Female pianists in southern gospel

Writing that last post, I realized that a brief addendum is in order to earlier posts on gender and southern gospel: whither the female pianist? Eva Mae LeFevre, Rosa Nell Speer, Connie Hopper – these are only the most famous names who performed on the stage in a bygone era. The Phillipses – Eloise and Tracey – are masterful studio players and teachers to a thousand well-known (which is these days to say male) sg pianists. And I know of at least one female who has filled in on occasion for top-tier groups. But with the exception of Kathy Crabb’s intermittent work at the keyboard with the Crabb Family in their early days and Denise Hopper’s brief stint with the Hoppers, I can’t think of a single woman who plays the piano with any degree of regularity in today’s sg. Kim Collingsworth would be the only one, would she not? assuming the Collingsworth Family breaks into the big time.

I bring this up for what it’s worth. Though I do wish there were more women on the piano benches in full-time top-tier sg (and more women generally in positions of power and influence in gospel music), I don’t think this decline of the female pianist is a sign of regression, necessarily. The women of a generation or two ago who played piano for major groups did so not least of all because in those early days of gospel music’s rise, there was enough residue of Victorian domestic values for piano playing to be associated with effeminacy and the woman’s sphere (remember, before the professionalization of church music, church musicians were almost always women). As soon as gospel music was industrialized, so to speak, men quickly ascended to the piano bench and have kept it ever since, for the most part (though do point out the instances I’ve overlooked please). Do as many teenage girls dream of playing sg piano as boys? Is the reticence of non-family gender mixing in evangelical culture (Mary Tom Speer Reid cited this in her comments for the Nashville Scene article about the lack of women in sg) still an obstacle to more females breaking into full-time gospel music at the young age it is necessary to establish oneself professionally? Have any group owners or managers auditioned female pianists (or other talent) or refused to because of ambivalence of the logistics of traveling with a woman? Or do women simply not apply for these jobs, because they assume they’ll be disqualified or for othe reasons?

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  1. Daniel Britt wrote:

    Ashley Hawkins recently won the first ever Anthony Burger award at Stamps-Baxter for great potential as a pianist. She has great talent and hopes for full-time work in Southern Gospel. I interviewed her (she also works at the radio station here in Atlanta where I work) about her time at Stamps-Baxter: http://www.danielbritt.com/audio/stamps%20baxter.mp3

  2. Trent wrote:

    A point to ponder is that at least 75% of churches in America have females as their regular pianists. SG groups, though, have at least 75% male pianists (low estimate)–even counting all the part-time groups.

  3. RF wrote:

    You forgot the Hayes family which has 2 accomplished female pianists in the group.

    Other than them, the only female I’ve seen playing was in the “Remembering the Greats” DVD last year when it appeared that the Perrys had a female accompanyist. It was dark on the video and I could not tell who it was? Anyone know?

  4. Dean Adkins wrote:

    The Hayes Family haveexcellent female pianists.

  5. BL wrote:

    I don’t think groups necessarily refuse to audition female pianists. The truth of the matter is, there just aren’t that many females pianists interested in taking a job as a full-time piano player. I’ve attended Stamps-Baxter in the past and can personally testify to the fact that there are far more female singers than musicians, and most of the females that play the piano or other instrument also sing and wouldn’t be content to just play. Having said that, there really aren’t any job openings for a young female singer to play and also sing.

  6. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    How about Sue Whitfield?

  7. Monica Otten wrote:

    As a female pianist in SG in Mountain Creek Harmony of Albemarle, NC, I couldn’t agree with you more. I actually had the same conversation last week with Mike Pillow of Lamp Music. I am surprised at the number of people that are surprised in our concerts that I am the primary musician of the group. God has gifted us all in different ways and I am honored to represent this small group of musicians in my small way.

  8. Jenn wrote:

    what about the Hayes ladies? Sharon and Janet??

  9. J-Dog wrote:

    They don’t utilize it often, but Ginger Pitchers does do a lot of live piano work for The Lesters when she happens to be in the group’s line up.

    I’m not sure that the ratio of female to male pianists on stage in SG is any different than the ratio female to male professional musicians on the whole. For instance, look at the Nashville Musician’s Union and you’ll see that males dominate the listings for virtually every instrument.

  10. NG wrote:

    What about Sue Whitfield? I don’t know if the former Dixie Echo plays the piano in prision.

  11. shanjenkins wrote:

    I’m not sure who was accompanying the Perrys on the “Remembering the Greats” dvd, but I do know that Tracey Phillips which Avery mentioned in his post played with them for a short while I believe sometime in the early 90’s.

  12. James Hales wrote:

    In talking with a friend of mine (who is female) that plays piano, she has mentioned that probably the biggest issue with a female playing piano in a SG group is probably the style itself. SG is a very hard driving style, and a lot of women can’t play it. There are definitely exceptions to the rule, but all in all…I think she may be on to something.

  13. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    I remember hearing people say that Grand Ole Opry favorite Del Wood (real name: Polly Adelaide Hendricks Hazelwood) “played like a man.” In fact, Wood deliberately chose a gender neutral pseudonym when she first started playing honky-tonks in the 1940s so people wouldn’t automatically assume she was a woman and discredit her before she had a chance to prove herself.

    Some might take offense to you saying a lot of women “can’t” play Southern Gospel. Of course, there are many that can. In general, though, if you observe pianist as much as I have, you’ll note that most men play from their shoulders, while most woman play from their elbows. When a brute force approach is called for, men, in general, can deliver that style easier than women…and some SG calls for a forceful approach in order to be heard.

  14. Lana wrote:

    I am a female southern gospel pianist in the State of Indiana. I would love to travel and play again for a gospel group/ministry but it seems that everyone is looking to audition only male pianist. The Lord gave us a talent to use for him and I am one that still desires to do so. We only need the “opportunity door” to open.

  15. Ken Whitlock wrote:

    One of the nations finest female pianist in the genre of gospel/religious field is the awesome “Kim Collingsworth” on of the most outstanding pianist of our time..falls short to no one in her area.

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