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Important Women in Folk Music

A look at some of the great women of American folk music

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Women have played an extraordinary part in American History. Whether moving toward freedom from slavery, freedom in the workplace, or the freedom to make one's own choices, women have positioned themselves as voices of empowerment and endurance. These women have lent their incredibly important voices in the struggle for their own rights, civil rights, human rights, and the movement for peace. The women of American Folk Music are no exception. Here's a look at 30 notable women in folk, roots, and Americana music, in alphabetical order.

Alison Krauss

Alison Krauss
photo: Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images
Prodigious fiddle player Alison Krauss has become one of the most in-demand women of the folk and bluegrass worlds. Just about every record that comes out of Nashville these days seems to have something to do with Alison Krauss. Her beautiful songs and distinct voice, along with her just absolutely likable presence, make her a hard act to beat. She's managed to influence a whole generation of artists in folk, bluegrass, old time, and rock and roll alike.

Ani DiFranco

Ani DiFranco
© Danny Clinch
Ani DiFranco has been releasing records on her own, with her fierce feminist folk songs for over 20 years. Her innovative guitar work has revolutionized the way the instrument is played. She's started and maintained one of the most successful artist-run labels around, and has lent her voice and muscle to the preservation of civil rights and her hometown of Buffalo, NY. And, in spite of all this, she continues to write timeless and beautiful music.

Be Good Tanyas

Be Good Tanyas
© Robert Karpa
The Be Good Tanyas are a trio of women who have been delivering incredible harmony-driven contemporary folk songs for years now. Pulling from traditional music and updating it for a new generation, the Tanyas have become a favorite on festival stages and among their cult-like following.

Catie Curtis

Catie Curtis
courtesy Compass Records
Catie Curtis has been writing earnest love songs for over a decade. Her sentimental songs about longing and heartache have kept her in the hearts of fans of the New England songwriter scene all the while. She's also been a tireless and vocal advocate for gay rights and, with Mark Erelli, won the International Songwriting Competition for her Hurricane Katrina-inspired song "People Look Around."

Claire Lynch

Claire Lynch Band
photo: Kim Ruehl/About.com
Claire Lynch has long been a champion of the contemporary and traditional bluegrass scene, earning several accolades for her expert vocals from the International Bluegrass Music Association. While she's experimented with different traditional Americana styles through the years, its bluegrass for which she's best known.

Dar Williams

Dar Williams
photo: Fernando Leon/Getty Images
Dar Williams first appeared on the New England songwriter scene in the 1990s and has since become a mainstay of the national contemporary folk music scene. A favorite at festivals and in theaters alike, Williams is also a staunch environmentalist who has frequently used her work to raise money for earth-conscious organizations.

Eliza Gilkyson

Eliza Gilkyson
© Red House Records
Eliza Gilkyson's musical gift may have been inherited from her songwriter dad, Terry Gilkyson, but she's certainly carved her own niche in the contemporary singer-songwriter world. Tending more toward the alt-country end of the spectrum, Gilkyson is a favorite at folk festivals.

Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images
Emmylou Harris' career has run the gamut back and forth between classic style country music and contemporary folk, ever since her debut in the 1970s. She's always managed to defy musical genres, though, by sticking to a determination to sing honest songs, from wherever they may come. Her three-decade career has outlasted so many trends as to make her one of the most reliable singer-songwriters on the scene.

Erin McKeown

Erin McKeown
photo: Kim Ruehl/About.com
Erin McKeown has been a staple of the New England songwriting scene since her debut in the 1990s. With a degree in ethnomusicology, she is a consummate experimenter with musical styles. Her work has ranged from folk-punk to jazz and beyond, and she continues to release surprising, excellent records one after the other.

Holly Near

Holly Near
© Pat Hunt
Holly Near has been making records for over thirty years now, and her influence has not yet stopped being felt in American folk music, and beyond. She started one of the first ever woman-owned record companies in 1972, when she opened her own Redwood Records. For her advocacy of human, civil, and women's rights around the world, in 2005, Holly was named one of the 1000 Women for a Nobel Peace Prize.
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