Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester, First Woman in Bluegrass


Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester

She was born, Wilene Russell, in 1922. Her family called her Goldie Sue. Her classmates called her Billie. She performed as Sally Ann Forrester. Was the confusion created by having too many names the reason why Wilene Forrester is slow to be recognized as the “First Woman in Bluegrass”?

All humor aside, in 1943, Wilene was hired as an accordionist by Bill Monroe just as he coined the name for the music they played, called “Bluegrass”. She was compensated and performed as one of the Bluegrass Boys.  As Ginger Rogers said of dance partner, Fred Astaire, Wilene did everything “The Boys” did, only “in high heels”.  She was good enough to work as a musician with the band, tour and record with them. In 1945, Wilene, as an accordionist and as one of Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys, recorded eight great Bluegrass classics, “Rocky Road Blues”, “Kentucky Waltz”, “True Life Blues”, “Nobody Loves Me”, “Goodbye, Old Pal”, “Footprints in the Snow”, “Blue Grass Special”, and “Come Back to me in my Dreams”.

Was the lack of recognition based on the fact that she was a proficient accordionist, and not perceived as a ‘real’ Bluegrass musician? Did she lack the ‘chops’, the right ‘creds’, a good enough reputation, or not invest enough years of her life as a musician to be accepted? Is the Bluegrass establishment reluctant to acknowledge her contribution because she was from the Southwest, and not from the Southeastern side of the U.S.? Did she fail to show, at any time during her professional career, that her work ethic did not measure up to, or even exceed those of her fellow, male musicians? If these are seen as issues, they were not then, or when Wilene worked for years, before World War II, as an entertainer at barn dances, tent shows and on radio programs. Having studied voice, she sang beautifully, and often. As a teenaged professional entertainer,  she moved easily between piano, guitar, and fiddle. By the time she met Bill Monroe, Wilene Forrester was a seasoned, capable and confident multi- instrumentalist and was very, very good.

But, if it was the post war determination to regroup and rebuild America that led Wilene to abruptly say goodbye to her dream, we will never know. She left the group, and along with husband, Howdy Forrester, started a family.  She worked for the rest of her life as a civil servant, performing occasionally.  Wilene Forrester passed away in Nashville from Alzheimer’s in 1999.

Even today, like many women artists and performers, Wilene is not given credit for her work, and not seen as standing alone,’glowing like a beacon in the night’. Instead, women have been presented as being only a mere reflection of light cast by men, who are promoted as the authentic sources of creative energy. Women have to prove that they are worthy of any acknowledgement by their associations with certain men. Critics are quick to discredit and second guess a woman’s accomplishments, qualifying and redefining how men actually made their accomplishments possible.  Women are held to a different standard than men are, by having to explain themselves and justify their hard won accomplishments.  Credit should be given to the loving Grandfather that taught her how to play the fiddle and to Howdy Forrester, who recognized her talent and personality and wanted her by his side, as a musician and as a wife for 47 years. And credit should be given to Bill Monroe for hiring her. Without those men, Wilene may not have taken the next step (or maybe she would have taken other opportunities and perhaps have remained in the music business longer).

Bill Monroe saw and utilized her talent, along with Wilene’s growing experience and professionalism, enlisting, “Sally Ann” (Monroe coined her name, as well) to perform with them from the early 1940’s through 1946. He clearly saw her value and benefited from her stage and recording presence. It’s not an issue of whether she was paid, but rather that she has been made to seem that she was not really there, and simply “holding a place” for someone more valuable until he could return. We see her in photos and hear her on recordings, and because she was neither invisible nor silent, that should be enough to establish her presence in the band. What we are really lacking is her version of her own story. Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester, either did not seize the opportunity to speak about herself, or any of her experiences, or was not offered an opportunity to do so. This is a sad loss for all musicians and for those interested in Bluegrass music.

The music industry should recognize and validate that, just as Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass “Boys” are given credit for “working through coming up with their sound”, Wilene was there, working through it, alongside them. It is her sound, too. Just as they own a part of that contribution, she owns a part of it, too. This is the legacy of Wilene Russell “Sally Ann” Forrester. She must be given credit, and not forgotten as “The First Woman in Bluegrass”.

Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys II
Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester with Bill Munro and his Bluegrass Boys 1946

Many thanks to Murphy Hicks Henry as my resource, for her insightful book about Wilene and other great women in Bluegrass: “Pretty Good for a Girl, Women in Bluegrass” (University of Illinois Press)and for her interviews on YouTube and in print.


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