may 2008

A Dazzling Deepening of Conceit and Sound

By Billy Altman


Get Off Your Money

In a note inside the new CD by the San Francisco Bay Area-based all-female acoustic quintet the Stairwell Sisters, producer Lloyd Maines describes how he first heard them, completely by happenstance, busking on a Boulder Colorado street in the summer of 2005. "Their music was captivating—Raw Energy—I couldn't stop listening," he recalls. "Playing old-time music, but with the power and excitement of a great rock band."

I know how Maines felt, because the exact same thing happened to me in the fall of '05, when I discovered the Stairwell Sisters—also by accident, busking in a downtown Nashville hotel lobby during that year's IBMA Convention. It's hard to say what was more striking: their clear passion for old-time string band music, or the thoroughly modern exuberance of their performing style. Like Maines, I came away from my initial encounter with them thoroughly captivated—as much by their entire conceit as their terrific sound. And I'm more than pleased to report that their latest release displays a dazzling deepening on both those fronts.

As with their two previous CDs, the Stairwell Sisters present themselves as a true collective. They're all skilled instrumentalists, with solos split equally among dobroist Lisa Berman, fiddler Stephanie Prausnitz and, most notably, clawhammer banjoist Evie Ladin. Along with bassist Martha Hawthorne and guitarist Sue Sandlin, all five share lead vocal chores, and each contribute at least one original composition to go with the well-chosen (and well-executed) clutch of traditional material, which here includes everything from ballads like "Hangman Tree" and "Boat's Up the River" to breakdowns like "Kentucky Winder" and the title track.

It is, however, the aforementioned originals that really underscore the band's distinctiveness. One of the hallmarks of old-time music, after all, is its grassroots (rather than, er, bluegrass) nature, and in such topical-themed songs as Sandlin's "Shuffle and Shine" (about immigrant day laborers) and the Hawthorne-penned "Who's To Blame" (about haves and have-nots), the Stairwell Sisters organically and emphatically connect their democratic music with their democratic values. Together with the implicit empowerment aspect of their being an all-female band, Get Off Your Money adds up to quite a statement by the Stairwell Sisters—and the fact that you can stepdance to it, too…well, that just makes it all the more impressive, at least to this brother. or


Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024