With Allison Branch on guitar, Cassie Wright on banjo and dobro, Despina Pafralides on mandolin and fiddle, and Beth Earl on upright bass, Fox Crossing Stringband is Chicago’s all-female bluegrass group. We talked to Cassie Wright and Allison Branch about their upcoming shows in Door County. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Emma Chamley (EC): On your website, you describe yourselves as “four women from Chicago who know their brand and don’t shy away from it.” How would you describe your brand?
Cassie Wright (CW): We are four skilled multi-instrumentalists; we have strong vocals; we have strong instrumental skills; and we’re also four women, which is rare for bluegrass music. It’s a pretty male-dominated field, and so we don’t shy away from that in any aspect of our performance. They’re all from a feminine perspective in a lady-led band.
EC: How did you meet each other?
Allison Branch (AB): We’re very fortunate to have all met. As you can imagine, it’s hard to find four women who are at similar points in their lives and also have the different skills that we have, but we met essentially through a previous band, where I met Despina. We were in a pop-country band together and decided that pop country is great, but bluegrass is really where it’s at, and doing all-women bands is where it’s at, so we started looking for incredible women musician players.
EC: Bluegrass is a somewhat niche style of music. What drew you to it?
CW: I saw the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and I thought the music was incredible. I learned about Ralph Stanley. He’s a banjo player, and he sings a song that’s so haunting in that movie, and I just fell in love with the banjo and wanted to learn it. There’s a folk school in Chicago that I started learning from. I just loved it, and learned how to play two kinds of niche instruments unique to bluegrass: the banjo and the dobro.
AB: I think Despina and I come from different backgrounds – not necessarily bluegrass, but music is intertwined through the roots and the chords and the rhythms, and if you fall in love with old-school country or even classic rock, you can really trace back a lot of that music to bluegrass, so it’s a natural fit.
The other thing I think we really like about bluegrass is they are all acoustic instruments. Where other bands may have heavy drums and heavy electric instruments, bluegrass doesn’t. I think that bluegrass is something that many musicians are probably drawn to across their time playing music, and it’s certainly a great genre for us.
EC: Who are some of your musical influences?
CW: Although I may come from a strong bluegrass background, we kind of blend influences. So I definitely have players from the bluegrass world that I follow and love, but we also have a lot of affinity for other female-led bands. We also take a lot of songs from women of earlier eras, so we’ll do Loretta Lynn songs; we’ll do Dolly Parton songs; we will do Lynn Morris songs – songs by women that we want to make sure still have a modern feel.
AB: Sometimes we take some of those songs that other artists have done in their own personal genre that are extremely popular, then turn them into more of a bluegrass style, opening up the bluegrass world to people who might not be as interested in it because they don’t know some of the traditional folk songs.
EC: How long have you been playing in Door County?
AB: This will be our fifth year playing in Door County. We’re so excited to be up there – not just to enjoy the people, but the beautiful country. We always try to get out and do a hike, spend a little time in each one of the little towns. Door County is a trip that we look forward to every year. Even though we’re performing, it’s like a little mini vacation.
EC: “Stringband” is pretty self-explanatory, but where does the name “Fox Crossing” come from?
CW: We just pulled it together. We had a list of names we were coming up with and voting on. It’s actually the name of a small town that we sometimes pass on the highway in Wisconsin. So people ask if we’re from there. We’re actually not, but we just love the idea, particularly of the fox icon. It presents an image of strength, but also a little bit of sass, too.
AB: I think our name has served us very well. We made a good choice.
Fox Crossing is making the most of its Door County weekend. Here’s where you can catch the group:
Thursday, Aug. 24, 3 pm: Peach Barn Farmhouse & Brewing in Sister Bay
Friday, Aug. 25, 6 pm: Baileys Harbor Concert Series
Saturday, Aug. 26, 2 pm: Stabbur in Sister Bay
Sunday, Aug. 27, 3 pm: Twelve Eleven Wine + Provisions in Sister Bay