The first time Cathy Fink heard bluegrass music, she was 20 years old. It took her all of 20 seconds to become hooked. "It was like the door had opened on a whole new chapter of my life," she says. "It was around 1972, and I was living in Montreal. Here was music that I didn't even know existed, and all of a sudden I was going to hear it every night."
Fink, who plays the banjo, fiddle and guitar, will present "Banjo Pickin' Girl: A Celebration of Women in Country Music" tomorrow at the National Museum of American History. She'll offer a multimedia presentation between 1 and 2 p.m. that includes a live performance, slides, video clips and tapes of old recordings. From 2 to 4 she'll perform with Ola Belle Reed and Alice Gerrard in a round-robin concert of traditional, contemporary and original country songs written from or about a woman's point of view.
"We are three women who have drawn on tradition in order to let it influence our songs," Fink says. "We're showing that it's not such a fluke to have women who are good instrumentalists. After all, a lot of great banjo players learned to play on their mama's knee, and although many women didn't perform, they were the carriers of the tradition."
Reed, 69, who plays the banjo and guitar and sings, is originally from North Carolina, where she grew up in a family of traditional musicians. "She's also a terrific songwriter," says Fink. "Some of her songs, like 'High on a Mountain,' have become classics, and this will be a rare opportunity to see Ola Belle in public." Fink calls Gerrard "one of my favorites. She offers such a realistic painting of women's lives."
When putting together the program, the trio was intent on expressing a different consciousness within the country music genre. "A lot of country is geared toward the male point of view," says Fink. "You know, girlfriends and going to bars. We tried to consider songs and artists who were saying something besides the common theme of 'boy meets girl.' But this is not being promoted as a feminist event, although it is a feminist concept to highlight women's contributions."
Fink, who moved back to Baltimore, the place of her birth, five years ago, is a champion of country music in all its forms. In addition to her performances, she offers workshops on playing the five-string banjo, gives multimedia presentations, and lectures to colleges about the songs of working women. A favorite interest is children's education. She firmly believes in the importance of exposing them as early as possible to different aspects of the arts that they might never encounter at home.
"Even in Washington, which has a lot of country and bluegrass, you could grow up and never hear the stuff," she says. "I should know." With a missionary-like sense of purpose, she spreads the good sounds of country to classrooms throughout the area, realizing that she will meet many children whose only encounter with her music is through television. "The banjo is used for chase scenes and unintelligent hillbillies. For them to have an enjoyable musical experience with me when one of my instruments is the banjo helps to broaden their minds."
For Cathy Fink, the discovery of country music was in many ways as exciting as the music itself. Since that time she has been eager to share with her audiences, no matter what their ages or backgrounds, the beauty of another art form. "I want to let them know that there is a big world out there expressing itself in so many ways that are acceptable," she says. "I got involved and never stopped. Now look at me!"