12 Of The Most Famous Female Banjo Players You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Whether it’s the sounds of old-time mountain music, or new fusions blending banjo with the sounds of different cultures, banjo offers something for everyone.

The early banjo players in the United States were predominantly male. But mountain women also learned to play by watching their fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and uncles. These trailblazers forged a path for the amazing female banjo players of today.

Let’s take a look at some famous female banjo players who you might not have heard of.

1. Rhiannon Giddens

First on our list, we have Rhiannon Giddens who is a classically trained soprano opera singer who plays the fiddle and the banjo using clawhammer style.

Earlier in her career,Giddens was a founding member of the Grammy-award-winning old-time string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which is no longer together.

As she progressed into her solo career,Giddens committed to uncovering the truths about the United States’ country music history and the diversity of Appalachia.

In addition to her numerous recognitions, she has received a Legacy of Americana Award from Nashville’s National Museum of African American History.

She has many diverse projects currently in the works, including music she is writing for Omar, an opera premiering in 2022. 

2. Abigail Washburn

Nashville-based Abigail Washburn is a clawhammer banjo player, singer, and songwriter.

Abigail is married to Bela Fleck, a 15-time Grammy-winning famous banjo player. She has recorded two albums with him, including a self-titled debut that won the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album.

Before being offered a record deal at a bluegrass convention,Washburn, who speaks Mandarin Chinese, was studying to become a lawyer in China.

Her most recent album is a collaboration with her longtime friend, Wu Fei, a composer and guzheng virtuoso who blends Chinese and Appalachian folk sounds.

Washburn has received recognition for her work with China, and she is one of the few foreign artists who currently tours in China.

3. Alison Brown

Grammy award winner Alison Brown learned to play the banjo at age 10. At 16, she began touring the country playing festivals, which eventually led to an invitation to play at the Grand Ole Opry.

Brown attended Harvard University and went on to earn an MBA at UCLA. She played in a band while at Harvard but went on to work for two years with Smith Barney after obtaining her MBA.

Brown left the business world to pursue her musical career, focusing on merging banjo with jazz, bluegrass, folk, Celtic, and Latin music. 

Today, Brown tours internationally with the Alison Brown Quartet. She is also a composer, record producer, and co-founder of Compass Records.

4. Willow Osborne

Twenty-one-year-old phenom Willow Osborne started playing the banjo at age four and performing professionally at age eight.

As a Pigeon Forge, Tennessee native, Willow learned to play banjo with Gary “Biscuit” David, a four-time international banjo champion.

She’s been featured in several productions at Dollywood and has played at the park’s Bluegrass and Barbeque Festival numerous times.

Willow will appear in Medora Musical, opening in June 2022. She currently plays with friend Jeanna Zenz in the alternative folk duo Always Evergreen.

Willow has an active social media presence on YouTube and Instagram. She appeared in the IMAX movie America’s Musical Journey in 2018.

5. Veronica Loretta “Roni” Stoneman

Veronica Loretta “Roni” Stoneman is the 17th child of country music legend Earnest V. “Pop” Stoneman.

Roni’s brother, Scott, taught her how to play using Earl Scruggs’ three-finger banjo picking method at a young age.

At five, Roni began her singing career at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. She and several of her siblings joined the Stoneman Family Band.

Roni stood out on the banjo and became known as the “First Lady of Banjo.”

Roni eventually left the band to join the cast of Hee Haw. She played Ida Lee, “the ironing board lady,” and various other characters on the comedy show.

Roni still performs at state and county fairs and folk festivals.

6. Mary James (Mean Mary)

Mary James plays 11 instruments but is best known for her country, folk, and Americana banjo playing.

At age four, Mary learned to play guitar and co-wrote with her mother the song “Mean Mary from Alabama” before she started kindergarten. The nickname stuck.

Mary’s family moved often, at one point living in a tent in Northern Minnesota. As a youngster, music became Mary’s life.

Mary and her brother Frank found their niche reenacting historical and Civil War music. They eventually landed in Hollywood, where Mary worked in show business for three years before settling in Tennessee.

In addition to producing music and touring, Mary is a novelist and YouTube star. She has recorded 16 albums.

7. Kristin Scott Benson

As one of the country’s top bluegrass banjo players, Kristin Scott Benson is a side musician in the Grammy-nominated band The Grascals.

This band is a two-time International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Entertainers of the Year winner.

Kristin has been named the IBMA’s Banjo Player of the Year five times. She also received the 2018 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. 

In addition to her work with The Grascals, Kristin has released three solo albums.

The Grascals have performed for presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and have appeared nearly 200 times on The Grand Ole Opry.

Kristin is currently co-writing a book titled 25 Great Bluegrass Banjo Solos. For the book, she is interviewing her favorite banjo players.

8. Ola Belle Reed

Appalachian banjo picker, singer, and songwriter Ola Belle Reed hailed from Lansing, North Carolina, and moved to Maryland during the Great Depression.

Ola learned the clawhammer banjo style from her family around the age of five, followed by guitar.

In 1949, Ola formed the New River Boys and Girls with her brother, Alex. She wrote many songs about her Appalachian past and traditional values.

The University of Maryland awarded Ola with an honorary doctorate of letters in 1978 for her contributions to the arts.

In 1986, she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment of the Arts.

Ola performed at the 1972 Smithsonian Folk Festival and recorded 75 songs for the Library of Congress.

9. Leyla McCalla

Leyla McCalla is a multilingual musician who plays the cello, tenor banjo, and guitar. She sings in Haitian Creole, French, and English.

Leyla’s Haitian roots greatly influence her music. She was born to Haitian immigrant parents in New York City and later moved to New Orleans.

She is a former cellist of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, where she played with other acclaimed banjoists, Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons. She left the band in 2013 for a solo career.

Leyla has recorded three albums and is working on a new one.

Her music is an earthy fusion of sounds that evoke images of the Haitian Creole and United States’ black experience.

10. Matokie “Tokie” Worrell Slaughter

Matokie Slaughter, born in Virginia, was an American clawhammer banjo player who also used up-picking and down-picking methods.

Matokie came from a large musical family that performed on a radio show in the 1940s.

Matokie was a featured banjo player in the 1960s on Clawhammer Banjo, Vols. 1-3.

County Records producer Charles Faurot traveled to Virginia to find older traditional banjo players and included Matokie on the album. The record became admired by younger banjo players worldwide.

Matokie appeared at many festivals and workshops. She formed Matokie Slaughter and the Back Creek Buddies. Together they recorded one album, Saro, in 1990.

11. Lily May Ledford

Born in 1917, Lily May Ledford grew up in Kentucky. She learned banjo and fiddle from her relatives and formed a string band called the Red River Ramblers with two of her siblings.

Eventually, Lily Mae received an invitation to go to Chicago, where she appeared on a barn dance radio show.

Lily May specialized in clawhammer banjo playing. She became part of an all-girl string band called the Coon Creek Girls.

The Coon Creek girls once played for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the King and Queen of England. They broke up in the late 1950s.

Lily Mae began performing again in the 1960s. She received a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Recognition Fellowship Award in 1985 for her banjo-picking techniques.

12. Cynthia May “Cousin Emmy” Carver

Cynthia May “Cousin Emmy” Carver was a country singer born in Kentucky who learned to play banjo and fiddle as a child.

Cousin Emmy played old-time mountain music and had her own radio shows in the 1940s and 50s. She was extremely popular but only recorded one single and one album.

In the 1960s, she was rediscovered and recorded an album with The New Lost City Ramblers, which helped her find a new audience.

Cousin Emmy was a flamboyant performer, always out for a good time on the stage.

She also appeared in two Hollywood films and lived in Los Angeles for many years, where she raised two adopted children and played local music clubs.

Summing up our List of The Greatest Women Banjoists

As you can see, many awe-inspiring female musicians play the banjo.

With its deep, old-time mountain music roots, banjo music reminds us of times when life was simpler.

That said, today’s musicians are innovating with their banjos and evolving their craft.

No matter which style you prefer, old-time and modern banjo playing is exciting music to the ears.

We hope you discover some new songs from these incredible female banjo players!

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.