, here’s a great 1947 short film of Ramblin’ Tommy Scott and his Merry Mountaineers, featuring bluegrass/old-time accordion pioneer Sally Ann Forrester:

Forrester got her professional start in 1939, singing and playing guitar on a radio “barn dance” program in Oklahoma. She married one of her bandmates, fiddler Howdy Forrester, and the two of them went anywhere available gigs would take them. After stints at radio stations all over Texas and Illinois, they wound up in Nashville, finding work with a traveling “tent show” of various Grand Ole Opry stars that eventually included Bill Monroe.

As Murphy H. Henry tells it in her book “Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass”:

The outrageous financial success of [the show] inspired Bill Monroe to take out his own tent show in the spring of 1943. [...] Monroe knew that Sally Ann was a seasoned performer who could pull her own weight with the show. And having a woman on the show was considered an asset.

At some point–and it’s a mystery exactly when this happened, or why–Sally Ann began playing accordion rather than guitar with the Monroe’s (now inaccurately-named) Bluegrass Boys. If you listen closely, her accordion playing can be heard on the handful of tunes the group recorded for Columbia in 1945, including one of my favorites…

After Monroe’s band, Forrester and her husband (along with their newborn son) found their way back to Oklahoma, then to Texas, and finally back to Tennessee. In 1951, Howdy began playing fiddle for Roy Acuff and would continue to do so for most of the rest of Acuff’s career. But Sally Ann had apparently had enough of the music business by then and took a “day job” with the government. She died in 1999 from Alzheimer’s disease, with few today remembering her role as arguably the first woman in bluegrass.

Henry wraps up her chapter on Forrester with this:

For many years Sally Ann’s playing and her accomplishments were generally disregarded. After all, it was only an accordion. And she was only a woman. But the fact is, she was there at the beginning, showing us that women have always been a part of bluegrass. Others would follow.