Interview: Deanie Richardson and Gena Britt of Sister Sadie on “No Fear”

Credit: Eric Ahlgrim

Riding the bluegrass wave with their best album of an 11 year career.

The all girl bluegrass band Sister Sadie has won various IBMA awards and received a Grammy nomination for their music and has recently faced the challenge of replacing three of their five band members. This is all the more surprising when realise that when the band formed in late 2012 it was simply a way for a group of friends having a bit of fun playing at Nashville’s Station Inn. The new line-up has just released Sister Sadie’s third album, ‘No Fear’, which also happens to be the best album of the band’s whole career. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with remaining founding members Deanie Richardson and Gena Britt to talk about ‘No Fear’, and the challenges behind rebuilding a band with new members. It very quickly becomes clear that when the new members, Jaelee Roberts, Dani Flowers, and Maddie Dalton, joined the band the concept of Sister Sadie being a band of friends was maintained. The new band has also become more professional in their dealings with the music industry, and this aligned with the best album of their career has meant they are reaping the benefits of the latest upsurge in bluegrass popularity, generated by the significant success of Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings. Finally, Deanie Richardson, who has worked with the Chieftains,  shared her hope that Sister Sadie would tour the UK and Ireland in 2025.

What have you been doing in the five years since your last album?

Deanie Richardson (DR): We’ve had some personnel changes as I’m sure most people know, and we’ve had to deal with that and whenever you change out someone in the band the energy changes, the sound changes, you have to kind of reinvent the wheel and see where the sound is going to go. We’ve had the loss of Tina, the loss of Mary and the loss of Hasee, and that’s quite a few people to lose and to have to change up the natural shift of the energy and sound of the band. Once we landed with the five girls we have in the band now, we were just figuring out the new sound of Sister Sadie. That’s taken a minute, we’ve been playing a lot of dates, and we’ve been working up some new songs, writing some songs, just preparing for this record, and then it takes some time to get them out once you get that process started.

Does the band feel refreshed?

DR: Yeah, I guess it is kind of an organic cleaning house.

Gena Britt (GB): It’s reinventing yourself each time.

DR: It is really hard, and it’s scary because you don’t know what the reaction of your fans will be, what the reaction of the industry will be. You have to go through the fear of whether we should continue, should we just call it, can we keep doing this with a new group of people. At first, there is that fear, and then, yes, Gena and I decided we wanted to keep going, and we found these new girls and here we are with a new, fresh sound. The new album is titled ‘No Fear’, and that is exactly why we called it that, because we decided we wouldn’t live in fear of the personnel changes and we were going to get out there and tackle it, and make a damn new record.

IBMA seem to have embraced the band, what does that mean to you?

GB: It is always an honour to be recognised by your peers and the industry and that they appreciate what you’re doing, it is like affirmation you are being seen and you’re being heard. This bluegrass community is such a tight-knit community we all like to support each other

Obviously, there have been some great female bluegrass artists in the past, but what made you want to form an all-girl band because that was a big step?

DR: Just crazy.

GB: That’s a good question, and one we’ve rarely been asked, but for me, even though we are women, when we initially got together it was as a bunch of friends who wanted to play music, not necessarily because we were all women but because we were good. We appreciated each other and what everybody brought to the table, and that for me, that’s what it was.

DR: We were five women who knew each other throughout our lives, but we’d never played together, so the band started because we were intrigued as to what the band might sound like if we got together. We just did a fun night at the Station Inn, we literally rehearsed at the Station Inn before we got on stage, and in true Sadie’s style it wasn’t anything planned, it was all organic, like, hey shit, let’s play some tunes and get on the stage. We did it, and it was super fun. We all grew up in the same bluegrass era and we have the same likes, and that was helpful because we all knew the same songs. It was just a big jam on stage, and from there we just did another one, and then Gena started to get calls about dates and so we did some dates, then it was like, let’s make a record and then we were nominated for awards and Grammys and IBMAs, so we thought we might as well do this.

It’s always been this thing of we’ll do that, we’ll go and play that date, but it’s not until this year that Gena and I have sat down and said these things have happened organically, what would happen if we really put in 110%, if we got a team, if we got a manager, got a booking agent, got PR, got a great label, social media. It takes all these people to make it happen, what would happen if we went in 110% and see what happens? And here we are today with that outlook, the energy level is good, the girls are great, the vibe in the band is really sweet and loving, it’s very nice and everybody’s really excited and pumped up. It’s a great time to be in Sister Sadie.

There is a lot of talent in the band,  how do you manage the songwriting and how did you select the songs for ‘No Fear’?

DR: It’s hard, we have five women with five different creative views, and when we are about to go in again, we had started a Dropbox months ago, and everybody started throwing tunes in, and this is what we’ve always done and everybody puts in tunes they love and then we start weeding through those tunes and figuring out who should sing what, and what mic will sound good where. We are all writing a lot these days, there’s a lot more internal writing going on, and that’s nice. We have Dani Flowers in the band, a writer we’ve always called on for material, Jaelee’s writing, Gena’s writing, we’ve always cut a Gena instrumental on a record, and I’m writing a lot. It’s easy when you have those internal tunes in there, especially when they are written specifically for the band, and then it is a creative process of weeding through the tunes to decide what to record, and what makes sense with each girl’s vocal because everybody’s different.

Vocals are very important in bluegrass, how do you decide who sings lead on the various songs?

GB: We listen to the song, and I think we all hear who fits the song the best, hey, I think this suits Jaelee best, or this suits Dani’s style the best.

DR: Once you hear a song, it is easy to imagine who will sing it. Gena brings a heartstring bluegrass thing to the band, Dani is more tender and sweet like a Dolly Parton, and Jaelee can sing anything.

GB: Yes, we have so many avenues and variations of style in the band, and you throw it in a pot and mix it all together and it works very well.

Does that apply to instrumentals as well?

DR: Well, Gena has written the instrumentals and they have been hard driving banjo led, well banjo and fiddle led, and they go over really well on stage, they are really big crowd pleasers. My goal is to keep encouraging her to write those so we can keep putting them in the show because they are super fun and the crowds just love them.

Who are the main influences on the band?

GB: Me and Deanie, now the band dynamics have changed, are what she says on stage, we are the old leather bookends and we have similar people we draw inspiration from, and the younger ones probably have different ones. For me personally, my biggest influence in bluegrass and in music is Lynn Morris, she was just a wonderful bandleader, banjo player, musician, all-round guitar player and singer, and when I was learning to play she was one of the few people I saw who could play and sing at the same time. Lots of times when you saw a banjo player singing lead they stopped playing, but she just rolled right through it, and I admire her so much and I’ve learnt a lot from her in so many ways. So, she was probably my biggest influence.

DR: I would say that as a band, even though Jaelee and Dani are younger than us, they are very old souls musically and we all tend to love the same things, and as a unit I would say it is Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Tony Rice, we all love Tony Rice, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Patty Loveless, Loretta Lynn, those are the faces that as a unit have been big sheroes of ours, and it still stands true, even with the younger girls.

GB: I agree with that.

With Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle making headlines bluegrass seems to be on one of its frequent rolls at the moment. Is that how you see it?

DR: It does seem to circle around, with ‘Down From The Mountain’ it circled around, and here we are again and I think Molly and Billy have a lot to do with that, as Allison Krauss did at one point. Surprised at our success, yes. We never got in this intending it to be anything other than five friends playing at the Station Inn. So yeah, surprised at the longevity it’s had, it’s been, what, eleven years now and at 52 years old it feels like it is exploding, and maybe that is because of the surge in interest in bluegrass music that Molly and Billy are creating. The excitement out there is certainly true, and I think we are working it a lot harder than we have, we are really being intentional about it. We have a group chat and we text every morning, and we share what we are talking about and the dreams for the band, manifesting in our energies and what we really want for this band, and putting out positive intentions for all that. I think it is honestly a combination of all that, that is really working for us right now. As I said, we are now putting in 110% where before we were waiting for the phone to ring, great if it did, if it didn’t, that’s fine too, you know.

I noticed the album is available on Dolby Atmos on streaming platforms. How has the bluegrass audience embraced streaming?

That’s a tough one. I’m still kicking and screaming on that one, it is so hard. We were on the Bluegrass Cruise last week and it was an older crowd, and I asked them who streams music and there were like two hands. I feel that most of our audiences at bluegrass festivals are still buying CDs so we are still selling CDs. For me, the streaming thing is still brand new, I’m still trying to get my head around it and how it even works. Luckily we have a team of people working with us who are way more involved and concerned about that so I don’t have to be. I’m all for let’s do it, but it is still brand new for me.

You’ve all worked in the music industry and had other jobs, is that at an end now and is it 100% Sister Sadie?

GB: I’ve got two daughters, Dani has a son, and Deanie has a granddaughter, so we all have other priorities and responsibilities that we have to take care of and make sure they are first. So I still have another job for now, and we all have these other things we are doing, but we are getting very busy and it is getting harder to juggle them all than it used to be.

DR: I play in town, I’m in the staff band at the Grand Ole Opry, instructions, teaching, doing everything I can to pay the bills here with love. To fill all that up with Sadie, just go do it, pack up the babies and go.

Are there any plans to come to the UK?

DR: It’s so funny because I played with the Chieftains for five years, and we did several things over in the UK, and I was just looking this morning, and East Nash Grass were just over in Ireland and went over to Matt Molloy’s at Westport, Co. Mayo, and I was like, gosh, we need to get over there and do some dates in the UK, and get over to Ireland and see the Chieftain boys over there, it would be such fun. It’s funny you said that because it was just on my brain this morning, so I’m going to start having some conversations about that. It will have to be 2025.

GB: I love it over there. I did a little tour of Ireland with Alecia Nugent a couple of years ago, it was one of the best trips of my entire life, and I loved it. I’ve been over a couple of times but I would love to come back with Sadie and bring our music over there.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

DR: I can speak for myself, but as a unit, I know we are all enjoying the new Sarah Jarosz record, Brennen Leigh is becoming one of my favourites, and I’ve been re-obsessed with Nanci Griffiths recently. I’ve always been obsessed with her but you go through phases and she’s back in my old new obsession. Also so the Bluegrass Album Band, I always go back to that, and it is the bible of bluegrass in my opinion. That’s what I’ve been listening to.

GB: I’ve been listening to our record a lot. Then Tony Rice, I’m a huge fan of Tony Rice, and I’ve been listening to a lot of James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt lately.

What was it like listening to ‘No Fear’?

GB: It was a great creative experience, everyone brought their A-game to the studio and everything went really well. I then went away from it and didn’t really listen to it until it came out, and when I went back to listen to it, it was so much better than I thought it was. When you step away from something and then go back you appreciate it, and I’m so proud of each and every one of us, and what we were able to create together. Just listening back to it is very emotional, we’ve been doing this for so long and you get to hear the fruits of our labour come through on this record, and our individual personalities come out. I’m just so proud of it.

DR: The first time I heard it we were driving in Colorado, we were heading to Pagosa Springs Gena, and I heard it for the first time, finished, mixed, everything, and I literally sobbed because for me, it is the best record I’ve ever done and all the effort we all put in. I do hate listening to records I’ve just made so I never do that. So, I listened to it that day and I was sobbing, and I must say to this day I will still go listen to this one, and it is the only record I’ve ever done that I go back and listen to. It is just so damn good, and I’m so proud of it. It was magical to record, it’s been a great ride, and I’m ready to do another one.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

DR: We appreciate the support, our manager has been looking at Spotify and all the data that’s coming in and we’ve got a lot of listeners over there, so we are very thankful, and we want to get over there and see everybody.

GB: We sure do.

Sister Sadies ‘No Fear’ is out now on Mountain Home Music Company.

About Martin Johnson 387 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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