Opening The Door: A Conversation with Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer

Photo credit: Irene Young                    

Written by: Sam Gleaves

About five years ago I attended a fabulous concert in Lexington, Kentucky. The Reel World Stringband were performing with Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. To borrow Gaye Adegbalola’s term, all of the musicians I heard that evening are my “sheroes.” Sitting in the audience and in complete awe of the talent, the activism, and the good spirit of all of them, I never thought I would have the privilege of performing with any of them. Now I often have the privilege of spending time at home, on stage and various off-stage places along the road with Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. Both Cathy and Marcy have been tremendously encouraging to me as mentors. Cathy produced my first recording, “Ain’t We Brothers,” and Marcy was there throughout the recording process. Both of them offered their constant support and lifted me up as I sang songs about my life as a musician and a gay man from central Appalachia.  They are “true believers” in passing on music traditions and knowledge to people of all ages, but they give special attention in their lives to teaching young musicians, sharing licks and business know-how and heart-to-heart conversations. They make time for this in between their busy schedule as performers, teaching artists, record producers and recording artists. Their children’s albums have earned them two Grammy awards and their most recent duo record, titled “Get Up and Do Right,” is their forty-fifth recording. We have recently recorded an album as a trio, titled “Shout and Shine” after a song that Cathy wrote to sing at the Shout & Shine Celebration of Diversity in Bluegrass event hosted by the Bluegrass Situation and Pinecone during the International Bluegrass Music Association conference in 2017.

Cathy and Marcy weave their values into their music in a seamless and natural way.  I admire this greatly. As musicians, they are always honing their craft, studying and learning and expanding boundaries by bringing together different musical styles. They are activists, educators, conscientious human beings, married partners, and they both have a zest for life. They are pioneers in embracing and promoting diversity in roots music. That is the theme of our conversation.


SG:  I’m hoping we can talk a little bit first about your new recording, “Zoom a Little Zoom.”

CF: “Zoom,” I don’t exactly know, but it’s about our twenty-third kids' album. The songs were written by Hy Zaret and Lou Singer. Hy Zaret and Lou Singer wrote the Depression-era song “One Meatball,” which a lot of people in roots music know. Hy Zaret and Alex North wrote “Unchained Melody,” which is a huge song. In the “One Meatball” song, the sad story is that the guy can only afford one meatball in a restaurant for the 15 cents he had. One of the interesting things here, in light of this Bluegrass Pride article that you’re writing, is that Hy Zaret not only wrote some extremely popular songs but he was very interested in writing music for social justice and he wrote a lot of -- he called them “Little Songs on Big Subjects.” You can look him up if you go to the Argosy website.  There’s a whole bunch of songs about civil rights, there’s a whole bunch of songs about making the world a better place, and he also became very interested in using music to teach kids, particularly about science, and so he did six albums of songs about science in the 1960s. The short story is that his son Robert Zaret commissioned us to create a contemporary “best of” those songs. That’s where “ZOOM A LITTLE ZOOM: A RIDE THROUGH SCIENCE” came in. So Marcy and I had the pleasure of listening to all of Hy Zaret’s work and picking from those six LPs, what we felt like were the ten best songs not only because the science was good but because musically we could do really fun, diverse arrangements with them. It’s been a long time coming. We started talking with Robert Zaret over twelve years ago and so here we are finally, on March the 30th, releasing this album, but we’re very excited about it because we’ve been involved with playing music for kids and families separately and together for close to forty-five years and together for over thirty-five years.  We’ve done two albums for kids celebrating diversity. One was in 1992 called Nobody Else Like Me and one was about two years ago called “DANCIN’ IN THE KITCHEN: Songs for All Families.” On ZOOM A LITTLE ZOOM” we’re dealing with science but we’ve got really diverse music in there, everything from rockabilly to klezmer to old-time to Irish, and we love the idea that almost anything kids learn can be made more fun with music.

SG: I think that’s certainly true. I think that opens an interesting topic, which is that you two have promoted diversity in your music not only in terms of the themes of what you sing about, but the many genres of music that you’re interested in and so proficient in playing, and I’d love to talk with both of you about that, how you haven’t limited yourself to one musical genre and what that journey has been like.

MM: When I was a little kid, I grew up with swing and jazz all around me in Detroit. My mother listened to Motown and Ray Charles and James Brown and I had an aunt who played country gospel songs on a guitar. My grandmother played hammered dulcimer and her mom played the fiddle, so I was pretty steeped in Northern traditional music and really it’s the same tunes, it just has a different lilt to it. It’s more French Canadian influenced in a sense that the dancing is more up and down, straightforward and on the beat and I would characterize the Southern music as having more of a sway to it, a different sway to it. The same tunes, “Red Wing,” “Mississippi Sawyer,” you know, a bunch of those tunes. I played with everybody. They didn’t all play music together very often, the jazz people did, but I just really enjoyed playing with everybody.

And then I met up with a local music store in Flint, Michigan and a bunch of people through the years had come up to work in the car factories, they’d come up from the mountains. There was an amazing bluegrass jam every Friday night where people would get up and perform, sing a few songs, you’d form little groups in the back and you’d work up a number or two and then you’d get up and perform. So that was totally different than the jazz that I grew up with. I think I just loved bonding with people and I almost didn’t care what instrument I was playing. I loved that connection between people playing music and when you’re singing, you know, you’re breathing at the same time and there’s an amazing, sweet bond that happens. And really, playing with my grandmother as a kid, I played guitar and she played hammered dulcimer, and the bond that that gave us lasts to this day. She took me in through some troubled times with my family and I would stay with her for lengths of time and the thing I remember most is just the sweetness of playing music together. She wasn’t really a talkative person and it just made me strong in life and it made me really appreciate that musical connection. And also, it was an opportunity to learn from people with different backgrounds than my own through their music.

Well then, when I started playing folk festivals, there would be musicians there not just from different parts of our country but from around the world, so Cathy and I would jam with the bands from South America or some African musicians and it was really that same glimpse into their lives and that same connection that was just so wonderful. We just kept going from there. If I name musical styles that I don’t find interesting and find a personal connection with, they’d be limited to probably two or three music styles in the world.

SG:  Cathy, I would love to hear about your musical journey too in terms of different genres and influences.

CF:  Well, as a kid, I just plain loved singing. My first musical memory is insisting that my mother accompany me on the piano while I sing my two favorite songs, which were “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Little Brown Jug.” I loved singing in choruses, I loved chorus in school, all the way through high school. I loved Broadway music, I had memorized Broadway musicals start to finish. I also really was drawn into the folk music that was being played on the radio in the 1960s. That’s where I first heard Pete Seeger, that’s where I first heard Joan Baez, where I first heard a lot of songs that stuck with me. I had a little songbook and the first song in my songbook that I wrote out was “Wimoweh,” which was, of course, performed by the Weavers.

Eventually this all led me to take up the guitar and years later, when I was nineteen and I moved to Montréal to go to McGill University, I was very aware that there were still a lot of coffeehouses there and I started frequenting them, doing dreadful sets in the open mics, but that’s actually where I got exposed to a lot of music that was right around the corner from where I grew up but I never heard. It just wasn’t in my neighborhood. That’s where I first heard someone play bluegrass banjo and clawhammer banjo and fingerpick “Freight Train” like Elizabeth Cotten. That opened a door that lead to me taking up the Appalachian dulcimer, that led me into a lot of traditional Appalachian music and studying up on the music of people like Jean Ritchie and eventually, I was in a duo for five years [with Duck Donald] where we specialized in singing old-time duets, a lot of the old brother duets, any kind of duets we could find from old-time and bluegrass music. We probably knew five hundred of them.

When I left that group and I went out on my own, I realized that in the bluegrass world that we also traversed in, I rarely sang lead and I realized that the reason for that was that there just were not very many songs for women to sing lead. The songs were all about some guy’s little darlin’. I loved how the music felt and I loved how the harmonies sounded and how they felt and I loved the sound of the Delmore Brothers and Bill Monroe and all of that, but for lead singing, there just wasn’t that much there [for women]. That’s when I embarked on this journey to research and highlight the history of women in country music over the course of many years. I eventually in the mid-eighties did an album for Rounder Records called “The Leading Role,” and the title song is an Ola Belle Reed song, “Only the Leading Role Will Do.”  I also recorded her song, “Where the Wild, Wild Flowers Grow.” It led me to research and meet as many of the influential women pioneers in country music as I could. We became very good friends with Ola Belle Reed, we became friends with Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, we became very close with Patsy Montana, the first woman in country music to sell one million records. We toured with Patsy for about ten years and recorded her last album, but I also did radio shows on the history of women in country music, I did some lectures for women’s studies programs and that always felt important to me.

In the late eighties, I kept noticing all of these lovely albums of bluegrass boy jams. Fabulous musicians, people whose music I loved and respected, you know. Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush and on and on. There were never any women on these projects. I just felt like, “Well, that’s wrong, there are some great women musicians out there.” I brainstormed a couple of projects, but the one that stuck became the album “Blue Rose” on Sugar Hill Records with Laurie Lewis, Sally Van Meter, Molly Mason, Marcy and myself. It was really the first album of its kind. I would say that there was ground already broken in California with the Good Old Persons that included Kathy Kallick, Laurie Lewis, and Sally Van Meter, but they weren’t really out there on a national basis yet. I think “Blue Rose” brought a lot of national attention to women in bluegrass and to all of the players on that project.

From there, I’ll just say that Marcy and I do what we do. We have never felt that it was important to us to stand on stage and say, “Hey everybody, we’re gay and we play this kind of music.” We feel like it’s important to just plain be true to who we are. For instance, on our first album “Fink & Marxer” on Sugar Hill, we recorded some straightforward bluegrass duets like Hugh Moffatt’s “Last Night I Dreamed of Loving You,” a non-denominational bluegrass gospel song that I wrote called “Walking in the Glory of the Lord,” but on that same album, we recorded my song “Names” which is an anthem to the AIDS Memorial Quilt. That was important to us. We sang that song in every show for years. We toured Japan with the Japanese AIDS Quilt volunteers. We did a lot of concerts and events all over the country where the quilt was being shown, including one at East Tennessee State University. ETSU had a quilt display and we did a concert that was part of the education part of that whole quilt display. We write songs that are political in nature, we write songs that are fun in nature, we write pure country songs, we write swing songs. We play the music that we want to play.

We are gradually now seeing things move ahead in the bluegrass and roots music world, in a similar fashion to the rest of the world. Bluegrass wasn’t willing to take the lead in welcoming diversity. The lead has been taken elsewhere but bluegrass has now realized that it is the right thing to do and that every one of these community members in bluegrass has family members or friends who come from diverse backgrounds, be it nationality, be it sexual orientation, be it whatever. So I feel that finally, the bluegrass world is starting to embrace that diversity and that’s a good thing. I’m excited about that possibility.

MM: I feel that for the first time in the last couple years. In the past, the door has been shut to diversity totally. It would be a rare person to come through that door. The door is open now. Now what it takes to have more diversity is for more of the general public to understand that that door is open and feel brave and free about stepping through that door and learning from elders and meeting people. I look forward to that happening.

CF: I want to give a thumbs-up to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, who are working separately now, who have put a lot of effort into bringing along some up and coming black musicians who have really learned from them and are going to help burst those doors open further.

SG: That’s all really important and I really value the work that both of you have done to promote diversity through your music and open those doors. I think both of you are definitely a significant part of the number of people that pushed those doors open. What do you think could be done by musicians and arts organizers to make traditional music or the roots music world more inclusive?

MM: I think that I would draw on the past experience of the Civil Rights Movement. My parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement and the way my Mom explained it to me was, “Anytime there is someone that is getting the short shift, that doesn’t have the rights that they should have as a person, then it’s the responsibility of everyone else who does have those rights and is in that door to stand up and say something.” I think that same thing is true. Now you would call it white privilege in the field of civil rights. The Civil Rights Movement would not have happened if many people did not get involved. There were black people, Jewish people, Christians, all standing up to make it right. Of course, we still have a long, long way to go. Then gay rights became an issue and really what it took for people to start taking gay rights seriously was for people outside the gay community to stand up and say, “Yes! These people are citizens. They’re part of this country. Everyone belongs.” Bluegrass is a small version of this country, but it’s definitely a reflection of what this country has been. When that door is open, it’s really up to everyone who feels like they have a strong foothold or a medium foothold, but it’s up to everyone who already feels included to speak up and say “Yes. You are welcome here. Now is the time. Come on in. Here, do you know this lick? Do you know this person, that person?” and take personal responsibility. That’s not only for the organizers. That’s for the musicians and the people who love the music and the fans, that’s for everyone to reach out and bring people in.

CF: To add to that, I think it behooves the bluegrass community for all of the music camps and the kids' music camps to reach out to diverse communities with outreach and scholarships and friendships and pull them in where there is interest. To make this music more accessible, we have to make it more available as well. There are tons of festivals that have bluegrass camps - reach out to various different communities there and get more people involved because they feel welcome, because there is scholarship money, because they’re going to add a whole new big batch of friends. By bringing in more diversity, our lives are going to be richer.

MM: If people step near the door and look in, let’s say we’re using that as a metaphor if they don’t feel welcome, if they feel like they have to fight to be there, they’re not going to come back. We have to provide that atmosphere as players. There were times in our early days in bluegrass where I did not feel welcome. I felt suspect. I just kept going back because it was my goal to just stay an open-hearted human being and let people know that I was a musician, I loved the music and I respected anyone who played it, no matter what their background was, and in a sense, it was my responsibility to be somewhat of an icebreaker.

CF: I want to say a big thank-you to Bluegrass Pride because I think Bluegrass Pride, along with the Bluegrass Situation and with Pinecone who together have hosted the Shout and Shine Diversity Showcase at the International Bluegrass Music Association. Remember, it’s not hosted by IBMA, it happens during that week. I would hope that IBMA would get involved in hosting it. I think Bluegrass Pride took a whole new step in a two-way street of bringing bluegrass visibility to gay audiences and welcoming gay audiences to bluegrass. Hats off to Bluegrass Pride. I am very excited about the work they are doing and my t-shirt is on order.


Cathy Fink serves as an advisor to the Strathmore AMP Artist in Residence program

As “social music conductors,” they coordinate Strathmore’s UkeFest and teach at a number of music camps for musicians of all ages.

Marcy Marxer serves as a mentor in the Strathmore AMP Artist in Residence program

Sam Gleaves is a singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter from Wytheville, Virginia. Rooted in Appalachian traditions, Sam’s songwriting sings of contemporary rural life and social issues. Sam earned a degree in Folklore from Berea College and he makes his home in Berea, Kentucky where he also serves as the coordinator of a new Appalachian music camp, the Singing Bird Music School. For more information about Sam, please visit


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