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Two Women on the Cutting Edge of Bluegrass’s Future

Jun 25, 2024

Two Women on the Cutting Edge of Bluegrass's Future

At whatever level you may be plugged into the online bluegrass scene, you have surely heard, seen, or scrolled into content by Bronwyn Keith-Hynes and Brenna MacMillan. These two young, talented pickers are part of a vibrant and blossoming community of traditional musicians and folk artists that includes folks like Cristina Vane, Victor Furtado, Hilary Klug, Wyatt Ellis, and many more.

What makes these creators stand apart, especially Keith-Hynes and MacMillan, is that they aren’t just shoehorning social media into their art-making and creative processes to move up Music City ladders and check abstract music industry boxes. Instead, they’ve intentionally demonstrated how powerful, engaging, and charming content can be when it’s made with art, creativity, tradition, and joyful, cooperative generation as its focal points. Instead of bending over backward to construct virality and lean into transient socials trends, they let their talent, their songs, and their communities do all the talking.

In May, Keith-Hynes released her second solo album,Β I Built a World, her first project to center songs and her recently-developed, impressive vocals. Drawing on musicians and pickers from her immediate circle and her main gig – Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway – as well as tapping notable country stars and bluegrass legends, the project finds Keith-Hynes at her most confident and unbothered. This is a fiddler-singer-front woman who has found her voice – literally, through work, practice, and vocal lessons as well as figuratively, not satisfied to craft a career on bowing the fiddle alone.

@bronwynmusic Somehow Tonight [Earl Scruggs] SPBGMA stairwell jam!!! Our favorite acoustics for sweet harmonies πŸ˜‡ 🎻: Bronwyn Keith-Hynes πŸͺ•: Brenna @Brenna MacMillan 🎸: Danielle Yother #spgbma #bluegrass #indoor #festival #nashville #harmonies #womeninmusic #banjo #guitar #fiddle #fridaynights #weekend #fyp #stairwellsinging #explore #foryou #bluegrasstiktok ♬ original sound – Bronwyn Keith-Hynes

Later this year, MacMillan will release her debut solo album. Its lead single, “What’s to Come,” features Ronnie McCoury and is indeed a harbinger for the superb album to follow. This project, which highlights MacMillan’s prolific songwriting and features her musical community fleshing out the band, is built directly upon the successes she, Keith-Hynes, and others have found on the internet. Eschewing labels, management, or traditional roll outs, MacMillan will release the project herself, with funds raised on GoFundMe, bringing the music directly to her consumers on her own website and socials channels without “middle men.”

So, not only are MacMillan and Keith-Hynes innovating on ideas around what it means to be a side person, a career picker, and multi-hyphenate, professional traditional musicians, they’re taking all of their expertise as online brands and businesswomen to find success for themselves, on their own terms. They’re focusing on what matters, centering their communities, and making incredible, superlative music at the same time.

BGS connected with MacMillan and Keith-Hynes together via video chat to talk about their unique approaches to making albums, content, and music, while highlighting the deep and tight-knit “bluegrass influencer” circle they’ve each helped create since moving to Nashville and putting their all into bluegrass.

I wanted to start by talking about community and musical community – one of the reasons why I wanted to have you both in conversation with each other is how you each rely on, draw from, and center your musical communities in what you create. It may look like these are solo projects that you’re making, but they’re clearly not solitary projects – and they don’t really feel like vanity projects, either. from the outside looking in either. It really feels you’re making music with other people so you can make music with other people. Could you talk about your work, your solo albums, and working in your communities?

Bronwyn Keith-Hynes: Yeah, I think first and foremost, me and Brenna are good friends and we just ended up being drawn together. We both moved to Nashville around the same time and ended up doing a lot of things together and had a lot of similar interests. That’s cool to find. I haven’t found that many women who have my same interests until I moved to Nashville and then all of a sudden I felt like there was a whole bunch. It’s been really awesome to find that.

First of all, I’m just such a fan of so many people, and I wouldn’t want to make music any other way. My project was based around songs from my community, which was really special to me. It was like a little nerve wracking reaching out to friends and people I respected to be like, “Do you have a song that you’re not going to record that I could record?” But, thankfully, a lot of people did – including Brenna – and I ended up recording one of her songs. And, she sang on it and it was awesome!

I feel like I couldn’t do it alone. I know my strengths and then I know other people’s strengths and I want to make sure we’re all [drawing on our strenghts]. I don’t know if singing is my strength, but it’s something I feel passionate about and feel driven to do for whatever reason. I know the things that I want to put out in the world; I want to make sure the music I’m making has the best parts of myself, but then the best parts of everyone else who’s playing on it.

I think that folks who aren’t just straight white men in this industry, we realize from the get-go that we have to have others with us. We have to do it together. Otherwise we’re not going to go the distance. I feel that in both of your music, as well. But Brenna, I wonder what that question brings up for you, as you’re thinking about and positioning your album to release as well?

Brenna MacMillan: It’s funny, because when Bronwyn asked about songs that I had, I had like a bunch and at that time I wasn’t even thinking about [making] an album at all. I think it was maybe like a couple months later that I decided, based on my friends that kept being like, “You should record some of these songs!” And I was like, “I guess…” I wasn’t thinking about it at all whatsoever.

Then that’s another way like to get my songwriting out there, too. And why wait for someone to come to me for songs if they don’t even know that there are songs? Besides my friends, which is who I first would want to do my songs anyway. It’s funny, because obviously it’s really cool putting out your own music, but I still get more excited when “Riddle” comes on than when “What’s to Come” comes on. [Laughs] That is so cool!

Someone else’s vision for your song, it’s like the coolest thing ever to me. Because, I know what my brain comes up with so it’s not shocking, but someone else’s ideas around something that you wrote – it’s like the coolest thing ever, and I guess that’s why I love the community. I feel like community is like the word that I say way too much, but I do I love it. For Bronwyn, Cristina [Vane], Hilary [Klug], Emily, and Mallory, to some extent back in 2018, we all were moving to town around that time and then 2020 hit and I think that’s when we all got a little closer, because we were all bored and wandering around. I took a lot of walks with my friends, individually, we tried to stay across the path from each other, but I think those bonding moments brought us closer. We were like, “Let’s get coffee” or “let’s get dinner,” and then we ended up making a video or something and it all evolved into great friendship, plus people online being like, “Oh, we like to hear you guys play together!”

@brennamacbanjo Friday night with Lester Flatt! #bluegrass #harmonies #sisters #womeninmusic #fyp #banjo #fiddle #musicians #foryou #friday #weekend #vibes #flatt #scruggs @bronwynkeithhynes @cvanemusic ♬ original sound – brennamacbanjo

One of the things I love most about that whole community of content creators – you’re talking about Cristina Vane and a lot of these other folks you create with here in Nashville – it never feels like you’re trying to shoehorn bluegrass into contemporary content creation. It really seems that making bluegrass music and making roots music with your friends is the impetus, and then you made it fit into social media – instead of vice versa. Like, it’s happened organically and from a community standpoint first, and not just from “I have a social strategy. I have a five year plan.” Do you agree or disagree?

BM: Oh yeah, I agree. There’s not much strategy that’s happened in here. There’s not a lot of that going on. [Laughs]

And yet, I can tell you objectively from the outside looking in, y’all are still operating with 110% more strategy in mind than most of bluegrass. [Laughs]

BKH: I feel like Brenna and I have both talked about – correct me if I’m not saying this right, Brenna – wanting social media to serve us, rather than for us to serve social media. The end goal, for at least for both of us, is not like to become a social media star, it’s to have it serve us, to get our names and our music out to more people.

BM: Yeah! And it felt like it was very random that social media took off for me. I was just like, “Where are you guys coming from? Why do you want to hear me kick off a J.D. Crowe song like every day?” But at the same time, it has its own frustrations and that’s when me – and I think a bunch of the other girls that do this side by side with their music careers – we’re like, “We’re going to have this, but only if it makes sense for helping promote our live gigs and any projects we’re doing.” But as soon as I get nasty comments, or this, or that I’m like, “Oh, I will literally just get off of this app if it’s going to go this direction.” I just block people and then keep going.

I want an audience who will appreciate the things that I want them to appreciate. I think that I’ve trained my audience, too. Basically I shoved it in there, “You are going to listen to this slow song and try to enjoy that. And if you don’t, then I’m going to take you [out of my following]…” Because there have been some people who think that I am a content creator on there, and I’m like, “No, I play music and I took an hour out of my day and posted this video and we’re lucky that happened. Now I’m on my way to a gig and I don’t need some [negative] comment.” But you could come to a live gig and request a song!

Brenna, one of the things I love about your upcoming album and the messaging around it is that you’re really doingΒ  a direct-to-consumer business model and roll out. You’re being like, “Y’all can come to me. You already know how to find me, so this is where you can find the music, too.” I think it’s amazing and again, it’s the cutting edge of what the future of bluegrass will be while it’s also so fucking trad. It’s like back in the day, when bluegrass music required taking the car battery out of the car to play a show in the high school auditorium and then putting the battery back in to drive to the next high school auditorium.

It’s like you’re doing that in the 21st century. You’re being a DIY bluegrass musician, but in 2024. Can you talk a little bit about the direct to consumer model you’re using with your album roll out?

BM: I was like, I need to build a website so that there’s everything in one place – I remember why I did it, too, because there are a bunch of fake accounts. I knew I needed something out there to be authentic and to have all of my official links. That was literally my number one goal with the website. So now, here’s the link to my website, you can find my YouTube channel, my Facebook, my Instagram, my TikTok from there. And you’re going to know you’re in the right place. I’ve basically just started to try to push everything to my website and go from there to everything else, even if it’s taking you back to Instagram. Because [the website is] where everything’s going to happen, so that you know that it’s me instead of some person scamming you. I guess with that in mind, I started trying to link everything, like in my stories, when I’m talking about anything coming up, I just say, “Go to my website!”

Bronwyn, I wanted to ask you again about community and about bringing your circle, your scene into your album. I love all of the features on your album and I also love that it doesn’t just feel like you’re reaching for a Collaborative Recording of the Year nomination.Β 

[All laugh]

But I wanted to know how it felt to you, as you were thinking about who you wanted to have on the record and why you wanted to have them on the record?

BKH: I’m glad to hear you say that it feels like it’s in service of the music, because that was definitely my intent. It was the funnest part of [recording the album], for me. I did kind of make those decisions after the tracks were done and I’d done my vocals. I just didn’t know how it was going to turn out until I heard it. Then I would brainstorm with Brent [Truitt], and Jason [Carter], and whoever about who to get on it. Dudley Connell was somebody I was really excited about and I’d never met him. I didn’t know him. Someone just gave me his number, I called him up and left him a nervous voicemail. But yeah, he turned out to be the sweetest guy ever – and he’s a bluegrass hero, I love all those Johnson Mountain Boys records.

It’s crazy especially being a new singer, I haven’t heard my voice recorded much ever. Then to hear my voice with all these other voices that I know and I’ve heard a lot – to hear like that combination for the first time – it was like very surreal!

What was it like working with Dierks [Bentley]? We all know his bluegrass pedigree and his connections to the Station Inn and to the McCourys and that he’s always had one foot so solidly in bluegrass, but y’all would have gotten to know him and got to spend some time with him on the road with Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, too. I wondered how how that conversation happened and also what it felt like to you to have someone who has gold records and platinum records collaborating with you on your record?

BKH: I grew with his Up On The Ridge album, it was literally one of the first bluegrass albums I heard around my college years.
I was obsessed with it and I thought it was so cool. It got me into listening to the more trad stuff, but I’d always loved his music and then being Jason [Carter’s] partner, and Jason and he were friends even before he was famous. So they’ve been friends from the get go.

I’d met him a few times through Jason and then again when we were on tour [opening for him], that was cool. ‘Cause I felt like we could meet [more as peers], not just because I’m somebody’s partner. But now, this is my gig and this is your gig. And you’re asking us to sit in every night. I felt a little bit more comfortable to make that ask. He just came into Brent’s studio one day and tracked it in under an hour. He’s great! Very quick.

Brenna, talk to me a little bit and if you have features on your upcoming album – and if you can’t talk about them yet, that’s totally fine.

BM: I know, I was trying to think of what I should say – I don’t know, I’m the one in charge! But let me check, I don’t know if Brenna wants to tell all that yet. [Laughs]

At the very least, we can talk about Ronnie [McCoury] and “What’s to Come.” Ronnie’s one of my favorites. Talk a bit about, again, bringing in community and bringing in the scene that already surrounds you.

BM: The core band in the studio was [Mike] Bub on bass and Jake Stargel on guitar. Me, I played banjo on four or five of the tracks, but I have been writing a lot on clawhammer lately and I know that I’m not good at it, so I had Frank Evans come in for those and then I had Cory [Walker] play on a couple very last minute. I was thinking, it’s just going to be better if he does it.

When the special guests ideas popped in my brain, I was thinking, “Do I want special guests to be like my friends, my age, or like people that I really are like heroes of mine? Is this the time to ask them? I don’t know.” Nobody knows who I am, but that’s okay. I had met Ronnie a handful of times in kind of settings where it was like, “I’m here with so and so” and I’m just a little curmudgeon. [Laughs]

“What’s to Come,” it’s like a reflective life song. I know that I sound like a small baby when I sing, and I was thinking of someone with an older sounding voice. Like wanting ancient, lonesome vibes so that there could be old and young together, pondering about life. If you’re young or if you’re old, you still ask all the same questions about life.

Also, [Ronnie’s] gritty mandolin playing. I love it so much. Jarrod Walker played on most of the core mandolin stuff, but he happened to be out of the country that session. I was like, this is perfect! But it’s funny, because I didn’t even know if Ronnie was going to bring his mandolin! [Laughs]

To wrap up, here’s a question I had for both of you, because you’re both musical shape shifters. You move in and out of musical contexts so easily; you’re both side people, you’re both front people, you’re both social media brands. How do you maintain your senses of self?

BKH: I feel like I can’t get away from myself! I don’t feel like I ever even think about that. The only way I’ve struggled with that a little bit, or thought about that more, is doing the solo projects. That’s where I’m like, “Wow. OK. What would Bronwyn do next?” But I think I know what I like and I know what I want to do. I’m just like, “How am I going to do that? I need to figure that out.

BM: I think similarly, I don’t really think about it that much. I think I know what I like, too. And I know what I don’t like. From the get go, I’ve very much just been myself online. I come home from the lab job and do a video with dark circles [under my eyes] and grunge and smelling like hemp trash. That’s what I established from the beginning. So now, I feel comfortable being myself.

Pretty much everything has been my own ideas and, it’s funny, because ten of my eleven songs are originals on the album, three of which are co writes, but hearing it come to life in the studio with other people, it still ended up being what I thought it should be. Which is weird, because there’s no way that I could bring some of these musicians into the studio who are eons beyond what I could imagine, but they knew exactly what the track needed. It does sound like me still and what my vision would have been if I had expressed it [all myself].

BKH: I feel like I’m like more myself these days than I’ve ever been. I feel like for a while, starting out in bluegrass, I had a lot of ideas of what a woman in bluegrass needed to look like, or be, or act like. In the last couple years, maybe inspired by being with Molly in Golden Highway, I feel like I’ve been able to let a lot of that stuff go – about how I should dress and whatever. Now, I embrace the things I actually like.

Photo Credit: Brenna MacMillan by Sophie Clark; Bronwyn Keith-Hynes by Alexa King Stone.

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Two Women on the Cutting Edge of Bluegrass's Future
Two Women on the Cutting Edge of Bluegrass's Future